David Copperfield | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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David Copperfield | Chapters 1–3 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

David Copperfield tells the reader he was born at Blunderstone Rookery, in Suffolk, England, six months after the death of his father. Just before David's birth, his great-aunt, Miss Betsey Trotwood, arrives at Blunderstone. She had become estranged from David's father because she disapproved of his marriage to Clara, a woman half his age. Convinced Clara's baby will be a girl, Miss Betsey intends to be the baby's godmother and asks Clara to name the baby Betsey Trotwood Copperfield. She has no children of her own, having separated from her husband. She comments on her nephew's gullibility, pointing out he had foolishly called the house at Blunderstone "the Rookery" when the nests had been long abandoned. After quizzing Clara about how she manages the household, Miss Betsey decides Clara is inexperienced and impractical. Miss Betsey departs abruptly, never to return, when the doctor, Mr. Chillip, informs her Clara's baby is a boy. After David's birth, he and his beautiful, young, inexperienced mother are tended to by Peggotty, Clara's loyal family servant.

Chapter 2

David Copperfield calls up his earliest childhood memories, which revolve around happy times at Blunderstone spent with his mother and Peggotty. He describes his impressions of the house, its grounds, the churchyard and the church. Things change when handsome Mr. Murdstone begins to visit Clara Copperfield. Peggotty disapproves of him and David takes an instant dislike to him. One day, Peggotty invites David to come to Yarmouth with her to visit her relatives for two weeks. As Peggotty and David ride away from Blunderstone in a horse cart, David turns to wave goodbye to his mother and sees Mr. Murdstone standing near her, reprimanding her for being so emotional.

Chapter 3

In the seaside town of Yarmouth, David and Peggotty stay with Peggotty's kind-hearted brother, Mr. Peggotty, a fisherman. He lives in a charming old boat converted into a house on the beach. Also living in the house are Mr. Peggotty's orphaned nephew, Ham Peggotty, his orphaned niece, Emily, and Mrs. Gummidge, his former partner's widow. David adores "little Em'ly," as she is often called, and the two become fast friends. When Peggotty and David return to Blunderstone, David is told his mother has married Mr. Murdstone. The marriage brings sudden and unwelcome changes to David's life. Mr. Murdstone cautions Clara to treat her son with restrained formality instead of the usual warm hugs, and David finds his "old dear bedroom" has been moved far away from hers. Even outside, there are changes: the old empty dog kennel is now occupied by a large, angry black dog.

Analysis

Charles Dickens uses first-person narration in this novel, allowing David Copperfield to tell his own story. Although David Copperfield has a remarkable memory for details of his childhood, he doesn't explain how he knows so much about the night he was born. Readers must assume he obtained the details from his mother or Peggotty. Many of the settings in the novel are actual locations familiar to Dickens. There was a place named Blundeston that Dickens may have been familiar with from visiting Suffolk and Norfolk. In his novel, he changed the name to Blunderstone and used it as the name of the Copperfields' home to suggest the family trait of making blunders, or errors in judgment.

Dickens develops a fondness for the characters he creates, and he likes to bring back even minor characters throughout his story. Over the several decades of David Copperfield's life recounted here, readers will have occasion to meet all of the characters introduced in these first three chapters again—even Mr. Chillip.

The hard-working Peggotty family in Yarmouth provides a counterpoint to the more genteel lifestyle at Blunderstone. Dickens emphasizes their honesty and kindness and uses dialect to represent their working-class speech patterns. Dickens used a source for this dialect that can be found online today: Suffolk Words and Phrases, by Edward Moor, published in 1823.

The themes of naïveté and life choices are introduced in Chapters 1–3, as exemplified by Miss Betsey, who made a poor choice in her own marriage and is critical of the choice her nephew made. Before David turns out to be a boy, Betsey has determined she will "guard" her great-niece from "reposing any foolish confidences where they are not deserved." Clara's youth and naïveté work against her when Mr. Murdstone enters the scene, and it's as evident to the reader as it is to Peggotty that Clara makes a poor life choice when she decides to marry Mr. Murdstone.

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