David Copperfield | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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David Copperfield | Chapters 4–6 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 4

David Copperfield feels alone and dejected when his mother, under Mr. Murdstone's influence, curbs her natural impulse to coddle and comfort her son. Clara Copperfield falls completely under the influence of Mr. Murdstone and his sister, Jane Murdstone, who moves in and takes over the running of the household from Clara. David escapes from his unhappy daily life by delving into his father's old books; through these books, he lives a life of fantasy and adventure. One day, Mr. Murdstone thrashes David for stumbling over his lessons. Shocked, David instinctively bites Mr. Murdstone's hand. For this, David is confined to his room for five long days. On the last night, Peggotty steals up to his room and whispers to him that in the morning he'll be sent away to a school near London. She assures him she'll take care of his mother and she loves him and will never forget him. David feels a rush of affection for Peggotty. The next day, his mother bids him goodbye, telling him she hopes he'll return "a better boy."

Chapter 5

When the horse cart is a safe distance from Blunderstone, Peggotty bursts from a hedge and stops the cart to give David money and a note from his mother: "For Davy. With my love." Later, Mr. Barkis, the horse cart driver, asks David some questions about Peggotty and then asks him to tell her "Barkis is willin'." At the inn at Yarmouth, William, the friendly waiter, tricks the unsuspecting David out of the meal that's been ordered for him and eats it himself. David takes the London coach and arrives the next morning tired and hungry. When no one is there to meet him, David wonders if he's been purposely abandoned in London, and he begins to plan what to do to survive on his own. Finally, Mr. Mell, one of the masters at his school, arrives to take him the rest of the way. Before leaving London, they stop at an almshouse (poorhouse) where Mr. Mell visits his mother. David arrives at Salem House during the holiday break, so all the boys are away. He's made to wear a placard on his back with the warning "Take care of him. He bites." David awaits the arrival of the other boys with dread.

Chapter 6

Mr. Creakle, the headmaster, returns to Salem House just ahead of the students, and interviews David Copperfield, who is frightened by Creakle's violent manner. When the other students arrive, they tease David less than he'd feared, thanks to the friendliness of Tommy Traddles and an older boy, James Steerforth. Handsome and engaging, Steerforth is widely respected by the other boys and quickly gains David's admiration. Steerforth convinces David to give him all his money, and Steerforth purchases a feast for the boys who share their dormitory bedroom. At this secret banquet, David learns that Mr. Creakle and his assistant, Tungay, are shady, brutal men who make a habit of beating the students. Steerforth, the only student who escapes being beaten, assures David he'll take care of him. Steerforth idly says it would be nice if David Copperfield had a sister because she'd probably be "a pretty, timid, little, bright-eyed sort of girl"—just the sort of girl he'd like to know.

Analysis

Charles Dickens is a master of showing, rather than telling, as he describes the changes at Blunderstone in Chapter 4. The roles of Clara and Peggotty are diminished as the Murdstones take over the household, and the atmosphere changes to one of gloom and misery. Clara Copperfield is too naive and childish to recognize her mistake in marrying Mr. Murdstone. Instead, she constantly seeks his approval, repressing her own instincts and overlooking the needs of her son. The image of Clara and the Murdstones walking home from church, arm-in-arm, while David lingers "behind alone," effectively shows how successfully the Murdstones have marginalized him. David, for his part, shows early signs of the perseverance that will be so important to him throughout his life. He finds a way to endure his situation through reading the books his father had collected. He reads novels of adventure and fantasy, many of which feature heroes that rise above dire circumstances to achieve success and happiness. Although David compares himself unfavorably with these heroes, the example of his heroes' perseverance and resilience will inspire him in later trials he faces.

David Copperfield's encounter with the opportunistic waiter at the inn illustrates his tendency to always think the best of people. It doesn't even occur to him the waiter might have an ulterior motive. David's naïveté and childish trust will lead him to make poor judgments in interactions with strangers as well as with friends. His trait of perseverance, however, can be seen in his response to the suspicion—when no one meets him in London—that he's been taken to London to be abandoned. Almost immediately, he begins to consider different courses of action he might take to survive on his own.

During the Victorian era, boys from well-to-do families were sent away to boarding schools around age 10. Salem House is typical of the non-elite type of boarding school (not on the level of Eton or Harrow), run for profit, often by shady owners such as Mr. Creakle. It wasn't unusual for boys in these schools to be beaten, poorly fed, and poorly taught. Even one of the masters at Salem House, Mr. Mell, is paid so poorly he can't afford to buy new boots or support his mother.

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