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David Copperfield | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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David Copperfield | Context


Autobiographical Elements in David Copperfield

In 1848, when Charles Dickens was well established as a popular and successful novelist, he began to write his autobiography. He didn't plan to publish it immediately; instead, he intended for it to be found among his papers after his death. Dickens sent a fragment of his autobiography to his close friend John Forster. Soon after, Dickens abandoned the autobiography and destroyed his manuscript. After Dickens died, Forster wrote an autobiography of his friend and he included the autobiographical fragment Dickens had sent to him. It revealed an episode in Dickens's childhood so painful he never spoke publicly about it during his lifetime. When Dickens was 12 years old, his parents pulled him out of school and sent him to work in a London boot-blacking (shoe polish) warehouse to help pay the family's bills. His father was sent to debtor's prison, and the family, except for Charles, moved there with him. Charles had a rented room nearby. Within the year, Dickens's father was released from prison and he sent young Charles back to school.

After deciding against writing his autobiography, Dickens began his eighth novel, David Copperfield. At John Forster's suggestion, he used a first-person narrator, a technique he hadn't used in his previous novels. Use of the first-person narrator may have inspired Dickens to channel some of his autobiographical impulses into David Copperfield, as there are parallels between the real life of the author and the fictional life of his protagonist. The novel's description of David's feelings of abandonment and despair while working at Murdstone and Grinby's warehouse was picked up almost verbatim by Dickens from his autobiographical fragment. However, many of the novel's characters and events have no correlation to Dickens's life. For example, David's apprenticeship as a proctor, his friendship with Steerforth, and the story lines about Miss Betsey, the Peggottys, Dr. Strong, and the Wickfields are inventions of the author.

David Copperfield is a Bildungsroman novel—a coming of age story about a sensitive person who overcomes difficulty to attain maturity. As the novel's hero faces changes and challenges in his life, it's natural Dickens would recall his own feelings related to similar experiences. For example, Dickens had a youthful obsession with a banker's daughter, Maria Beadnell. He didn't marry her, but she inspired the character of David Copperfield's first wife, Dora Spenlow. Dickens's father, a lively, cheerful man given to lofty rhetoric, was constantly in debt and spent time in debtor's prison. He served as inspiration for the memorable character of Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield.

Child Labor in Victorian England

Charles Dickens often used young characters as a lens through which to reveal the suffering of the poor in Victorian society. The Poor Laws, which had once given money directly to impoverished people, had been amended in 1834, forcing the poor to seek aid from secondary government institutions, most commonly workhouses. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution created a demand for cheap labor, and children from poor families were often put to work in factories, mills, and coal mines. Many worked long hours in deplorable conditions, like David Copperfield and the young Dickens himself.

The notion of childhood rights increased greatly over the course of the 19th century. During this time, children began to be viewed as innocents who should be protected from the stresses of adult reality. From the 1830s on, Victorian society implemented a number of laws directed at ensuring the well-being of children. Despite the high rate of infant deaths, the population of young people boomed during Queen Victoria's time. Industrialization only intensified the inherent problems of child labor, and legislation helped improve matters, but did not ever completely outlaw the practice.

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