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David Copperfield | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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David Copperfield | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Chapters 1–3 of David Copperfield, what is revealed about Clara Copperfield's character through the words, behavior, and observations of Clara and others?

In Chapter 1, Miss Betsey's reference to Clara Copperfield as "a wax doll" suggests Clara's youth and inexperience. Clara admits to Miss Betsey that she's "a childish widow," and will likely be "but a childish mother." Clara's revelation that her husband had been teaching her how to keep the housekeeping books suggests she's not very practical or competent in running the household. David Copperfield observes that his mother is "proud of being so pretty," suggesting traits of vanity and shallowness. Clara's timidity is evident in her behavior when she cowers behind a chair at the sight of Miss Betsey at the window, and also in her submission to Peggotty's direction "in most things." In Chapter 2, David describes Clara as an affectionate and playful mother, but in Chapter 3, her easy submission to Mr. Murdstone's restraints on the attention she pays to David shows weakness of character; she values her husband's approval more than her son's happiness.

How does Charles Dickens use foreshadowing in Chapter 2 of David Copperfield?

One element of foreshadowing is Clara Copperfield's lack of surprise and ready assent when Peggotty proposes taking David Copperfield to Yarmouth, suggesting the trip has been prearranged between Clara and Peggotty and might have more significance than David realizes. The narrator provides more specific foreshadowing when he notes with sadness that he didn't suspect, when he was so eager to go on the trip, that he would be leaving his "happy home ... forever." As he and Peggotty drive away from Blunderstone, he looks back to see Mr. Murdstone approach his mother in the road and reprimand her. This makes David wonder if, as happens in fairy tales, Peggotty has been asked to lose him. These details combine to foreshadow that when David returns he will, in a way, be lost, with forced emotional distance put between him and his mother, and his entire way of life—as well as his direction in life—will be disrupted.

Near the end of Chapter 5 of David Copperfield, what effect does Charles Dickens create by using the narrative device of repeating the phrase "I picture myself"?

Near the end of Chapter 5, Charles Dickens repeats the phrase "I picture myself" to describe David Copperfield's lonely existence at Salem House as he waits for the other students to return from their holidays. This technique allows the first-person narrator to look at himself from a distance, showing rather than telling how David feels. The narrator creates for the reader the experience of paging through a photograph album, but the images have auditory, as well as visual, appeal. David sits alone listening to the doleful sound of Mr. Mell's flute, remembering the sound of the wind at Yarmouth, and looking at the silent school bell. These images evoke more empathy in the reader than simply saying "I was lonely and afraid."

In Chapter 7 of David Copperfield, what might explain the deep admiration David Copperfield develops for James Steerforth?

David Copperfield's father died before he was born, so he has never had a positive male role model in his life. Mr. Murdstone certainly has no qualities David admires. At Salem House, David is set adrift from the most important adults in his life, his mother and Peggotty. Then David meets James Steerforth, a self-confident leader six years his senior. Because David aspires to be more self-confident and successful, he looks to Steerforth as a role model. David's head is filled with the romantic tales of heroism and adventure he read in books at Blunderstone. Steerforth, with his charm and good looks, fits the model of the romantic, noble hero of David's imagination.

What details in Chapter 7 of David Copperfield explain whether or not David Copperfield can be considered a reliable narrator?

David Copperfield's unbridled admiration for James Steerforth causes him to overlook or misinterpret some less than admirable traits in his friend. David sees nothing wrong when Steerforth allows Tommy Traddles to take the blame and punishment for his misbehavior. David even admits he wishes he could have taken the beating so Steerforth would offer him a few words of approval. When Steerforth makes comments to David that most people would take as criticism, David chooses to interpret them as "encouragement." Although the meanness and snobbishness that Steerforth displays in hounding Mr. Mell out of his job troubles David, in the end, his response is to show loyalty and support to Steerforth. He doesn't seem that concerned about the damage Steerforth has done to Mr. Mell. These details show that David is not a reliable narrator regarding Steerforth because his admiration clouds his judgment.

In Chapter 7 of David Copperfield, what does James Steerforth's confrontation with Mr. Mell reveal about his character, about Tommy Traddles's character, and about David Copperfield?

The confrontation with Mr. Mell reveals a mean streak in James Steerforth that doesn't fit with David Copperfield's portrayal of him as heroic and noble. Steerforth displays arrogance in challenging his teacher, and shows his upper-class disdain of the poor. The bullying of Mr. Mell drives Tommy Traddles to tears. He's the only boy with the sense of justice and strength of character to stand up to Steerforth for getting Mr. Mell fired, and Traddles is punished for this. David, too, feels tearful about the bullying of Mr. Mell, but he's more influenced by Steerforth's "noble" appearance and Mr. Mell's "homely and plain" look than he is by the injustice of Steerforth's attack on Mr. Mell. He controls his tears so he won't seem disloyal to Steerforth, and when Steerforth jeers at Traddles, David says, "we were all extremely glad to see Traddles so put down and exalted Steerforth to the skies." David feels "quite wretched" about Mr. Mell, but—partly due to his immaturity and partly due to his hero-worship—he allows his admiration for Steerforth to overrule his gut feelings about right and wrong.

In Chapter 11 of David Copperfield, how does David's connection with the Micawber family relate to the theme of perseverance and help him cope with being virtually abandoned in London?

The Micawbers, with their over-the-top emotions and excesses, provide a distraction from David Copperfield's drab, daily existence. The drama connected with the ups and downs of the Micawbers' fortunes provide a focus for David; and helping Mrs. Micawber pawn her goods gives him a sense of purpose that is otherwise lacking in his life. David is lonely and the Micawbers become a substitute family for him. In addition, the fact that they treat him as an adult helps to boost his self-confidence. The dramatic flourishes with which they meet their frequent changes of fortune have a comic element that lightens the mood. For example, Mrs. Micawber tends to faint at the drop of a hat and is constantly proclaiming that she will never desert Mr. Micawber. Mr. Micawber frequently bursts into tears and is addicted to writing long, overly verbose letters, which he often slips into people's pockets as he takes his leave. Observing how the Micawbers are able to bounce back from the depths of depression to heights of ecstasy and enjoyment teaches David something about resilience and the value of perseverance.

In Chapter 13 of David Copperfield, how is David Copperfield's naïveté shown to be a hindrance to him?

David Copperfield's naïveté seems to invite people to take advantage of him. When he decides to sell his jacket to a second-hand clothing dealer, the demeanor and behavior of the dealer should warn David that the man is unhinged. Instead, he persists in trying to bargain with the man. The man takes the jacket and chases David out of his shop without paying for it. Only David's dogged persistence helps him finally negotiate a small payment. The incident causes David to lose valuable time in his journey. Later, on the road to Dover, David passes many "trampers," or ruffians, from whom he flees when they call after him. Yet when a tinker accompanied by a woman threatens him and orders him to "Come here," instead of running away, David inexplicably turns back and complies with the man's demand. Only a warning from the woman prevents David from giving the man his money, but the tinker manages to steal his silk handkerchief before David is able to run away. David's naïveté and his trusting childish nature are endearing, but they can be costly to him and may put him in dangerous situations.

In David Copperfield, how is Miss Betsey, as described in Chapters 13–14, similar to or different from what David Copperfield had expected, based on his mother's and Peggotty's descriptions?

In Chapter 1, when Miss Betsey came to Blunderstone just before David Copperfield's birth, both Clara Copperfield and Peggotty—and even Mr. Chillip—were frightened by her abrupt manner and her somewhat eccentric behavior. David thought she would dislike him intensely because of her general antipathy toward boys, and when he decided to run away to her, he wasn't very hopeful of gaining her support, much less her affection. When he meets her, David discovers that Miss Betsey is undoubtedly eccentric, partly because—unlike many women of that time—she has no qualms about bluntly stating her opinions. She's analytical, insightful, and decisive, and she's very kind underneath her stoic exterior. Her decision to take in Mr. Dick to save him from being sent to an asylum is one example of her kindness and generosity, and her decision to adopt David is another.

In Chapter 13 of David Copperfield, how does Miss Betsey's youthful unhappy marriage affect her attitude toward Clara Copperfield?

Miss Betsey, like Clara Copperfield, married young. Also like Clara, Miss Betsey's choice of husband was based more on physical attraction than on considerations of compatibility of goals, character, and values. Miss Betsey sometimes feels angry with Clara because the choices she made had such negative results for David Copperfield. She thinks Clara's vanity and childishness led her to marry Mr. Murdstone without giving enough thought to the consequences. However, in her brief meeting with Clara, Miss Betsey was touched by the young mother's beauty and her affectionate nature. She frequently refers to Clara—"the baby"—with some exasperation, but mostly with affection.

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