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David Copperfield | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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David Copperfield | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Chapter 14 of David Copperfield, how does Charles Dickens use the encounter between Miss Betsey and Mr. Murdstone to convey the theme of the importance of life choices?

Charles Dickens uses Miss Betsey's encounter with Mr. Murdstone to emphasize the poor choice he made in sending David Copperfield to work in the bottle warehouse. Miss Betsey points out that Mr. Murdstone would not have chosen to have his own son work there. She also says she knows Clara Copperfield's weakness and innocence caused her to make a disastrous life choice when she married Mr. Murdstone. It was a choice that broke Clara's heart, led to her premature death, and nearly ruined David's life. In making an important life choice about David's future, Miss Betsey balances what she can do for him against what Mr. Murdstone will do for him. She knows she can do better, so she decides to "take [her] chance with the boy."

In David Copperfield, why does David Copperfield decide to run away to Miss Betsey, and how does this choice affect the course of his life?

David Copperfield runs away to Miss Betsey because working in the bottle warehouse in London is intolerable; it offers him no good prospects for future employment or success. Miss Betsey is his only living relative, and he hopes she'll take him in and rescue him from having to live a "shabby" life on the streets of London. David's decision to go to Miss Betsey proves to be a wise one: she arranges for him to receive a good education and an apprenticeship in the career of his choice. In addition, she provides David with a great deal of moral support and advice on his road to maturity and success.

In Chapter 15 of David Copperfield, what does Charles Dickens's description of Uriah Heep foreshadow about Heep's behavior?

Charles Dickens foreshadows Uriah Heep's villainous behavior by using negative words and images to describe him, such as "cadaverous" and "skeleton hand." Heep has red hair, which is associated in some cultures with bad luck. Red hair is also sometimes associated with witches, and David Copperfield describes the image of Heep "breathing into the pony's nostrils, and immediately covering them with his hand, as if he were putting some spell upon him." Heep has a cold, clammy, extremely unpleasant handshake. His close-cropped hair and red-brown eyes, with no eyelashes and "hardly any eyebrows" give him a snake-like appearance, which is intensified by his habit of writhing and squirming. Heep's intent observation of David (as he waits for Mr. Wickfield and Miss Betsey to return) calls to mind the image of a predator watching its prey. When David notices the decorative gargoyle face on the roof beam outside his window, he imagines it's Heep's face, still watching him. All of this foreshadows how Heep will constantly be watching David to gather information he can use to promote himself and pursue his evil goals.

In Chapter 15 of David Copperfield, what is the significance of Charles Dickens's juxtaposition of the introduction of Agnes Wickfield with the image of a stained-glass church window?

The image of the stained-glass church window foreshadows Agnes Wickfield's role as a kind of spiritual guide in David Copperfield's life. Stained-glass church windows often portray images of saints and convey ideas of redemption, inspiration, and constancy. Like a saint portrayed in a church window, Agnes has a beneficial, wise presence throughout the novel. When David first sees Agnes, he's struck by her air of happy tranquility, and describes her as "a quiet, good, calm spirit." Thereafter, Agnes is always associated with adjectives such as tranquil, good, and noble. She becomes for David a kind of moral touchstone, and he values her advice and approval above all others, calling her his "better angel."

In Chapter 16 of David Copperfield, what weakness in David Copperfield's character is revealed by his concern that his Canterbury schoolmates will learn about the way he lived in London?

David Copperfield admits he'd feel ashamed if his new schoolmates found out he had worked in the bottle warehouse, living hand-to-mouth, helping the Micawbers pawn their belongings. While it's natural for a young boy to want to be like his peers to gain their acceptance, David's feelings about this part of his life reveal his class-consciousness. He may have picked up from James Steerforth the idea that being poor is somehow shameful, explaining why he doesn't want his peers to know about his association with lower-class life. The weakness David will need to guard against is his tendency to place a high value on appearances, without looking deeper to consider people's true values or motives.

In Chapter 18 of David Copperfield, how does Charles Dickens use Miss Larkins to convey the theme of naïveté versus maturity?

David Copperfield is just 17 when he becomes infatuated with Miss Larkins, who is considerably older—possibly nearing 30. His immature approach to love is evident in the fact that he develops his passion for Miss Larkins before ever speaking to her, showing that it's an infatuation based solely on physical attraction. David's fantasies about playing the hero in her life and winning her father's approval also reveal his immaturity. He seems to feel that somehow his fantasies might come true, which emboldens him to flirt with Miss Larkins at the ball. He's so caught up in the imagined outcome of his flirtation that he doesn't notice she calls him a bold boy. After the ball, he continues to nurture his fantasies until he learns about Miss Larkins's marriage. In his naïveté, David misjudges not only his own ability to interest Miss Larkins, but also the identity of his rival to her affections. He had assumed his rival to be the dashing Captain Bailey; instead, Miss Larkins marries a much older, more ordinary man.

In David Copperfield, what ideas does Charles Dickens convey by using the symbol of flowers in Chapters 19, 33, and 41?

Charles Dickens uses the flowers as a symbol to convey ideas of youth, innocence, hope, and young love. In Chapter 19, James Steerforth gives David Copperfield the nickname "Daisy" as a teasing reference to his youth and innocence. In Chapter 33, the bouquet of flowers David presents to Dora Spenlow for her birthday represents his hope that she'll return his love. He knows his love is returned when he sees her painting a picture of that same bouquet of flowers. They become secretly engaged, and the forget-me-not ring he gives her signifies their bond. In Chapter 41, Miss Betsey gives Dora the nickname "Little Blossom." Like David's nickname, Little Blossom conveys the idea of youth and innocence.

In Chapter 19 of David Copperfield, how do details of David Copperfield's trip to London reveal character traits David feels he needs to correct to avoid seeming so "dreadfully young"?

David Copperfield set out on his trip to London with the goal of presenting himself as a man of the world who commands respect, but he is plagued by an inability to assert himself. David's innate courtesy and desire to please others cause him to give up his prized seat in the coach to "a shabby man with a squint, who had no other merit than smelling like a livery-stables." His disappointment in himself is evident when he refers to this incident, with some exaggeration, as "the first fall I had in life." At the London hotel, David worries too much about what the chambermaid and the waiter think of him, and his lack of self-confidence is evident, so they don't exert themselves to please him. David feebly attempts to assert himself by ordering potatoes against the waiter's advice and asking him to check if there are any letters for him. But it's a tiny victory, and when the waiter serves David wine mixed up from the dregs of several bottles, he's "bashful enough to drink it, and say nothing." David will need to achieve a lot more self-confidence before he can feel as mature as he'd like to be perceived.

What clues in Chapter 20 of David Copperfield suggest that James Steerforth is not the person David Copperfield thinks he is?

David Copperfield thinks James Steerforth is noble, generous, intellectually brilliant, and motivated to make a mark in the world. But when David says he expects Steerforth will "take a high degree at college," Steerforth makes it clear he has "not the least desire or intention" to obtain a degree or to achieve fame and fortune. Later, Mrs. Steerforth says she fears her son leads a wild life at college. David assumes she says this "in jest," but Mrs. Steerforth doesn't seem like a woman who ever jests with anyone. Given Steerforth's lack of interest in taking his degree, it's likely he has been neglecting his studies. David also dismisses Steerforth's comments about poor people being less sensitive than upper-class people—assuming, again, he had said this in jest. The revelation that as a young boy, Steerforth had thrown a hammer at Miss Dartle, permanently scarring her face, and Mrs. Steerforth's explanation of why she sent her son to Salem House school, are clues to Steerforth's haughty, willful, undisciplined nature. Miss Dartle raises questions about whether the nickname Daisy is meant to be a compliment or a derisive comment on David's youth and innocence. In the face of many clues suggesting otherwise, David clings to his idealized view of Steerforth.

How does Charles Dickens explore class differences in Chapters 20 and 21 of David Copperfield?

Charles Dickens uses his characters to express the attitudes members of different classes have toward one another. In Chapter 20, Mrs. Steerforth, her son, and Miss Dartle exhibit attitudes of superiority. They spend their lives in idleness and comfort, tended to by servants. Mrs. Steerforth thinks her son is entitled to his haughtiness due to his superiority. Miss Dartle's question about whether "that sort of people" are "really animals and clods ... of another order" reflects the lack of respect upper-class people have for working-class people. In Chapter 21, on the other side of the class divide, Emily's desire to be a lady earns her disapproval in her working-class community. Emily is considered "spoiled" for wanting to rise above her peers. Movement from one class to another, it seems, is frowned upon.

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