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David Copperfield | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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In David Copperfield, how does the motif of the undisciplined heart illuminate the relationships of Clara Copperfield, Mr. Wickfield, and Emily?

Clara Copperfield's undisciplined heart leads her to marry Mr. Murdstone, primarily because of his good looks and his flattery of her. This marriage destroys both Clara's relationship with David Copperfield and her health. Mr. Wickfield's undisciplined heart is consumed by the memory of how broken-hearted his wife was over her father's rejection. After his wife's death, he drinks excessively to dull the pain of his loss, ruining his health and losing control of his business. His determination to assure his daughter of his love and devotion turns into an obsession that weighs heavily on Agnes Wickfield. Emily's undisciplined heart craves social status and can't resist the appeal of the handsome, charming James Steerforth, who offers her the chance to be a lady. She breaks her uncle's heart as well as Ham Peggotty's.

How and why does Miss Betsey's attitude toward marriage change from the beginning of David Copperfield to the end of the novel?

Miss Betsey's failed marriage was a result of choosing her husband on the basis of charm and good looks rather than character, and his betrayal hurt her deeply. At the beginning of the novel, she has cut off contact with her nephew because he made what she regarded as a similar mistake by marrying Clara Copperfield. However, when Miss Betsey meets Clara she's charmed by her and begins to soften toward her. She's not really against marriage in general; she's against marriage when the partners aren't emotionally or intellectually equal. Later, Miss Betsey believes David Copperfield is repeating his father's mistake when he marries Dora Spenlow. In this case, though, instead of cutting off contact with David as she'd done with his father, she tries to be supportive. She becomes fond of Dora and even advises David to accept his wife as she is, not as he wants her to be. When, as a widower, David is free to marry Agnes Wickfield, Miss Betsey nudges David into the marriage by subtly pushing him to declare his feelings.

In David Copperfield, how does Dickens use details to present Mr. Micawber as a memorable character?

Mr. Micawber's appearance is quirky and comical, with his large bald head, his large shirt collar, black tights, shabby clothes, walking stick with tassels, and a magnifying glass he never uses that hangs from his coat. He affects a genteel air, speaking in long, bombastic sentences, and he's addicted to writing long letters about the latest "pecuniary" disaster about to befall him. He's constantly being pursued by creditors, moving his large family from one town to another, and even going into hiding under a false name at one point. Micawber's emotions see-saw from the depths of despair in one moment to heights of enjoyment in the next. A kind, jovial, emotional man, Micawber can burst into tears at the drop of a hat and be restored to good spirits simply by the prospect of a good meal. He's very attached to his wife and family, and his wife is constantly declaring, with great dramatic flare, "I never will desert you, Micawber!"

In Chapter 55 of David Copperfield, what is the significance of the violent storm that greets David Copperfield at Yarmouth?

The strong, sweeping wind is the most impressive feature of the storm that greets David Copperfield when he arrives in Yarmouth. As an overpowering destructive force, the wind foreshadows more loss and great changes in David's life. He has recently lost his wife Dora Spenlow and has been dealing with the pain of that loss. David has also been trying to cope with the realization that he hasn't always made wise life choices in his youthful attachments. The violent storm sweeping through Yarmouth signals the approaching climax of David's story, when tragedy will bring a final close to his youthful attachment to James Steerforth.

In Chapter 55, in what way does the location where James Steerforth's body washes up contribute to the resolution of the plot of David Copperfield?

David Copperfield finds James Steerforth's body washed up on the part of the shore where Mr. Peggotty's home had stood. Steerforth's body rests among the wreckage of the old converted boat, looking as if he's asleep. The juxtaposition of Steerforth's body with the wreckage of Mr. Peggotty's home drives home the idea that the sea has exacted retribution. Steerforth's actions have torn the Peggotty family apart, and he's paid for it by losing his life, only to come to rest atop the physical wreckage of the Peggotty home. It's the same stretch of beach where, on David's first visit to Yarmouth, he and Emily played as children. The memory of that time brings that part of David's life full circle.

How does Charles Dickens use the sea as a symbol in David Copperfield?

In David Copperfield, the sea represents the inevitable forces that move people's lives along. When David Copperfield plays on the beach as a young child, he fears that Emily might lose her life to the sea. In a sense she does lose her life to the sea; when she sails away with James Steerforth, it's a kind of death of the life she has always known. The sea also represents sustenance, providing a livelihood for Mr. Peggotty and his family. For the emigrants to Australia, the sea represents a path to redemption; it carries them to a place where they can start over. In ending Ham Peggotty's life, the sea provides perhaps the only solace for the pain of his broken heart, and he dies, appropriately, a hero. The sea also ends Steerforth's misguided life, not as an act of mercy, but as an act of retribution for the pain he inflicted on others.

Based on what Miss Dartle says in Chapter 56 of David Copperfield, how does the motif of the undisciplined heart relate to her relationship with James Steerforth?

The relationship between Miss Dartle and James Steerforth is an example of the clash of two undisciplined hearts. Miss Dartle says she has loved Steerforth for a long time, and at one time he returned her love. But she blames Mrs. Steerforth for indulging her son's willfulness and pride. As a boy, Steerforth threw a hammer at Miss Dartle in a fit of passion, disfiguring her for life. When he tires of her, Miss Dartle's resentment festers. Instead of moving forward with her life, Miss Dartle remains stuck in a love-hate relationship with Steerforth and his mother. Like his mother, Miss Dartle lives for the day when Steerforth might discipline his heart and return to her.

In David Copperfield, how does Charles Dickens express his interest in social justice?

As David Copperfield makes his way through life, he encounters a number of social or cultural values, institutions, and social ills that concern Charles Dickens. David's connection with the Peggottys raises issues about social class, and the Waterbrooks' dinner party lampoons the shallowness of the aristocratic class. The description of Salem House highlights the lack of good educational institutions for the lower classes. Several passages related to David's work at Doctors' Commons point out inefficiencies and injustices related to the legal system. The visit Tommy Traddles and David make to the prison where Littimer and Uriah Heep are incarcerated points out the follies and corruption in the justice system. The story line about Emily and Martha Endell provides a sympathetic perspective on the plight of "fallen women" and prostitutes. Mr. Dick's situation addresses the poor treatment of the mentally ill in institutions, and the character of Miss Mowcher gives insight into the unfair attitudes of society toward people with physical disabilities.

Why did Charles Dickens consider Agnes Wickfield to be the heroine of David Copperfield?

As David Copperfield meanders and stumbles along his way from naïveté to maturity, Agnes Wickfield is always a mature presence, guiding him in the right direction. David describes her in Chapter 60, "ever pointing upward, Agnes; ever leading me to something better; ever directing me to higher things!" Agnes is the very embodiment of perseverance, as she waits patiently for David to find himself and then find her. Her "earnestness" is on par with David's earnestness, which makes her a good match for him. It was Agnes's advice that put David on the path to success when he faced the "forest of difficulty." It's fair to say that without Agnes, David would not have achieved the level of success, maturity, and happiness he did.

How does Charles Dickens convey ideas of redemption and reward in Chapters 63–64 of David Copperfield?

Charles Dickens rewards characters who earn redemption for their past transgressions, who work hard, and who are honest and earnest. He rewards characters by giving them fulfilling work, secure financial situations, and happy home lives. In Chapter 63, readers learn that all the characters who emigrated to Australia have worked hard and have been rewarded by achieving contentment or success. Emily has earned redemption through helping others and exercising self-denial; she has rejected the idea of seeking happiness through marriage. Martha Endell has been redeemed and rewarded for her rescue of Emily; she's now married to a young farmer. Mr. Micawber has redeemed himself by finally paying his creditors and has become a judge. Mr. Mell, David Copperfield's kind, impoverished teacher at Salem House, is now Dr. Mell, respected head of the local Grammar School. Even Mrs. Micawber has been rewarded with a long-hoped-for visit from her elusive and formerly disapproving family. In Chapter 64, Miss Betsey, Peggotty, and Mr. Dick are comfortably settled in Miss Betsey's old Dover cottage. Doctor Strong and Annie Strong are happy, and he continues to work on his dictionary. Tommy Traddles is now a judge, happily ensconced with his Sophy Crewler in an impressive home nearly overflowing with their large extended family. David's reward is his fulfilling work as a famous author and his happy home life with Agnes Wickfield and their four children. Characters who have not achieved redemption are shown in less than happy circumstances: Mrs. Steerforth is descending into dementia and is still quarreling with Miss Dartle over who loved her son best. Littimer and Uriah Heep are in prison.

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