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David Copperfield | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in Charles Dickens's novel David Copperfield.

David Copperfield | Themes


Importance of Life Choices

Charles Dickens's recently abandoned autobiography was much on his mind as he wrote David Copperfield, and many of the life choices his protagonist makes reflect choices Dickens made in his own life. Dickens's father rescued him from his warehouse job, but David Copperfield is an orphan, so he makes his first important life choice—to run away from the warehouse—completely on his own. After that, Miss Betsey and Agnes help guide his choices. For example, Agnes patiently lends an ear to David's passing fancy of other women. It is her unwavering support that makes it possible for David to finally achieve the family life he sought for so long. The key to recovering from poor choices is to learn from them, as David learns from his relationship with Dora. Dickens shows that those who don't analyze and learn from their life choices, such as Steerforth and Uriah Heep, don't grow or succeed in life.

Naïveté versus Maturity

Developing self-confidence and the ability to make sound judgments is an important aspect of growing up, which is closely tied to the theme of the importance of life choices. David Copperfield, like many others in life, matures based on the outcome of the decisions he makes. David Copperfield's innate honesty and desire to please others causes him to take people at face value. In his childlike naïveté versus maturity, he focuses on appearances rather than on gaining insight into motivations. For example, he mistakes Steerforth's good looks and haughty manner for nobility and maturity. Because David assumes everyone else is as honest and forthright as he is, people often take advantage of him. He's embarrassed by his "youthfulness" and struggles against his naïveté for a long time. It isn't until he encounters difficulties in his marriage to Dora that David begins to achieve the kind of insight that leads to maturity.


David Copperfield's journey through life is a model of the rewards of persevering against the odds. Even before his perseverance is tested through privation and hard work, David shows determination in the quiet way he maintains his self-identity while under the controlling influence of Mr. Murdstone. He does this by escaping into reading, where he identifies with heroes who persevere against mortal threats. Later in his life, David's imagination helps him adapt his heroic fantasies to the more mundane perseverance he needs to acquire skills and earn a living.

Charles Dickens also shows a darker application of perseverance in the character of Uriah Heep, who spends many long years feigning humble servility. Though both men grow up in a harsh situation, the effects on Heep are negative, especially in his desire to dominate and control others. He keeps wanting more and more. Heep's plan to acquire power is foiled by the perseverance of Micawber, who spends a year gathering evidence against him. Even in jail, Heep needs to exert a degree of control.

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