David Copperfield: Notes

David Copperfield: Notes

David Copperfield: Notes

David Copperfield: Notes


The original CliffsNotes study guides offer expert commentary on major themes, plots, characters, literary devices, and historical background.


  • Life and Background of the Author
  • A Brief Synopsis
  • List of Characters
  • Critical Commentaries
  • Selected Bibliography

    The novel traces the life of David Copperfield from the time of his birth to his mature manhood, when he is married and familiar with the vicissitudes of life. His early years are enjoyable with his mother--who was widowed shortly before his birth--and with her servant, Peggotty. Life is happy for David until his mother decides to marry Mr. Murdstone; afterward, life becomes unbearable for David. He is soon sent to a miserable school where he becomes friendly with James Steerforth, a fellow student.

    When David's mother dies, he is taken from school and put to work by Mr. Murdstone in a London warehouse. Although David enjoys the company of the impoverished Micawber family, with whom he boards, his other associates and the work are intolerable, so, without money or property, he runs away to his Aunt Betsey Trotwood in Dover. Despite a stern exterior, Aunt Betsey treats him well, adopting him and sending him to a good school. While at school, he boards with a Mr. Wickfield and his daughter Agnes. (Throughout the novel, David retains a fond, sisterly affection for Agnes.) After graduation, David works in the law office of Spenlow & Jorkins and soon falls in love with Mr. Spenlow's daughter, Dora.

    About this time, Em'ly, the Peggottys' beloved niece, runs off to marry Steerforth, whom David had innocently introduced to her while she was engaged to Ham, a nephew of the Peggottys. The family is saddened by this development, but Mr. Peggotty sets out to find her and bring her back. David uses his spare time doing clerical and literary work to help Aunt Betsey, who now finds herself without financial resources. He marries Dora, only to find that he has a "child-wife" who knows nothing of housekeeping and cannot accept any responsibility.

    Meanwhile, Uriah Heep, an "umble" clerk in Mr. Wickfield's employ, whom David dislikes, has deceitfully worked his way into a partnership, aided by Mr. Wickfield's weakness for wine. In addition, David also discovers that his old friend Mr. Micawber has gone to work for Heep. David has remained fond of the Micawbers, and it troubles him that his old friend is working for a scoundrel. Eventually, however, Micawber has a grand moment of glory when he exposes Heep as a fraud, helping to save Mr. Wickfield and restoring some of Aunt Betsey's finances.

    David's wife, Dora, becomes ill and dies, and David is troubled until Em'ly, the Peggottys' niece, returns to her uncle. David has felt guilty for some time for having introduced Em'ly to Steerforth. After a reconciliation is accomplished, Em'ly, along with some of the Peggottys, and the Micawbers leave for Australia to begin new lives. Before they leave, David witnesses a dramatic shipwreck in which Steerforth is killed, as is Ham in attempting to rescue him. Still saddened by the loss of his wife and other events, David goes abroad for three years. It is only after he returns that he realizes that Agnes Wickfield has been his true love all along, and their happy marriage takes place at last.

  • Excerpt

    CHAPTERS 1 & 2


    David was born in the “Rookery,” in Blunderstone, Suffolk, England, on a Friday just as the clock began to strike midnight. This was thought to be an unlucky omen by some women of the neighborhood and by the nurse who attended his birth. A few hours before David’s birth, however, Mrs. Copperfield is unexpectedly visited by Miss Betsey Trotwood, an aunt of David’s father whom Mrs. Copperfield has never met. Miss Trotwood, “the principal magnate of our family,” is a domineering woman who immediately takes charge of the household and insists that the expected child will be a girl; she declares that the new baby girl will be named Betsey Trotwood Copperfield. “There must be no mistakes in life with this Betsey Trotwood,” she says. “I must make that my care.”

    Already agitated by the impending birth of this new baby, and by the death of David’s father six months before, Mrs. Copperfield is further troubled by the abrupt appearance and manner of Miss Trotwood. She becomes ill with labor pains, and Ham, the nephew of the servant, Peggotty, is sent to get the doctor, Mr. Chillip. The mild-mannered Chillip is astonished, as is everyone else, by the brusqueness of Miss Trotwood. Later, when he tells her the baby is a boy, she silently but swiftly puts on her bonnet, walks out of the house, and vanishes “like a discontented fairy.”

    In Chapter 2, David recalls his home and its vast and mysterious passageways, the churchyard where his father is buried, Sundays in church, and his early life with his youthful, pretty mother and the kindly, capable Peggotty.

    One night, after David learned to read, he is reading a story to Peggotty, and he asks, “if you marry a person, and the person dies, why then you may marry another person, mayn t you?” Almost immediately afterward, his mother enters the house with a bearded man whom David resents at once. After the stranger’s departure, David hears an argument between his mother and Peggotty about the man. Peggotty insists that the man, Mr. Murdstone, is not an acceptable suitor.

    About two months later, Peggotty invites David to spend a fortnight with her at her brother’s place at Yarmouth. David is eager to go, but he asks what his mother will say. “She can’t live by herself, you know,” he insists. Young as he is, he does not realize that he is being sent away deliberately. His mother has a tearful farewell with him. As David and Peggotty drive off in a cart, David looks back. He sees Mr. Murdstone come up to his mother and apparently scold her for being so emotional.


    The first chapter is typical of the Victorian novelistic style, especially its long sentences and frequent digressions. The second paragraph is a long single sentence containing eighty-nine words (many sentences are longer). This chapter, and indeed the entire novel, frequently wanders from the main story line. The fourth paragraph of the book is a long digression on David’s being born with a caul (a membrane . . .

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