We mentioned, in our section on "Genre," that David Copperfield is a novel of family drama. The plot's big changes do not come about from historical events or an invasion of dragons or anything like that. It all comes down to family troubles. So, it makes sense that one of the main tools to show what kind of a person the characters are is family life. David is a character in transition because his family is unsettled and changing: it's not until he settles down with his perfect match, Agnes, that David's character finishes developing.
Mr. Murdstone is a vicious brute, and we know this because of his treatment of his stepson and wives. We can tell that Dora Spenlow is spoiled and child-like because her aunts treat her like a doll, and even stern Miss Betsey calls her "Little Blossom" (41.128). And we know that Emily is a good woman at heart because an excellent man, Mr. Peggotty, will search the world for her until he finds her. All of these characters exist in a complex web of social relations. The way that they treat their family members, and the way that their family members treat them, shows us a lot about their characters.
Probably the best example of Dickens's use of physical appearances to show character is Miss Rosa Dartle's scar. Miss Dartle has a scar across her lip which is generally old and faded. But when she gets angry, it grows bright red and shows up starkly against her face. This scar shows Miss Dartle's twisted, passionate nature, which is generally hidden until she is particularly moved (as when she meets Emily in Emily's boarding house, or when she confronts Mrs. Steerforth once Steerforth dies). Other great examples of this type of characterization include Mr. Wickfield's red face – a sign of his alcoholism – and Uriah Heep's staring eyes and clammy, skeletal hands – symbols of his inhumanity.
While a character's appearance generally does say a lot about what he's like inside in this novel, there are two really, really notable exceptions: Miss Mowcher, the little person who dresses Steerforth's hair, and Steerforth himself. David initially dismisses Miss Mowcher from his mind because she is a little person, and he cannot imagine that she could play any role in the events of his life. But it's Miss Mowcher who reveals to David the plot Steerforth builds with Littimer, and it is also Miss Mowcher who catches Littimer in the act of stealing from his new master and turns him in to the cops. David lets his assumptions about little people cloud his judgment.
And the second example of this kind of misunderstanding is Steerforth. David thinks that Steerforth is the greatest thing since sliced bread: he's handsome, self-assured, and charismatic. Indeed, Steerforth's easy manners manage to fool everyone, including the Peggottys. The one person who thinks to warn David against Steerforth is Agnes. On the other hand, Agnes is perfect, so of course she's not fooled.
Steerforth may provide one example of the danger of judging a book by its cover, but since we judge everyone else in the novel by appearances, from grand-looking Mr. Micawber to stern, honest Miss Betsey, we're not sure how seriously we can take this lesson.
In "Setting," we discuss the importance of The Home to the moral universe of David Copperfield. Here, we'd like to chat a bit about what someone's home tells us about his character in this novel. There are plenty of examples: control-freak Miss Betsey and her patch of donkey-free green lawn, Salem House and its air of disrepair, Mr. Peggotty's snug and charming boat house. But we're going to focus on two specific examples of location to illustrate how descriptions of places illuminate character in this novel.
Let's start with the Rookery, in Blunderstone, Suffolk. This is David's first home, and its name illustrates the carelessness of his father's character (for more on this, see our "Character Analysis" of Mr. Copperfield). But the layout of the house also shows us some serious changes to David's life. As a very young child, he describes walking past a large, empty kennel at the base of the stairs. When David returns from his first trip to Yarmouth to find his mother married, the kennel has been filled:
I rambled downstairs to find [...] the empty dog-kennel was filled up with a great dog – deep mouthed and black-haired like Him – and he was very angry at the sight of me, and sprang out to get at me. (3.140)
The dog is clearly a symbol of Mr. Murdstone ("black-haired" and "angry at the sight of [David]"). But the empty kennel that has now been filled also represents the absence then presence of a father figure in David's life – and a vicious father figure he is, too. This change in David's house underlines the transition in his situation.
Let's turn to our second example: Martha Endell and the alleys of London. Martha Endell is a woman of Yarmouth who, like Emily, appears to have been seduced away from her good home. Now, we find her in a horrible place, both physically and socially:
The neighbourhood was a dreary one [...] as oppressive, sad, and solitary by night, as any about London. There were neither wharves nor houses on the melancholy waste of road near the great blank Prison. (47.5)
This passage goes on at great length and quite tragically, but we'll stop there. The point is, Martha Endell has been thrown out of society. As an outcast, she becomes identified with an "oppressive, sad, and solitary" region, words that clearly describe both her neighborhood and Martha herself. Martha stands in a space in which there are "neither wharves nor houses" – no recognizable places of business or home life. And she is near a prison; prisoners are, of course, also social outcasts. All of these dense descriptions of Martha's location give us plenty of tips about what she's like as a character; it's as though Martha's neighborhood is an extension of Martha herself.