David Copperfield is often called a Bildungsroman, a German term for a novel of learning or development. The idea behind a Bildungsroman is that every (good) character has a goal to achieve: if you're Harry Potter, you've got to kill Voldemort. If you're Bella Swan, you've got to have Edward's (frankly creepy) vampire baby and become a vampire yourself. And if you're David Copperfield, you have to use your God-given talents to claw your way to the fame (and the happy family life) that you deserve. But of course, along the way, there have to be troubles and pitfalls waiting to bring you down.
The whole point of a Bildungsroman is to show how a single character overcomes a host of obstacles to become awesome in spite of them. And David Copperfield's obstacles begin with day one, when he is born to a young, inept widow in a small village in Suffolk. Even David's birth marks him out as being unusual: he's born on a Friday at midnight, which is supposed to be unlucky. So, from the start of the novel, we know that David is going to have a tough row to hoe. But interestingly, it's also clear from the very beginning that he's going to make it through, because David is telling his own story in retrospect. So, we know that David's going to have nine hundred pages of tough times, but we're also aware that he's going to make it in the end – the only suspense is how.
So, anyway, if David Copperfield is a narrative of learning, what are the key lessons David gains from his experiences? We have to remember that David's character development isn't just an entertaining story; David learns so that we can learn along with him. Dickens uses David to demonstrate the kind of value system Dickens thinks we should all have. David achieves everything he wants in life because he is sympathetic, hard-working, and affectionate – all traits that he learns from the adventures he encounters.
In his run-ins with the abusive Murdstones, David experiences the isolation, poverty, and loneliness that make him sympathize with the underdog as an adult (think of his interest in the Peggottys, Emily, and Martha Endell). Don't get us wrong, David's no socialist. He believes in natural distinctions between social classes. In David's early days in London, for example, he feels very different from the other boys working in the bottling factory because his father is a gentleman and their fathers aren't. At the same time, David also recognizes the underlying humanity that unites everyone, despite differences in birth and wealth. David interacts with working-class characters with great sympathy – even though he voices a fair number of stereotypes doing so.
From Miss Betsey, David learns the importance of self-reliance. Once Miss Betsey loses all of her money, David rises to the challenge of looking after his former benefactor, discovering that he is capable of supporting a family in a way that his own parents (notably Mrs. Copperfield) never could. This lesson serves him well when he must care for his "child-wife," Dora. It also earns him the respect of the equally hard-working and self-sacrificing Traddles, who remains David's true friend for the bulk of the novel. With David's writing talent and willingness to work, he wins the worldly success that his poor birth could never guarantee for him.
Speaking of friendships and their influences, David nearly falls into bad habits – drinking and luxury – once he becomes friends with Steerforth in London, but his own good nature and Agnes's influence save him from that fate. And after years of watching David fall into foolish crushes on other women, Agnes's steadfast patience and support finally overcome David's own affectionate and easily distracted nature. From Agnes, David learns the importance of constancy and faithfulness, which bring him the kind of family life David has always wanted.
You may have noticed that David gets a ton of nicknames over the course of this novel. To his mother, he is Davy; to the Peggottys, he is Master Davy; to the Micawbers, he is Copperfield or Master Copperfield; Uriah Heep confuses Master and Mister Copperfield strategically (see our analysis of the loathsome Heep for more on this); and Miss Betsey gives him an entirely new name, Trotwood, which all of his Canterbury friends, including Agnes, come to employ.
Why so many monikers (which is a fancy word for names)? All of these names attach to David at different points of his life: when he's a little boy, he's Davy. His beloved nurse and her family always call him Master Davy because he's still like a little boy to them, even when he has grown up. David goes by Trotwood with his aunt because, when he came to her house, he left his old London name and degraded London identity behind him. Steerforth affectionately calls David "Daisy," recognizing David's extreme naiveté and trusting nature – especially in regards to Steerforth himself. And Dora is a sweet, silly girl who gives him the sweet, silly nickname Doady, representing their impractical, pleasant life together.
All of these names tell us something about David's different relationships with the people around him. And all of them get at different aspects of his personality and development beyond what we learn from his formal name, David Copperfield. These names are like puzzle pieces that help shape a complete picture of David – a picture that we can only get in its entirety by reading the whole book.
The life of "David Copperfield" is suspiciously similar to that of Charles Dickens: after all, David goes to work in a London factory when he is ten; Dickens actually went to work in a London factory when he was ten. David goes to an abusive school that teaches him nothing; Dickens went to an abusive school that taught him nothing. David becomes a law clerk, journalist, and court reporter before achieving fame as a fiction writer; Dickens – well, you get the idea. And you don't exactly have to be that super code breaker from The Da Vinci Code to figure out that David Copperfield and Charles Dickens share initials. Obviously, David is a stand-in for Dickens himself.
At the same time, David is like an idealized version of Dickens: David loses his father before he is even born. Dickens had a father, sure, but the guy was neglectful and he eventually got thrown into debtors' prison. David's mother is bullied to death before Mr. Murdstone sends David to his wine bottling factory. By contrast, Dickens's mother survived and allowed young Dickens to go to London alone at the age of ten to support the family (source: "Introduction," David Copperfield. Edited by E.K. Brown. New York: Random House Modern Library College Editions, 1950, v-viii.).
Sure, there is a lot of horrible stuff going on in David's life, from his abusive stepfather to the early death of his wife, Dora. Even so, David has a better overall trajectory to his life than Dickens does. In order to transform a real life into the material for a Bildungsroman – a novel of achievement – Dickens has to end up giving his main character, David, the kind of stable, ideal family life that Dickens himself (who had a rocky marriage that ended in divorce) can only dream of. Honestly, this is why we here at Shmoop sometimes like novels better than real life: it's only in books that everything ends in happily ever after. Real life is always so messy.