by Charles Dickens
David Copperfield Theme of Family
We described David Copperfield as a "rags-to-riches" story in our plot analyses, which implies that David Copperfield's success is going to be all about the money. Not so! We think that, arguably, the most important kind of success that our protagonist achieves over the course of the book is in terms of family. David suffers at the outset of the novel thanks to a fractured family life. What saves him from complete poverty and desolation on the London streets is a new family tie to his great-aunt, Miss Betsey. And his image of total happiness at the end of the book is his devoted wife, Agnes. Yet, while happy families seem to protect their members from the suffering that marks so many of the characters in this book, family also produces most of the drama in David Copperfield. This isn't a book marked by huge historical events or anything. The biggest moments arise from family strife, including Mr. Murdstone's abuse and abandonment of David, Emily's flight from the Peggottys, and David's marital troubles and bereavement.
Questions About Family
- Which characters particularly value family life? What characteristics do they share in common? Do they all value the same aspects of family, or the same kinds of families?
- We have made a strong argument that it is the achievement of a happy family that saves characters like David and Traddles from suffering. Yet, at the same time, a loving family does not protect Emily from Steerforth's seduction. And the Micawbers have a united family, but they have no stability because of their awful financial situations. Do these examples cast any doubt on the future happiness of David? How does Dickens work to convince us of David's happily-ever-after ending?
- How many models for happy family life do we get in this novel? Do all happy families look the same in this book? What common threads unite them?
Chew on This
David Copperfield's happy families all share a strong primary leader to provide discipline and guidance for its members. The absence of such a leader contributes to the instability that faces families such as the Micawbers and the Steerforths.
While David Copperfield insists on the importance of family life to generate virtuous and happy individuals, the novel is also careful to provide some cautionary counter-examples. Family-obsessed characters like Mrs. Steerforth and Mr. Wickfield demonstrate the moral importance of moderation, even in something as important as family affection.