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David Copperfield

David Copperfield

by Charles Dickens

Foil

Character Role Analysis

Tommy Traddles and James Steerforth

Traddles and Steerforth don't have much to do with each other once they grow up. But they're both really important to David, and they both know him from the same period in his life, his awful schooldays at Salem House. Beyond these surface similarities, they have some interesting clashes that suggest that they are opposing forces in David's life. Not only is there the whole Mr. Mell run-in (see our "Character Analysis" of Mr. Mell for more on this), but Steerforth dismisses Traddles personally. When David mentions that he has caught up with Traddles as a grown-up in London, Steerforth asks if Traddles is "as soft as ever" (28.119). Not exactly complimentary.

The list of differences between the two characters could go on for pages: Steerforth is born rich while Traddles is poor, Steerforth doesn't work while Traddles works too hard, Steerforth is unfaithful and abandons Emily while Traddles stands by his fiancée patiently through thick and thin. Clearly, these are very different kinds of guys. But what we find interesting is what different effects they have on David, a contrast that appears between them when David has them each over for dinner in the space of four chapters. First, in Chapter 24, Steerforth comes to David's London apartment, drinks all of his booze, eats all of his food, and gets poor David completely trashed before they go out on the town to embarrass themselves.

In Chapter 28, David hosts Traddles and the Micawbers. Although the food is poorly prepared and everything seems to be going badly, everyone chips in to have a very pleasant (also somewhat tipsy) meal at home with David. Steerforth influences David to humiliate himself in public while Traddles encourages David to have a warm, friendly evening at home. And in the moral balance of this novel, clearly Traddles's model of friendship wins out: Traddles makes it to that "Last Retrospect" in Chapter 64, while Steerforth doesn't appear in front of David (alive at least) after Chapter 29.


James Steerforth and Agnes Wickfield

Agnes is the one who draws our attention to this comparison. After David's drunken episode with Steerforth in Chapter 24, which Agnes most unfortunately witnesses, David asks her forgiveness and calls her "his good Angel" (25.12). Agnes answers that, if she is his good angel, she must ask David to stop spending so much time with his "bad Angel" (25.17), Steerforth. Agnes sees herself as a good influence on David, while Steerforth is clearly a bad influence. But since David actually marries Agnes, while poor Steerforth just winds up drowning, we think Agnes wins the contest between good and bad.


Dora Spenlow and Agnes Wickfield

Dora is really skittish about meeting new people: she begs David to send away Traddles, who she thinks is "a stupid" (41.108). She doesn't want to meet Miss Betsey, who she calls a "naughty, mischief-making old thing" (41.112). But worst of all, she really doesn't want to meet Agnes Wickfield, who she fears for being "too clever" (42.39). When Agnes comes to meet Dora, Dora has to be coaxed slowly out of her room. But once she sees Agnes, Dora gives "a faint little cry of pleased surprise" and puts "her affectionate arms around Agnes's neck, and laid her innocent cheek against her face" (42.39). We can easily see the contrast between Agnes and Dora in this scene. Dora is like a child who must be gently encouraged to come out into company; Agnes is like a mother or older sister accepting a hug from said child.

In a nutshell, this scene demonstrates the way that Dora and Agnes set each other off. Dora is even more childlike and innocent around Agnes than she is generally. Indeed, Dora starts to think that being around Agnes for a long time would make her "more clever perhaps" (42.50), as though Agnes is the teacher, and Dora, the student. Agnes, for her part, also seems to recognize the big gap between the two in terms of wisdom and common sense. Agnes describes Dora as, "a poor angel [...] but faithful" (42.64). This can't help but sound a bit condescending: in what sense is Dora "poor"? We think Agnes is pitying Dora for her naiveté and inexperience.

We have to give Dora kudos for one thing: she recognizes what David does not see – that he is in love with Agnes – and instead of ruining her own life with jealousy, she seems to make piece with the inevitable. Dora is the one who asks Agnes to marry David after she dies (which seems a little weird, but who are we to judge?). All of Dora's faults make it plain that Agnes is perfect: Dora is ignorant, Agnes is wise; Dora is fretful and cries often, Agnes is calm and peaceful; Dora is silly, Agnes is serious. But Dora recognizes that she has faults and is willing to allow Agnes to shine at Dora's own expense. That's quite a self-sacrifice! Perhaps the two aren't so different after all.


Mr. Murdstone and Mr. Quinion

See Mr. Quinion's "Character Analysis."


Mrs. Copperfield and Dora Spenlow

See Mrs. Copperfield's "Character Analysis."


Uriah Heep and Mr. Micawber

See Mr. Micawber's "Character Analysis."


Uriah Heep and David Copperfield

See Uriah Heep's "Character Analysis."


James Steerforth and David Copperfield

See James Steerforth's "Character Analysis."


Tommy Traddles and David Copperfield

See Tommy Traddles's "Character Analysis."


Mr. Peggotty and Mrs. Steerforth

See Mr. Peggotty's "Character Analysis."


Doctor Strong and Mr. Murdstone

See Doctor Strong's "Character Analysis."


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