by Charles Dickens
David Copperfield Theme of Gender
We'll give Dickens this much: for his time, he's got a relatively enlightened view of women cast out of society for being sexually active outside of marriage (fallen women, in the words of his day). Dickens doesn't think that Martha Endell and Emily should be permanently socially ostracized. At the same time, David Copperfield doesn't seem to have the most generous assessment of women as a whole. Certainly, women as heads of households seem to be a problem: they are either too weak (think Mrs. Copperfield) or too selfish (think Mrs. Steerforth and Mrs. Heep). While David claims to love Dora, his assessment of the weakness of her character is pretty damning. And even though David loves Agnes Wickfield, he seems to love her because she is a selfless, virtuous doormat. The only woman character with real gumption and self-determination is Miss Betsey, but she gains this independence by having a tragic love affair and then swearing off love. We're not sure if it's fair to demand that a woman give up her femininity just so that she can be strong and independent. Again, this novel is clearly a product of its time, with the gender politics to prove it.
Questions About Gender
- What kind of work do we see women doing in this novel? In what capacity are they allowed to enter the workplace?
- If David is able to use hard work and self-discipline to rise through the professional ranks, what options might women characters have to exercise social mobility? (One character to think of as a disastrous example would be little Emily.)
- What traits do Agnes and Sophy Crewler share that seem to make them model wives? Can we assume any lessons from the novel about how married women of this social class should behave?
Chew on This
Dickens uses little Emily to expose the dilemma of working class-women attempting to raise their class status. While they must rely on marriage into upper-class families to improve their social positions, their working-class origins continue to exclude them from acceptance by these same families.
While we see many scenes of domestic industry – Mrs. Gummidge keeps Mr. Peggotty's house, Peggotty keeps Mr. Barkis's house, and Dora attempts to keep David's house – only Emily works at a skilled trade, as a dressmaker with Mr. Omer. Her position outside of the safe space of the home foreshadows her later, larger social transgressions.