by Charles Dickens
David Copperfield Theme of Guilt and Blame
Something that's interesting about guilt and blame in David Copperfield is that they don't have a lot to do with good and evil. David feels wicked after being beaten by Mr. Murdstone. Mrs. Strong feels guilty for her mother's exploitation of Doctor Strong. On the other hand, we don't see much remorse at all from the truly cruel characters like Uriah Heep or Littimer. Indeed, an overactive conscience seems to be one of the main characteristics of decent people like David. The interesting gray area in this novel – and one that Dickens leaves almost unexplained, unlike his laborious reasons for why Uriah Heep and Mr. Murdstone are the way they are – are the two bad characters who do the wrong thing even though it hurts them. These two are Emily and Steerforth. They each seem genuinely remorseful about choosing the morally and socially questionable paths they choose. At the same time, they blunder on anyway. We find the perverseness of this decision fascinating, since the motivations of nearly every other character, including our beloved narrator, are made so painfully clear.
Questions About Guilt and Blame
- Who seems to feel the most guilt in this novel? Is it always the characters who do the most wrong?
- Who seems to assign the most blame in this novel? Is it always the characters with the most right to judge?
- As readers, we also experience blame (naturally!). There are characters we blame for certain tragic events or bad outcomes. How does Dickens resolve the plots of wicked characters? How careful is he about tying off loose ends? Do you find all of the resolutions in the novel equally convincing?
Chew on This
Unhappy characters such as the Murdstones and Miss Dartle are most likely to blame others for wrongdoing; happy characters such as Traddles express their happiness in part by rejecting any grudges they might hold.
The narrative of David Copperfield becomes thin and hard to believe as Dickens works too hard to resolve every single narrative thread. Details such as Mr. Creakle's prison, housing both Uriah Heep and Littimer, and Mr./Doctor Mell's sudden appearance in Australia strain the credibility of the novel itself.