by Charles Dickens
David Copperfield Poverty Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
[Mr. Peggotty] was but a poor man himself, said Peggotty, but as good as gold and as true as steel—those were her similes. The only subject, she informed me, on which he ever showed a violent temper or swore an oath, was this generosity of his; and if it were ever referred to, by any one of them, he struck the table a heavy blow with his right hand (had split it on one such occasion), and swore a dreadful oath that he would be 'Gormed' if he didn't cut and run for good, if it was ever mentioned again. It appeared, in answer to my inquiries, that nobody had the least idea of the etymology of this terrible verb passive to be gormed; but that they all regarded it as constituting a most solemn imprecation. (3.46)
Mr. Peggotty is a poor man, but a generous one: he has adopted his orphaned niece and nephew and allowed widowed Mrs. Gummidge to share his home. But the real mark of Mr. Peggotty's greatness as a character is that he does these things without wanting to be thanked. We can compare Mr. Peggotty's generosity with the charitable institutions that produce Uriah Heep, in which Uriah Heep is constantly reminded that he should be grateful to his betters. Mr. Peggotty's generosity produces other sympathetic human beings – fallible, maybe, but good-hearted – while Uriah Heep's institutions produce an angry, destructive jerk. Perhaps this is a lesson about how Dickens think the poor should be treated: with unselfish generosity rather than grudging charity
As they looked at [Mrs. Mell], I looked at her also. Although it was a warm day, she seemed to think of nothing but the fire. I fancied she was jealous even of the saucepan on it; [...] The sun streamed in at the little window, but she sat with her own back and the back of the large chair towards it, screening the fire as if she were sedulously keeping it warm, instead of it keeping her warm, and watching it in a most distrustful manner. (5.119)
This is a very, very brief look at the life of Mrs. Mell, Mr. Mell's mother, who lives in the nineteenth century equivalent of a homeless shelter. Her extreme poverty seems to make her mistrust the most ordinary things in life, such as having a fire and being able to cook on it. What tone does David use to describe this scene? How does he seem to feel about Mrs. Mell's poverty? Does this description remind you of other moments in the book when David confronts similar poverty?
Steerforth evaded the question for a little while; looking in scorn and anger on his opponent, and remaining silent. I could not help thinking even in that interval, I remember, what a noble fellow he was in appearance, and how homely and plain Mr. Mell looked opposed to him. (7.53)
Even though Mr. Mell is morally right in this scene, his poor clothes distract David from the truth of his position. Mr. Mell is correct to demand that Steerforth, his student, treat him with respect. But the reality of the social structure Steerforth occupies means that Mr. Mell will always be Steerforth's social inferior, even if Steerforth is a pupil in Mr. Mell's classroom. The odd thing about David Copperfield is that Dickens seems to be acutely aware of the need to respect the poor – Steerforth's poor treatment of Mr. Mell and the Peggottys does not go without criticism from our narrator – but at the same time, the book constantly supports the importance of class difference. For example, David insists that he is different from the other factory boys because his father is a gentleman. Is there a contradiction in this logic, that Dickens wants respect for the poor, but he also believes that working class characters should stay in their social places? Can this logic be reconciled?