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Themes

There are two kinds of society that David Copperfield seems to be concerned with. The first is society, like human community. This is the kind of society that rejects Emily for running away from Ham and that excludes David from comfort when he is a factory worker. Every community has an inside and an outside, and being outside is always distressing. This general kind of society can be cruel, but it also shelters those who obey its rules, so it has a practical, positive side.

The second society we find in David Copperfield is much more specialized: it is the restricted community of the wealthy upper-class in England in the nineteenth century. This is the kind of society that Steerforth occupies. Its primary characteristic is that it is not productive: Steerforth belongs to this society by an accident of birth. He doesn't have to work at anything, not even at his education, to belong to it. And belonging to high society means that Steerforth doesn't have to have any interest in or sympathy for people in social classes below him. Dickens criticizes this type of society as barren at best, destructive at worst. In a novel that so prizes personal feeling and affection, the sterile rules of upper-class relations seem mechanical and inhuman to us.

Questions About Society and Class

  1. Which characters in David Copperfield are portrayed as members of high society? What are they like? What tone does the book take towards them?
  2. Which characters in this book are working-class? What are they like, and what tone does the book take towards them?
  3. How does money intersect with social status? Are all the working-class characters poor? Are all the upper class characters rich? What space is there for social mobility in the novel?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Dickens offers strong criticism of high society as a category through his depiction of Jack Maldon, who is vain, lazy, and deliberately indifferent to the feelings of others.

Only middle-class characters, such as Traddles and David, enjoy real social mobility in David Copperfield.

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