Study Guide

David Copperfield Education

By Charles Dickens

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Chapter 4
Mr. Murdstone

"I tell you, Clara," said Mr. Murdstone, "I have been often flogged myself."

"To be sure; of course," said Miss Murdstone.

"Certainly, my dear Jane," faltered my mother, meekly. "But—but do you think it did Edward good?"

"Do you think it did Edward harm, Clara?" asked Mr. Murdstone, gravely. (4.92-5)

When Mr. Murdstone plans to beat David, he tells David's mother that he has often been beaten as though that is supposed to be a comfort to her. But obviously Mr. Murdstone has learned to be cruel by example; someone was once cruel to Mr. Murdstone. What enables David to escape this cycle of cruelty? Is it just that he gets away from the likes of Mr. Murdstone and Mr. Creakle soon enough? Is it luck? Is it because he's the main character of this novel, and we have to find him appealing?

Mrs. Clara Copperfield

I hand the first book to my mother. Perhaps it is a grammar, perhaps a history, or geography. I take a last drowning look at the page as I give it into her hand, and start off aloud at a racing pace while I have got it fresh. I trip over a word. Mr. Murdstone looks up. I trip over another word. Miss Murdstone looks up. I redden, tumble over half-a-dozen words, and stop. I think my mother would show me the book if she dared, but she does not dare. (4.74)

Before David falls into the hands of the Murdstones, he shows a love of reading – remember Peggotty's crocodile book! But once the Murdstones are watching him like hawks while he recites his lessons, just waiting for him to mess up, suddenly all of David's smarts dry up. This is the most basic lesson of this book: treat a kid cruelly, and you'll get nothing out of him. Treat him kindly, and you'll get a happy and productive kid.

Chapter 5
David Copperfield

I gazed upon the schoolroom into which he took me, as the most forlorn and desolate place I had ever seen. I see it now. A long room with three long rows of desks, and six of forms, and bristling all round with pegs for hats and slates. Scraps of old copy-books and exercises litter the dirty floor. Some silkworms' houses, made of the same materials, are scattered over the desks. Two miserable little white mice, left behind by their owner, are running up and down in a fusty castle made of pasteboard and wire, looking in all the corners with their red eyes for anything to eat. A bird, in a cage very little bigger than himself, makes a mournful rattle now and then in hopping on his perch, two inches high, or dropping from it; but neither sings nor chirps. There is a strange unwholesome smell upon the room, like mildewed corduroys, sweet apples wanting air, and rotten books. There could not well be more ink splashed about it, if it had been roofless from its first construction, and the skies had rained, snowed, hailed, and blown ink through the varying seasons of the year. (5.135)

This is David's first encounter with Salem House. This also could not be a more beautiful illustration of the way David uses setting and scenery to establish mood and character development. We know that Salem House is going to be a bad school because it is filled with a "strange unwholesome smell." We know that it is going to be like a restrictive trap for its students because there is a bird "in a cage very little bigger than himself" who won't even sing. We also know that the emphasis of this school sure isn't going to be on learning, because the schoolroom smells of "rotten ink."

Chapter 7

In a school carried on by sheer cruelty, whether it is presided over by a dunce or not, there is not likely to be much learnt. I believe our boys were, generally, as ignorant a set as any schoolboys in existence; they were too much troubled and knocked about to learn; they could no more do that to advantage, than any one can do anything to advantage in a life of constant misfortune, torment, and worry. (7.26)

The lesson here is pretty direct: beat boys, and they won't learn anything. But David does manage to learn something at Mr. Creakle's school, so long as Mr. Mell is there and is willing to help him with extra lessons. Would this entire story have been different if Mr. Mell had not been there to encourage David through this dark period of his life? Even though this book is supposed to be a novel of education, how much of David Copperfield's rise in the world is thanks to chance?

Miserable little propitiators of a remorseless Idol, how abject we were to [Mr. Creakle]! What a launch in life I think it now, on looking back, to be so mean and servile to a man of such parts and pretensions! (7.8)

As a bully, Mr. Creakle manages to get all of the boys to behave in his own image. To try and avoid his punishments, they play along with him when he whips one of their schoolmates – they laugh at his awful jokes so that he won't turn his humor or punishment on them. Mr. Creakle's style of bad schooling is so dangerous because it influences the boys to become worse themselves.

Chapter 16

Doctor Strong's was an excellent school; as different from Mr. Creakle's as good is from evil. It was very gravely and decorously ordered, and on a sound system; with an appeal, in everything, to the honour and good faith of the boys, and an avowed intention to rely on their possession of those qualities unless they proved themselves unworthy of it, which worked wonders. We all felt that we had a part in the management of the place, and in sustaining its character and dignity. Hence, we soon became warmly attached to it. (16.117)

The contrast between Mr. Creakle's school and Doctor Strong's school is so strong that it is almost hard to believe. Is it truly possible that all the boys in Doctor Strong's school responded equally well to his style of discipline? Is Dickens trying to be realistic in this passage, or is this an idealistic model of what he believes a school should be? How effective is Dickens's representation of Doctor Strong's school in convincing you that this model of school is best?

Chapter 17
Mr. Dick

"I suppose history never lies, does it?" said Mr. Dick, with a gleam of hope.

"Oh dear, no, sir!" I replied, most decisively. I was ingenuous and young, and I thought so. (17.18-9)

Mr. Dick has this giant obsession with King Charles the First, as we mention in his character analysis. But we singled this quote out not because of him, but because of this weird side-swipe at history – David only thought that history doesn't lie because he was "ingenuous and young." Do we get any other sign throughout the rest of the book that Dickens thinks history lies? If history lies, is individual memory more reliable?

Chapter 20
Mrs. Steerforth

My son's high spirit made it desirable that he should be placed with some man who felt its superiority, and would be content to bow himself before it; and we found such a man there. (20.59)

Mrs. Steerforth makes the decision to leave her son's "high spirit" unchallenged by his teachers, with the disastrous consequences that Steerforth never knows how to compromise or go against his own wishes. This seems to imply that the primary function of school is social, so that you can learn (or not learn) discipline. Do you agree with this assessment of school? Are there other goals to going to school that we find in David Copperfield?

Chapter 52
Uriah Heep

Or as certain as they used to teach at school (the same school where I picked up so much umbleness), from nine o'clock to eleven, that labour was a curse; and from eleven o'clock to one, that it was a blessing and a cheerfulness, and a dignity, and I don't know what all, eh? [...] You preach, about as consistent as they did. Won't umbleness go down? I shouldn't have got round my gentleman fellow-partner without it, I think. —Micawber, you old bully, I'll pay you! (52.171)

The giant chip on Uriah Heep's shoulder comes from the charitable school he went to, where he was taught all of these humiliating, contradictory moral lessons he can't respect. Even now, in this moment of extreme stress when he's being confronted by everybody, Uriah Heep still finds a way to refer to this original trauma. How much difference does an explanation make to your feeling about a character? Does it make you feel less hatred for Uriah Heep knowing that he has had a hard past?

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