Study Guide

David Copperfield Family

By Charles Dickens

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Chapter 2
Mrs. Clara Copperfield

"How can you be so aggravating," said my mother, shedding more tears than before, "as to talk in such an unjust manner! How can you go on as if it was all settled and arranged, Peggotty, when I tell you over and over again, you cruel thing, that beyond the commonest civilities nothing has passed! You talk of admiration. What am I to do? If people are so silly as to indulge the sentiment, is it my fault?" (2.54)

Mrs. Copperfield immediately gets irritated when she thinks that Peggotty disapproves of Mr. Murdstone's admiration of her. Whenever Mrs. Copperfield hears anything that she interprets as criticism, she lashes out like a spoiled child. Her selfish nature allows her to put her own self-interest above her family's, with disastrous results for Mrs. Copperfield herself.

Chapter 3
Mr. Murdstone

'Now, Clara my dear,' said Mr. Murdstone. 'Recollect! control yourself, always control yourself! Davy boy, how do you do?'

I gave him my hand. After a moment of suspense, I went and kissed my mother: she kissed me, patted me gently on the shoulder, and sat down again to her work. I could not look at her, I could not look at him, I knew quite well that he was looking at us both; and I turned to the window and looked out there, at some shrubs that were drooping their heads in the cold. (3.138-9)

First of all, it makes our blood boil that Mr. Murdstone can talk to his wife this way – how dare he tell her to "control herself," like a dog or something. Second of all, what is Mr. Murdstone asking Mrs. Copperfield to control? He doesn't want Mrs. Copperfield to be too obvious in her affection for David, so he wants her to repress her demonstrations of love for him. What damage do you think Mr. Murdstone imagines Mrs. Copperfield's emotions will do?

Chapter 6
David Copperfield

I heard that Mr. Creakle had a son [...] who, assisting in the school, had once held some remonstrance with his father on an occasion when its discipline was very cruelly exercised, and was supposed, besides, to have protested against his father's usage of his mother. I heard that Mr. Creakle had turned him out of doors, in consequence; and that Mrs. and Miss Creakle had been in a sad way, ever since. (6.50)

Schools are hotbeds for gossip. We are sure you guys are aware of that. Here, these gossips speculate that Mr. Creakle had a son who he disowned for protesting Mr. Creakle's abuse of his family and the students. How seriously do you think we are supposed to take this bit of gossip about Mr. Creakle's family? Is there evidence elsewhere in the book that Mr. Creakle has a son?

Chapter 8

Me leave you? I think I see myself. Peggotty go away from you? I should like to catch her at it [...] I'll stay with you till I am a cross cranky old woman. And when I'm too deaf, and too lame, and too blind, and too mumbly for want of teeth, to be of any use at all, even to be found fault with, than I shall go to my Davy, and ask him to take me in. (8.60)

Peggotty seems to regard Mrs. Copperfield as her own. She swears never to leave her, and she keeps that promise, even though she has received a proposal of marriage and sharing the house with Jane Murdstone is agony. What do you guys think about this idea that servants can be part of the family? Can they truly belong to the family that employs them? And how do the other characters in the novel feel about Peggotty's place in the Copperfield-Murdstone household?

Chapter 14
Miss Betsey Trotwood

Because his brother was a little eccentric—though he is not half so eccentric as a good many people—he didn't like to have him visible about his house, and sent him away to some private asylum-place: though he had been left to his particular care by their deceased father, who thought him almost a natural. And a wise man he must have been to think so! Mad himself, no doubt. (14.53)

Here, Miss Betsey is describing Mr. Dick's back-story. His own brother shuts Mr. Dick up in a mental institution because he doesn't "like to have [Mr. Dick] visible about his house." In other words, Mr. Dick's brother is too ashamed of him to allow Mr. Dick to continue living with him. Does Mr. Dick's role in this novel offer explicit criticisms of the treatment of the mentally ill in Dickens's day and age? Or is the object of this critique the general importance of family loyalty?

Chapter 22
James Steerforth

I tell you, my good fellow, once more, that it would have been well for me (and for more than me) if I had had a steadfast and judicious father! (22.26)

Steerforth admits that he could really have used more discipline growing up – the guidance of a "steadfast and judicious father." We see several images of loving, steadfast father figures – Doctor Strong and Mr. Peggotty, for example. Where are the loving, tough, positive mother figures? The only one we can think of is Miss Betsey, and she is described at one point in the text as "masculine" (41.127). Does Dickens imply that women cannot be authoritative parent figures? Or can you think of counterexamples?

Chapter 25
Agnes Wickfield

I almost feel as if I had been papa's enemy, instead of his loving child. For I know how he has altered, in his devotion to me. I know how he has narrowed the circle of his sympathies and duties, in the concentration of his whole mind upon me. I know what a multitude of things he has shut out for my sake, and how his anxious thoughts of me have shadowed his life, and weakened his strength and energy, by turning them always upon one idea. If I could ever set this right! If I could ever work out his restoration, as I have so innocently been the cause of his decline! (25.53)

Agnes is doing her best to be a good daughter to Mr. Wickfield, but it's not enough. His obsession with her has caused Mr. Wickfield completely to rearrange his life around Agnes. While this novel clearly values affection and the importance of mutual sympathy, it's not totally soppy. Love isn't enough to fix everything that goes wrong in family life.

Chapter 32
David Copperfield

What is natural in me, is natural in many other men, I infer, and so I am not afraid to write that I never had loved Steerforth better than when the ties that bound me to him were broken. In the keen distress of the discovery of his unworthiness, I thought more of all that was brilliant in him, I softened more towards all that was good in him, I did more justice to the qualities that might have made him a man of a noble nature and a great name, than ever I had done in the height of my devotion to him. (32.1)

David finds that, once he discovers Steerforth's betrayal, he thinks all the more of his brilliance. David's generosity to Steerforth's memory provides pretty much the only example we ever get of a truly grey character, nearly purely good nor totally bad. Steerforth is like family to David before he runs away with Emily. This means we have some attachment to him too, even though we know he's done terrible things.

Mrs. Steerforth

My son, who has been the object of my life, to whom its every thought has been devoted, whom I have gratified from a child in every wish, from whom I have had no separate existence since his birth,—to take up in a moment with a miserable girl, and avoid me! To repay my confidence with systematic deception, for her sake, and quit me for her! To set this wretched fancy, against his mother's claims upon his duty, love, respect, gratitude—claims that every day and hour of his life should have strengthened into ties that nothing could be proof against! (32.117)

Mrs. Steerforth seems to think that her love for her son is as great as love can be. He has been "the object of [her] life," "from whom [she has] had no separate existence since his birth." But her love is also profoundly selfish, because she immediately decides that she cannot see him again so long as he stays unapologetically with Emily. Is Mrs. Steerforth alone in the novel in this type of selfish love, or are there other characters who love in the same way she does? And beyond the most obvious contrast with Mr. Peggotty, are there other characters whose love is distinctive because of its unselfishness?

Chapter 44
Miss Betsey Trotwood

You have chosen a very pretty and a very affectionate creature. It will be your duty, and it will be your pleasure too—of course I know that; I am not delivering a lecture—to estimate her (as you chose her) by the qualities she has, and not by the qualities she may not have. (44.63)

Miss Betsey gives David some sage advice here about how to handle Dora. Now that David realizes that Dora can't be serious, he starts to feel disappointed. Miss Betsey basically instructs him that, if he can't be with the one he loves (his ideal partner, a fantasy who he has yet to identify as Agnes), he should love the one he's with. What lessons is Miss Betsey drawing on from her own life to impart this moral? And is disappointment something that you can just choose not to feel?

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