Study Guide

David Copperfield Gender

By Charles Dickens


Chapter 13

Janet was a pretty blooming girl, of about nineteen or twenty, and a perfect picture of neatness. Though I made no further observation of her at the moment, I may mention here what I did not discover until afterwards, namely, that she was one of a series of protegees whom my aunt had taken into her service expressly to educate in a renouncement of mankind, and who had generally completed their abjuration by marrying the baker. (13.111)

Miss Betsey hires Janet as a helper and seems to be encouraging her to turn her back on all men. But Miss Betsey's attitude towards marriage seems to soften considerably as David grows up and starts a household. Miss Betsey is one of the few characters in the novel (the others being David and Traddles) who really shows that she can learn from experience. For more on this point, check out our "Character Analysis" of Miss Betsey.

David Copperfield

My aunt was a tall, hard-featured lady, but by no means ill-looking. There was an inflexibility in her face, in her voice, in her gait and carriage, amply sufficient to account for the effect she had made upon a gentle creature like my mother; but her features were rather handsome than otherwise, though unbending and austere. I particularly noticed that she had a very quick, bright eye. Her hair, which was grey, was arranged in two plain divisions, under what I believe would be called a mob-cap; I mean a cap, much more common then than now, with side-pieces fastening under the chin. Her dress was of a lavender colour, and perfectly neat; but scantily made, as if she desired to be as little encumbered as possible. I remember that I thought it, in form, more like a riding-habit with the superfluous skirt cut off, than anything else. She wore at her side a gentleman's gold watch, if I might judge from its size and make, with an appropriate chain and seals; she had some linen at her throat not unlike a shirt-collar, and things at her wrists like little shirt-wristbands. (13.109)

This first extended description of Miss Betsey fascinates us. Why? Well: look how different Miss Betsey's physical appearance is compared to soft, fair Mrs. Copperfield or Dora. Miss Betsey is the only woman in the novel who successfully raises a family (well, David) by herself (as opposed to Mrs. Steerforth, Mrs. Copperfield, and Mrs. Heep). What distinguishes her from these other women is that she keeps getting marked as masculine: she is "hard-featured," with "unbending and austere" features. Her dress is plain and "more like a riding-habit with the superfluous skirt cut off, than anything else." In other words, she is remarkably plainly dressed, to be "as little encumbered as possible." She even wears "a gentleman's gold watch." Miss Betsey's power in the household seems to be the result of her unusually independent, firm ways – and this independence demonstrates itself in her masculine appearance. So, there's a subtle equation here: feminine = weak; masculine = strong.

Chapter 32

Mrs. Joram tossed her head, endeavouring to be very stern and cross; but she could not command her softer self, and began to cry. I was young, to be sure; but I thought much the better of her for this sympathy, and fancied it became her, as a virtuous wife and mother, very well indeed.

"What will she ever do!" sobbed Minnie. "Where will she go! What will become of her! Oh, how could she be so cruel, to herself and him!" (32.38-9)

When David visits Mr. Omer's shop after Emily runs away, he finds Minnie initially willing to say terrible things about Emily. But her natural sympathy soon overcomes her, and she starts to cry on Emily's behalf. This bit about Minnie as a "virtuous wife and mother" is particularly interesting, though – it seems to be a moment when David is addressing the audience directly, to reassure us that, even if we are virtuous wives and mothers, we can still sympathize with fallen women without compromising ourselves. Obviously, this possibility is serious business, because we see how much Ham and Mr. Peggotty disapprove of Emily meeting Martha Endell before Emily runs away – as though Martha Endell could infect Emily with sexual desire.

Chapter 33
David Copperfield

There was dust, I believe. There was a good deal of dust, I believe. I have a faint impression that Mr. Spenlow remonstrated with me for riding in it; but I knew of none. I was sensible of a mist of love and beauty about Dora, but of nothing else. He stood up sometimes, and asked me what I thought of the prospect. I said it was delightful, and I dare say it was; but it was all Dora to me. The sun shone Dora, and the birds sang Dora. The south wind blew Dora, and the wild flowers in the hedges were all Dora's, to a bud. My comfort is, Miss Mills understood me. Miss Mills alone could enter into my feelings thoroughly. (33.62)

David falls in love with Dora pretty much at first sight. When the three of them drive to some green space to have a birthday picnic for Dora with a bunch of friends, David is totally consumed by the sight of her. We're not too surprised that David's main attention is on Dora's appearance, which he keeps comparing to various lovely aspects of the natural world. If he talked to Dora a little more before they got married, and listened a bit more to the warning signs that they weren't made for each other, they both could have avoided a lot of heartbreak.

Chapter 37
David Copperfield

I thought I had killed her, this time. I sprinkled water on her face. I went down on my knees. I plucked at my hair. I denounced myself as a remorseless brute and a ruthless beast. I implored her forgiveness. I besought her to look up. I ravaged Miss Mills's work-box for a smelling-bottle, and in my agony of mind applied an ivory needle-case instead, and dropped all the needles over Dora. (37.47-8)

What's freaking out Dora here is that David has asked her to read a cookbook and study some accounts now and then, so that they can keep house without necessarily relying on servants. Dora flips out and David totally blames himself for just springing all of this on her. But seriously, this is a truly unflattering image of womanhood as being connected to weakness, childishness, and so on. Does Dora's characterization represent a more general assessment of the quality of women throughout the novel? Does Agnes Wickfield seem like a better or fairer model of womanhood to you? Are there problems with Agnes's depiction as well?

Chapter 39
Uriah Heep

If I say I've an ambition to make your Agnes my Agnes, I have as good a right to it as another man. I have a better right to it than any other man!' (39.143)

Uriah Heep jumps the gun on his plans a little bit by announcing to Mr. Wickfield that he wants, some time in the distant future, to marry Agnes. Mr. Wickfield groans and yells and confesses his sense of guilt about hiring Uriah Heep, and Uriah Heep subsides for a little while. But he also warns Mr. Wickfield that he has "as good a right" to Agnes as another man – "better" even! Why might Uriah Heep imagine that he has a "better" right than another man to Agnes?

Chapter 41
David Copperfield

And we fell back on the guitar-case, and the flower-painting, and the songs about never leaving off dancing, Ta ra la! and were as happy as the week was long. I occasionally wished I could venture to hint to Miss Lavinia, that she treated the darling of my heart a little too much like a plaything; and I sometimes awoke, as it were, wondering to find that I had fallen into the general fault, and treated her like a plaything too—but not often. (41.151)

Because David is quite childish himself, he willfully ignores the signs that he and Dora are actually not in perfect sympathy with each other. But we also find it intriguing that David treats Dora just the same way all the other people around Dora do: like a "plaything." Dora loves the guitar and the flower-painting because all she knows how to do is play; she can't work and she won't work. But this isn't just a problem of gender. It's also a problem of having too much money. None of the poorer women in this novel can afford to spend all day singing "songs about never leaving off dancing."

Chapter 47
Martha Endell

"How can I go on as I am, a solitary curse to myself, a living disgrace to everyone I come near!" Suddenly [Martha] turned to my companion. "Stamp upon me, kill me! When she was your pride, you would have thought I had done her harm if I had brushed against her in the street. You can't believe—why should you?—-a syllable that comes out of my lips. It would be a burning shame upon you, even now, if she and I exchanged a word." (47.39)

When David and Mr. Peggotty manage to track down Martha Endell in the streets of London, she lets forth this torrent of guilt and self-reproach. She thinks that she brings disgrace to everyone she's close to, and worries that she somehow inflicted shame on Emily just by talking to her. Does the degree of Martha's shame strike you as realistic? Are there any reasons we can think of for why Dickens might want to exaggerate the dramatic effect of this scene?

Chapter 53
Dora Spenlow

I was very happy, very. But, as years went on, my dear boy would have wearied of his child-wife. She would have been less and less a companion for him. He would have been more and more sensible of what was wanting in his home. She wouldn't have improved. It is better as it is. (53.42)

As Dora is dying, she lies there and tells David not to worry: in a way, she's glad she's dying. Because that saves David from getting tired of her. What?! We find this ethically suspect: Dickens is making a character release her husband to go off and be happy because she's about to die, just so that David can get the happy family life that is the goal of this novel.

Chapter 60
David Copperfield

With her own sweet tranquillity, she calmed my agitation; led me back to the time of our parting; spoke to me of Emily, whom she had visited, in secret, many times; spoke to me tenderly of Dora's grave. With the unerring instinct of her noble heart, she touched the chords of my memory so softly and harmoniously, that not one jarred within me; I could listen to the sorrowful, distant music, and desire to shrink from nothing it awoke. How could I, when, blended with it all, was her dear self, the better angel of my life? (60.38)

At last we get a description of David's model lady. What he wants from a woman is someone who "[calms his] agitation" and helps him to reflect back on memories of his life without pain. In other words, he wants a woman who will allow him to talk and think endlessly about himself. How well rounded is Agnes as a character? How much do we know about her personal sorrows and concerns?

Chapter 63

Some thinks,' he said, 'as her affection was ill-bestowed; some, as her marriage was broken off by death. No one knows how 'tis. She might have married well, a mort of times, "but, uncle," she says to me, "that's gone for ever." Cheerful along with me; retired when others is by; fond of going any distance fur to teach a child, or fur to tend a sick person, or fur to do some kindness tow'rds a young girl's wedding (and she's done a many, but has never seen one); fondly loving of her uncle; patient; liked by young and old; sowt out by all that has any trouble. That's Em'ly! (63.30)

It's odd that the novel seems to insist that, to recuperate Emily's character as a virtuous woman, she can't just immigrate to Australia. It's not enough that she has to leave her country and go somewhere else. Oh no, the novel also demands that she renounce all thought of marriage and dedicate herself to teaching children and tending sick people. This fate for Emily is clearly a product of its time – it seems way out of proportion to the crime that Emily has to give up her country and her sexuality.