Study Guide

David Copperfield Guilt and Blame

By Charles Dickens

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Guilt and Blame

Chapter 4
David Copperfield

[Mr. Murdstone] beat me then, as if he would have beaten me to death. Above all the noise we made, I heard them running up the stairs, and crying out—I heard my mother crying out—and Peggotty. Then he was gone; and the door was locked outside; and I was lying, fevered and hot, and torn, and sore, and raging in my puny way, upon the floor.

How well I recollect, when I became quiet, what an unnatural stillness seemed to reign through the whole house! How well I remember, when my smart and passion began to cool, how wicked I began to feel! (4.111-2)

This scene is awful. We have to admit that this is probably the most painful part of the novel for us, when Mr. Murdstone takes a switch and whips his poor, defenseless eight-year-old stepson for the "fault" of not having learned his lessons properly. It's just disgusting. The worst thing about this moment might be that, as David recovers from his beating, he feels "wicked." Beating makes its victim feel evil, as though the only way David can handle being whipped is to try and find ways to blame himself – as though that would make it justified or fair.

Chapter 5
David Copperfield

What I suffered from that placard, nobody can imagine. Whether it was possible for people to see me or not, I always fancied that somebody was reading it. It was no relief to turn round and find nobody; for wherever my back was, there I imagined somebody always to be. That cruel man with the wooden leg aggravated my sufferings. He was in authority; and if he ever saw me leaning against a tree, or a wall, or the house, he roared out from his lodge door in a stupendous voice, 'Hallo, you sir! You Copperfield! Show that badge conspicuous, or I'll report you!' The playground was a bare gravelled yard, open to all the back of the house and the offices; and I knew that the servants read it, and the butcher read it, and the baker read it; that everybody, in a word, who came backwards and forwards to the house, of a morning when I was ordered to walk there, read that I was to be taken care of, for I bit, I recollect that I positively began to have a dread of myself, as a kind of wild boy who did bite. (5.145)

The experience of having the whole world looking at David's sign – "Take care of him. He bites." – inspires David with this morbid sensitivity about the whole world's interest in him. He suddenly becomes horribly aware that he is seen by many strangers throughout the day. This awareness of social judgment makes David feel unfounded guilt "as a kind of wild boy who did bite." This sense that social judgment increases a sense of guilt gets repeated in the episode of poor Mrs. Annie Strong, who is so aware that the world thinks she is cheating on Doctor Strong.

Chapter 7
David Copperfield

We thought this intention [of finding the fired Mr. Mell a job] very noble in Steerforth, whose mother was a widow, and rich, and would do almost anything, it was said, that he asked her. [...] But I must say that when I was going on with a story in the dark that night, Mr. Mell's old flute seemed more than once to sound mournfully in my ears; and that when at last Steerforth was tired, and I lay down in my bed, I fancied it playing so sorrowfully somewhere, that I was quite wretched. (7.95)

After Steerforth gets Mr. Mell fired, he convinces the other boys that he plans to find Mr. Mell another job so they'll feel better about the whole thing. But at night, when David is alone, even this comfort can't make his sorrow for Mr. Mell go away. Being alone makes David's guilt and sadness worse, which is perhaps one reason why he values family life and community above all other achievements.

Chapter 19
David Copperfield

The Doctor was very fond of music. Agnes sang with great sweetness and expression, and so did Mrs. Strong. They sang together, and played duets together, and we had quite a little concert. But I remarked two things: first, that though Annie soon recovered her composure, and was quite herself, there was a blank between her and Mr. Wickfield which separated them wholly from each other; secondly, that Mr. Wickfield seemed to dislike the intimacy between her and Agnes, and to watch it with uneasiness. And now, I must confess, the recollection of what I had seen on that night when Mr. Maldon went away, first began to return upon me with a meaning it had never had, and to trouble me. The innocent beauty of her face was not as innocent to me as it had been; I mistrusted the natural grace and charm of her manner; and when I looked at Agnes by her side, and thought how good and true Agnes was, suspicions arose within me that it was an ill-assorted friendship. (19.79)

David suddenly stops trusting Annie, when he notices that Mr. Wickfield suspects her and that Annie herself is aware of Mr. Wickfield's suspicions. Blame appears to be contagious, and it's the easy spread of blame that keeps Doctor Strong and Annie apart needlessly for so long. We're also interested in the fact that sin also seems to be contagious – David remarks that Mr. Wickfield doesn't like "the intimacy between [Annie] and Agnes," perhaps because he worries that Annie will be a bad influence on Agnes. This protective instinct echoes Mr. Peggotty and Ham Peggotty's concern when Emily meets with Martha Endell (before Emily runs away). At the same time, we later discover that Agnes visits Emily repeatedly before she sails to Australia. Sure, people can influence you to do the wrong thing, but Agnes's morals are so firmly grounded that we seriously don't think just talking to Annie, Emily, or Martha Endell is going to change them. Do women appear to be particularly vulnerable to certain kinds of social crimes? What does it say about the society in the book that it thinks that women are so easily "corrupted?"

Chapter 22

'Oh, pray, aunt, try to help me! Ham, dear, try to help me! Mr. David, for the sake of old times, do, please, try to help me! I want to be a better girl than I am. I want to feel a hundred times more thankful than I do. I want to feel more, what a blessed thing it is to be the wife of a good man, and to lead a peaceful life. Oh me, oh me! Oh my heart, my heart! (22.215)

When Emily meets poor Martha Endell, she foreshadows her own near future. In a fit of hysteria after seeing Martha, she promises that she wants "to be a better girl" than she is. She wants to be happy as "the wife of a good man" – Ham Peggotty. But like Steerforth himself, who also seems to recognize that he's doing something wrong by seducing Emily away, Emily appears to know the right thing to do. She just cannot bring herself to do it. It's like Steerforth is a whirlpool and Emily is caught in the current. What exactly compels both Emily and Steerforth to do the wrong thing, even though they know that they are doing wrong? Why can't Emily just choose to be "a better girl"? What's stopping her from being "a hundred times more thankful"?

Chapter 45
David Copperfield

It rarely happened now that Mr. Maldon accompanied them. Sometimes my aunt and Dora were invited to do so, and accepted the invitation. Sometimes Dora only was asked. The time had been, when I should have been uneasy in her going; but reflection on what had passed that former night in the Doctor's study, had made a change in my mistrust. I believed that the Doctor was right, and I had no worse suspicions. (45.16)

David's mind is so easily changed: he suspects Annie of being a cheater when Mr. Wickfield shows his suspicions, but he changes his mind about Annie when Doctor Strong refuses to doubt her. What are we to make of this social component of blame? Why can't David make his moral judgments of Annie on his own, without input from those around him? Does David make any moral judgments without looking to the responses of his friends? Does David ever disagree with the moral judgments of his friends? And do you ever disagree with David's assessments?

Chapter 52
Ham Peggotty

Tan't that I forgive her. 'Tan't that so much. 'Tis more as I beg of her to forgive me, for having pressed my affections upon her. Odd times, I think that if I hadn't had her promise fur to marry me, sir, she was that trustful of me, in a friendly way, that she'd have told me what was struggling in her mind, and would have counselled with me, and I might have saved her. (52.106)

When Ham Peggotty hears that little Emily has returned to Mr. Peggotty, he seeks out David in Yarmouth. He wants David to carry word to Emily that Ham is all right, and that she hasn't done him any lasting harm (which is not true, but Ham wants to comfort Emily). Ham is such a good man that he has no thought of revenge. He totally blames himself for what happened between him and Emily. What do you think is the primary cause of Emily's running off? Does Ham bear any blame for her departure?

Chapter 59
Mr. Chillip

"In the meantime, sir," said Mr. Chillip, "[Mr. and Miss Murdstone] are much disliked; and as they are very free in consigning everybody who dislikes them to perdition, we really have a good deal of perdition going on in our neighbourhood! However, as Mrs. Chillip says, sir, they undergo a continual punishment; for they are turned inward, to feed upon their own hearts, and their own hearts are very bad feeding." (59.139)

David runs into his old doctor, Mr. Chillip, by accident at Gray's Inn in London once he returns from Europe. Mr. Chillip has news of the Murdstones. Mr. Murdstone has remarried and he and his sister have bullied his poor wife into completely obedient idiocy. But Mr. Chillip also reports that the Murdstones are not popular. They respond to this unpopularity by damning everyone who doesn't like them. Still, the Murdstones have isolated themselves, and have nothing to do but think about their own hearts. While the Murdstones have not been punished by any kind of law for their abuses, their social isolation has brought about a kind of prison. They are trapped with each other and their own bad natures, which Mr. Chillip seems to think is punishment enough. What do you think – is this enough justice for the Murdstones? How might you have ended their narrative thread?

Chapter 60
Mr. Wickfield

My love for my dear child was a diseased love, but my mind was all unhealthy then. I say no more of that. (60.77)

After clearing away Uriah Heep, Mr. Wickfield's mind improves. He can recognize that the cause of all of his weakness has been his obsessive love for his daughter. And this love, in turn, arises from his grief over the death of her mother. Mr. Wickfield clearly feels a strong sense of guilt that his behavior has caused those he loves so much pain. Do we see any signs that Mr. Wickfield is trying to make amends? What do we make of this "diseased love" of Mr. Wickfield's? Is there any way we can connect his "all unhealthy" mind to his intense suspicion of other people's motives at the beginning of the novel?

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