Study Guide

David Copperfield Poverty

By Charles Dickens

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Chapter 3
David Copperfield

[Mr. Peggotty] was but a poor man himself, said Peggotty, but as good as gold and as true as steel—those were her similes. The only subject, she informed me, on which he ever showed a violent temper or swore an oath, was this generosity of his; and if it were ever referred to, by any one of them, he struck the table a heavy blow with his right hand (had split it on one such occasion), and swore a dreadful oath that he would be 'Gormed' if he didn't cut and run for good, if it was ever mentioned again. It appeared, in answer to my inquiries, that nobody had the least idea of the etymology of this terrible verb passive to be gormed; but that they all regarded it as constituting a most solemn imprecation. (3.46)

Mr. Peggotty is a poor man, but a generous one: he has adopted his orphaned niece and nephew and allowed widowed Mrs. Gummidge to share his home. But the real mark of Mr. Peggotty's greatness as a character is that he does these things without wanting to be thanked. We can compare Mr. Peggotty's generosity with the charitable institutions that produce Uriah Heep, in which Uriah Heep is constantly reminded that he should be grateful to his betters. Mr. Peggotty's generosity produces other sympathetic human beings – fallible, maybe, but good-hearted – while Uriah Heep's institutions produce an angry, destructive jerk. Perhaps this is a lesson about how Dickens think the poor should be treated: with unselfish generosity rather than grudging charity

Chapter 5
David Copperfield

As they looked at [Mrs. Mell], I looked at her also. Although it was a warm day, she seemed to think of nothing but the fire. I fancied she was jealous even of the saucepan on it; [...] The sun streamed in at the little window, but she sat with her own back and the back of the large chair towards it, screening the fire as if she were sedulously keeping it warm, instead of it keeping her warm, and watching it in a most distrustful manner. (5.119)

This is a very, very brief look at the life of Mrs. Mell, Mr. Mell's mother, who lives in the nineteenth century equivalent of a homeless shelter. Her extreme poverty seems to make her mistrust the most ordinary things in life, such as having a fire and being able to cook on it. What tone does David use to describe this scene? How does he seem to feel about Mrs. Mell's poverty? Does this description remind you of other moments in the book when David confronts similar poverty?

Chapter 7
David Copperfield

Steerforth evaded the question for a little while; looking in scorn and anger on his opponent, and remaining silent. I could not help thinking even in that interval, I remember, what a noble fellow he was in appearance, and how homely and plain Mr. Mell looked opposed to him. (7.53)

Even though Mr. Mell is morally right in this scene, his poor clothes distract David from the truth of his position. Mr. Mell is correct to demand that Steerforth, his student, treat him with respect. But the reality of the social structure Steerforth occupies means that Mr. Mell will always be Steerforth's social inferior, even if Steerforth is a pupil in Mr. Mell's classroom. The odd thing about David Copperfield is that Dickens seems to be acutely aware of the need to respect the poor – Steerforth's poor treatment of Mr. Mell and the Peggottys does not go without criticism from our narrator – but at the same time, the book constantly supports the importance of class difference. For example, David insists that he is different from the other factory boys because his father is a gentleman. Is there a contradiction in this logic, that Dickens wants respect for the poor, but he also believes that working class characters should stay in their social places? Can this logic be reconciled?

Chapter 27
Tommy Traddles

"It don't matter," said Traddles. "I began, by means of his assistance, to copy law writings. That didn't answer very well; and then I began to state cases for them, and make abstracts, and that sort of work. For I am a plodding kind of fellow, Copperfield, and had learnt the way of doing such things pithily. Well! That put it in my head to enter myself as a law student; and that ran away with all that was left of the fifty pounds." (27.46)

This is a part of a much longer account by Traddles of how he has been working his butt off to try and improve his life by making his way as a lawyer. Traddles's hard work is actually really similar to the long hours David observes Uriah Heep putting in, memorizing law textbooks at midnight while working as a clerk for Mr. Wickfield. Why does Traddles's work seem so much more sympathetic and admirable than Uriah Heep's? What is Traddles doing right that Uriah Heep is doing wrong?

Chapter 28
Master Micawber

It appears to me, that what Mr. Micawber has to do, in justice to himself, in justice to his family, and I will even go so far as to say in justice to society, by which he has been hitherto overlooked, is to advertise in all the papers; to describe himself plainly as so-and-so, with such and such qualifications and to put it thus: "Now employ me, on remunerative terms, and address, post-paid, to W. M., Post Office, Camden Town." (28.79)

Mr. Micawber spends nearly all of the novel unemployed and looking for a job. Mrs. Micawber gets sick of Mr. Micawber's constant poverty and suggests that he take a more active role in looking for employment by posting an ad in the newspaper demanding a position. But by advertising in the newspaper, Mr. Micawber comes more directly to the attention of Uriah Heep. It's through this advertisement that Uriah Heep hires Mr. Micawber as a law clerk, much to Mr. Micawber's eventual unhappiness. Why might this kind of open advertisement bring such bad results for Mr. Micawber, when Traddles's quiet accumulation of contacts in the legal world brings such good things? Is there evidence in the text that Mr. Micawber is doing something wrong or socially frowned upon by putting an ad in the paper? Or is he just unlucky that his ad gets him hired by Uriah Heep?

Chapter 39
David Copperfield

Father and me was both brought up at a foundation school for boys; and mother, she was likewise brought up at a public, sort of charitable, establishment. They taught us all a deal of umbleness—not much else that I know of, from morning to night. We was to be umble to this person, and umble to that; and to pull off our caps here, and to make bows there; and always to know our place, and abase ourselves before our betters. And we had such a lot of betters! (39.125)

Uriah Heep grows up poor, from a poor family. He, his father, and his mother have all gone to schools run by charities. And his whole life, Uriah Heep has been reminded of his poverty: he "was to be umble to this person, and umble to that." The humiliation of this steady reminder that Uriah Heep's social position is lower than, well, everybody else's, is what makes him such a complete bastard to David and the Wickfields. Does this detail increase your sympathy for this character? Is an explanation of bad behavior an excuse?

Chapter 64
David Copperfield

Indeed it is Julia Mills, peevish and fine [...] Julia is steeped in money to the throat, and talks and thinks of nothing else. (64.17)

In the last chapter of the novel, David relates that Dora's old friend, Julia Mills, has married an extremely rich man in India. She has loads of servants and fine clothes and so on. But the money has made her "peevish" – no longer contented with anything, but always fretting. The old days when Julia Mills was so generous in bringing David and Dora together are quite gone. Instead, she "talks and thinks of" money and nothing else. The implied message of this book seems to be that only those who work for their money deserve to have it; otherwise, you get careless, selfish characters like Steerforth and Julia Mills.

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