Study Guide

David Copperfield Society and Class

By Charles Dickens

Advertisement - Guide continues below

Society and Class

Chapter 3

But there were some differences between Em'ly's orphanhood and mine, it appeared. She had lost her mother before her father; and where her father's grave was no one knew, except that it was somewhere in the depths of the sea.

"Besides," said Em'ly, as she looked about for shells and pebbles, "your father was a gentleman and your mother is a lady; and my father was a fisherman and my mother was a fisherman's daughter, and my uncle Dan is a fisherman." (3.57-8)

Emily is only, like, five years old at this point, but she already knows the important difference between herself and David. And it's not the difference you might expect – it's not gender difference. No, it's that David's father "was a gentleman and [his] mother is a lady," while Emily's father "was a fisherman and [her] mother was a fisherman's daughter." It's at this early stage that we learn what the primary organizing logic of this book is going to be. It's not going to be (mainly) about men and women. The primary divisions in this book are between the working, middle, and upper classes.

Chapter 7
Mrs. Steerforth

"If he is not a beggar himself, his near relation's one," said Steerforth. "It's all the same." (7.71)

From his lofty perspective as the son of an upper-class, wealthy woman, Steerforth can look down on Mr. Mell and his beggared "near relation" – Mrs. Mell. Steerforth's wealth and good birth give him an easy self-confidence and charisma that characters like David and Traddles can't draw on. At the same time, his social position prevents him from sympathizing with the poor. And his energetic nature gets twisted and stunted by having nothing to do or prove. Society destroys Steerforth's moral compass.

Chapter 11
David Copperfield

The deep remembrance of the sense I had, of being utterly without hope now; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that day by day what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, would pass away from me, little by little, never to be brought back any more; cannot be written. (11.5)

When David works in his factory, he's almost in a more pathetic position than the other boys. Mick Walker and Mealy Potatoes don't expect anything different from their lives. But David has been to school. He has experienced another kind of life. So, this sudden slide into a life with no future fills him with "shame" and "misery" that "cannot be written." Still, we have to wonder – do you think that it's truly worse to be disappointed than to have no hopes at all, ever?

Chapter 17
Uriah Heep

'Oh, indeed you must excuse me, Master Copperfield! I am greatly obliged, and I should like it of all things, I assure you; but I am far too umble. There are people enough to tread upon me in my lowly state, without my doing outrage to their feelings by possessing learning. Learning ain't for me. A person like myself had better not aspire. If he is to get on in life, he must get on umbly, Master Copperfield!' (17.54)

When David first arrives at the Wickfield house and finds Uriah Heep working hard to become a lawyer, he offers to teach Latin to Uriah. And Heep thanks him but claims that he is "far too umble" to learn. But when Uriah Heep says he "had better not aspire," we think he means that he sees no hope in improving his life strictly through professional achievement. He feels that, to get on in life, "he must get on umbly" – by conniving and deceit. But if Uriah Heep thinks the only way he'll get ahead is through manipulation, why does he bother with law books at all? What do you think Uriah Heep's goals really are – what kind of future is he building by undermining Mr. Wickfield?

Chapter 21
David Copperfield

'Ah, Steerforth! It's well for you to joke about the poor! You may skirmish with Miss Dartle, or try to hide your sympathies in jest from me, but I know better. When I see how perfectly you understand them, how exquisitely you can enter into happiness like this plain fisherman's, or humour a love like my old nurse's, I know that there is not a joy or sorrow, not an emotion, of such people, that can be indifferent to you. And I admire and love you for it, Steerforth, twenty times the more!' (21.159)

David cannot imagine that Steerforth could "enter into happiness" with Mr. Peggotty or "humour a love like" Peggotty's without feeling something for them. He doesn't see how a person can understand another without sympathizing with them. Yet, Steerforth does recognize their "joy" and "sorrow" and he still decides to destroy the Peggotty family by seducing away Emily. What do you make of this link between understanding and sympathy? Do you agree that to know someone intellectually is to understand them emotionally? In a way, this logic is the whole basis of David Copperfield's style of storytelling: Dickens is asking his readers to get to know David so that we will feel for him and, by extension, the novel as a whole.

Chapter 25

"Oh, you know, deuce take it," said this gentleman, looking round the board with an imbecile smile, "we can't forego Blood, you know. We must have Blood, you know. Some young fellows, you know, may be a little behind their station, perhaps, in point of education and behaviour, and may go a little wrong, you know, and get themselves and other people into a variety of fixes—and all that—but deuce take it, it's delightful to reflect that they've got Blood in 'em! Myself, I'd rather at any time be knocked down by a man who had got Blood in him, than I'd be picked up by a man who hadn't!" (25.83)

This is a truly hilarious piece of social critique. This "gentleman" – so he's well-born – is also an "imbecile." He tells the dinner party at Mr. Waterbrook's house, where David restarts his friendship with Traddles, that the most important thing about a person is his bloodlines. Even though some "young fellows" (is he talking about himself?) may not be educated or well-behaved, they still have "Blood." The mode of his delivery of this speech is clearly meant to be funny: he sounds like a real idiot, with all of his stops and starts and his "deuce take it." But the funniest thing about this whole moment is when he says that he would rather be knocked down "by a man who had got Blood in him" than "be picked up by a man who hadn't." So, would a man with no blood be a zombie? We know that, by blood, this guy means "bloodlines," but it sounds like he's talking about dudes who may or may not have actual blood running in their veins. Hee!

Agnes Wickfield

"[Uriah Heep's] ascendancy over papa," said Agnes, "is very great. He professes humility and gratitude—with truth, perhaps: I hope so—but his position is really one of power, and I fear he makes a hard use of his power." (25.49)

Uriah Heep may pretend to be low, but he really dominates Mr. Wickfield more and more throughout the novel. Are there other examples in this book in which appearances are truly deceiving? Do we as readers always know when the characters are being deceived? Or are there plot lines in which we are kept in suspense along with the characters?

Chapter 32
Mr. Peggotty

"Hark to this, ma'am," [Mr. Peggotty] returned, slowly and quietly. "You know what it is to love your child. So do I. If she was a hundred times my child, I couldn't love her more. You doen't know what it is to lose your child. I do. All the heaps of riches in the wureld would be nowt to me (if they was mine) to buy her back! But, save her from this disgrace, and she shall never be disgraced by us. Not one of us that she's growed up among, not one of us that's lived along with her and had her for their all in all, these many year, will ever look upon her pritty face again. We'll be content to let her be; we'll be content to think of her, far off, as if she was underneath another sun and sky; we'll be content to trust her to her husband,—to her little children, p'raps,—and bide the time when all of us shall be alike in quality afore our God!" (32.110)

Even though Mr. Peggotty knows that it will get no results, he confronts Mrs. Steerforth to ask her if Steerforth will marry his niece. And Mr. Peggotty is so self-sacrificing that he promises all of Emily's poor relations will swear never to see her again if it will mean that Emily will be able to marry a man as high above her social class as Steerforth. Mr. Peggotty is totally aware of the realities of the world, he knows that Mrs. Steerforth would be ashamed to be related by marriage to a fisherman, but he hopes to appeal to her common feeling ("You know what it is to love your child. So do I.") to persuade Mrs. Steerforth to have pity. This willingness never to see Emily again if it will make Emily happy and save her from disgrace contrasts strongly with Mrs. Steerforth's unwillingness to see Steerforth again. After all, Mrs. Steerforth's reasons are purely selfish: she can't stand that her son has chosen to run away with another woman, that Steerforth has chosen Emily over his own mother (um?).

Chapter 50
Miss Rosa Dartle

Your home! Do you imagine that I bestow a thought on it, or suppose you could do any harm to that low place, which money would not pay for, and handsomely? Your home! You were a part of the trade of your home, and were bought and sold like any other vendible thing your people dealt in. (50.47)

This speech is delivered by Miss Rosa Dartle to Emily just before Emily is rescued by Mr. Peggotty. Here, she lies to Emily's face by telling Emily that she is, basically, a prostitute, that when Emily lived with Mr. Peggotty, she was for sale in the same way that Mr. Peggotty's fish were for sale. However, we have seen that Mr. Peggotty refuses Mrs. Steerforth's offer of money to buy him off once Emily runs away with Steerforth. Miss Dartle falls into the nasty trap of assuming that all poor people must consider everything available to be "bought and sold," including their own children. But as Mrs. Steerforth learns, even poverty cannot interrupt the bonds of love for good men like Mr. Peggotty.

Chapter 64
David Copperfield

Or perhaps this is the Desert of Sahara! For, though Julia has a stately house, and mighty company, and sumptuous dinners every day, I see no green growth near her; nothing that can ever come to fruit or flower. What Julia calls "society," I see; among it Mr. Jack Maldon, from his Patent Place, sneering at the hand that gave it him, and speaking to me of the Doctor as "so charmingly antique." But when society is the name for such hollow gentlemen and ladies, Julia, and when its breeding is professed indifference to everything that can advance or can retard mankind, I think we must have lost ourselves in that same Desert of Sahara, and had better find the way out. (64.18)

In David's "Last Retrospect," he finds Julia Mills married to a rich man. But Julia Mills's marriage has drained the life from her, and makes her surroundings completely barren ("nothing that can ever come to fruit or flower"). David tells us that "society" is full of sneering, snide, unproductive people: "hollow gentlemen and ladies." And whatever you may say about the Peggottys, they are certainly neither "indiffer[ent]" nor "hollow."

David Copperfield Society and Class Study Group

Ask questions, get answers, and discuss with others.

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

This is a premium product

Please Wait...