Study Guide

David Copperfield Suffering

By Charles Dickens

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Chapter 3

"I'm not afraid in this way [of the sea]," said little Em'ly. "But I wake when it blows, and tremble to think of Uncle Dan and Ham and believe I hear 'em crying out for help. That's why I should like so much to be a lady." (3.72)

When Emily is rushing towards the sea, David admires her courage. But Emily isn't afraid of the sea for herself. She's worried about what the sea has done and will do to her family. Emily's father and uncle (Ham's father) were drowned, and this childhood trauma has strongly affected her development as a character. It's because of her sorrow at the loss of her family that Emily is so desperate to become a lady. She wants to have the money to protect Mr. Peggotty and Ham from their dangerous profession, fishing. And it's because Emily so wants to be a lady that she becomes vulnerable to Steerforth's seduction.

Chapter 4
Mrs. Clara Copperfield

"It's enough to distract me," cried my mother. "In my honeymoon, too, when my most inveterate enemy might relent, one would think, and not envy me a little peace of mind and happiness. Davy, you naughty boy! Peggotty, you savage creature! Oh, dear me!" cried my mother, turning from one of us to the other, in her pettish wilful manner, "what a troublesome world this is, when one has the most right to expect it to be as agreeable as possible!" (4.10)

When David comes home to find Mrs. Copperfield married to Mr. Murdstone, he's not exactly overcome with joy. And in her disappointment at David's reaction, Mrs. Copperfield strikes out at David and Peggotty for being "naughty" and "savage" at not being happy for her. Mrs. Copperfield can't understand why there is still suffering in a world when "one has the most right to expect it to be as agreeable as possible." The thing is, why do we have a right to expect the world to be nice? Not to sound like our crotchety grandparents or anything, but who says life is fair? Maybe Mrs. Copperfield's assumption that she's owed a good life makes her all the more disappointed and unhappy when she suffers.

Chapter 7
David Copperfield

I should think there never can have been a man who enjoyed his profession more than Mr. Creakle did. He had a delight in cutting at the boys, which was like the satisfaction of a craving appetite. I am confident that he couldn't resist a chubby boy, especially; that there was a fascination in such a subject, which made him restless in his mind, until he had scored and marked him for the day. I was chubby myself, and ought to know. (7.7)

Mr. Creakle is obviously a sadist. He "had a delight in cutting at the boys." He loves whipping boys so much that he feels "restless in his mind" until he finds a new victim. But it's also worth noting that David remembers Mr. Creakle so vividly and fiercely because of the suffering he brings – the reason there's so much pain and sorrow in this book is because it's these things that we remember. And David Copperfield is supposed to be a memoir.

Poor Traddles! In a tight sky-blue suit that made his arms and legs like German sausages, or roly-poly puddings, he was the merriest and most miserable of all the boys. He was always being caned—I think he was caned every day that half-year, except one holiday Monday when he was only ruler'd on both hands—and was always going to write to his uncle about it, and never did. After laying his head on the desk for a little while, he would cheer up, somehow, begin to laugh again, and draw skeletons all over his slate, before his eyes were dry. I used at first to wonder what comfort Traddles found in drawing skeletons; and for some time looked upon him as a sort of hermit, who reminded himself by those symbols of mortality that caning couldn't last for ever. But I believe he only did it because they were easy, and didn't want any features. (7.12)

Poor Traddles gets the worst of Mr. Creakle's brutality because he's plump, and Mr. Creakle likes beating fat boys. (So horrible!) But he also has this interesting coping mechanism of drawing skeletons all the time. David thinks, at first, that these skeletons have a huge symbolic meaning: that Traddles seeks comfort in the fact that all of our suffering will eventually end (even if it's in death).

It was, properly, a half-holiday; being Saturday. [...] It was the day of the week on which Mr. Sharp went out to get his wig curled; so Mr. Mell, who always did the drudgery, whatever it was, kept school by himself. [...] I recall him bending his aching head, supported on his bony hand, over the book on his desk, and wretchedly endeavouring to get on with his tiresome work, amidst an uproar that might have made the Speaker of the House of Commons giddy. Boys started in and out of their places [...] boys whirled about him, grinning, making faces, mimicking him behind his back and before his eyes; mimicking his poverty, his boots, his coat, his mother, everything belonging to him that they should have had consideration for. (7.32)

The boys are so horribly treated by Mr. Creakle that they seize every opportunity to act out against other people when they have the chance. Suffering doesn't necessarily make you more sympathetic. In fact, the brief freedom that the kids get from Mr. Creakle make them torture poor Mr. Mell, mocking his poverty, clothes, and even his mom eventually.

Chapter 10
Mrs. Gummidge

"No. It had better be done by somebody else, Dan'l," said Mrs. Gummidge. "I'm a lone lorn creetur' myself, and everythink that reminds me of creetur's that ain't lone and lorn, goes contrary with me." (10.110)

Mrs. Gummidge wallows in her own suffering when other people – creatures that "ain't lone and lorn" – are around to remind her that she is lonely. And she loves to rain on other people's parades by reminding them, at every convenient opportunity, that she is unhappy. You know the expression, misery loves company? That's Mrs. Gummidge at the beginning of the novel.

Chapter 32
David Copperfield

What a change in Mrs. Gummidge in a little time! She was another woman. She was so devoted, she had such a quick perception of what it would be well to say, and what it would be well to leave unsaid; she was so forgetful of herself, and so regardful of the sorrow about her, that I held her in a sort of veneration. (32.32)

After Emily leaves and Mr. Peggotty decides to seek her, Mrs. Gummidge's whole grim attitude turns around: suddenly, she's unselfish and always ready to help those around her. When Mrs. Gummidge was unhappy among a group of happy people, she could never stop reminding them of her own sorrow. But now that Mrs. Gummidge is sad among a group of miserable people, she forgets herself in favor of helping others. She gets resentful when other people are happy, but she's really great in a crisis – a handy kind of friend to have around.

Chapter 38
David Copperfield

What I cannot describe is, how, in the innermost recesses of my own heart, I had a lurking jealousy even of Death. How I felt as if its might would push me from my ground in Dora's thoughts. How I was, in a grudging way I have no words for, envious of her grief. How it made me restless to think of her weeping to others, or being consoled by others. How I had a grasping, avaricious wish to shut out everybody from her but myself, and to be all in all to her, at that unseasonable time of all times. (38.92)

David's doing something rather brave here, because he's confessing to an all too human, but still not exactly praiseworthy, emotion: jealousy of Mr. Spenlow's death. When Mr. Spenlow dies suddenly, Dora is left in deep mourning. And David hates that his beloved Dora can be thinking of someone else so much, even if that person is her dead father. David is selfish in seeing Dora's suffering, and he wants to keep it all for himself. Perhaps this is a further sign of the fundamental problem of David's relationship to Dora: he has this intensely possessive love of her that makes Dora seem child-like and in need of David's care. With Agnes, on the other hand, David trusts her to look after herself – she's a true partner for David in his mind.

Chapter 58
David Copperfield

I went away from England; not knowing, even then, how great the shock was, that I had to bear. I left all who were dear to me, and went away; and believed that I had borne it, and it was past. As a man upon a field of battle will receive a mortal hurt, and scarcely know that he is struck, so I, when I was left alone with my undisciplined heart, had no conception of the wound with which it had to strive. (58.2)

David doesn't really seem to feel the full impact of Dora's death until he goes to Europe to recover; before then, he's got the support of his family, including Miss Betsey and Agnes. It's only when he's abroad that David is really alone. And loneliness seems to be the worst kind of suffering of all in this book.

I came into the valley, as the evening sun was shining on the remote heights of snow, that closed it in, like eternal clouds. [...] In the quiet air, there was a sound of distant singing—shepherd voices; but, as one bright evening cloud floated midway along the mountain's-side, I could almost have believed it came from there, and was not earthly music. All at once, in this serenity, great Nature spoke to me; and soothed me to lay down my weary head upon the grass, and weep as I had not wept yet, since Dora died! (58.11)

This moment really stands out, as David contemplates Nature itself without immediately connecting it to characterization or plot. By contrast, in descriptions of the Yarmouth storm, the wildness of the landscape clearly foreshadows the deaths of Ham Peggotty and Steerforth. Here, David is once again staring at the landscape, but this time, it seems almost meditative. David finds the solution for his emotional suffering in the recognition of the scale of nature – its "eternal clouds" and "not earthly music" – which give him the serenity to "weep as [he] had not wept yet, since Dora died." Most of the novel takes place on a truly human scale, inside small houses of David Copperfield's characters. This is one of the only moments (well, except perhaps with Traddles's skeletons) that we get a real sense of scope beyond the day-to-day lives of David and his companions.

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