Study Guide

David Copperfield Youth

By Charles Dickens

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Chapter 2
David Copperfield

This may be fancy, though I think the memory of most of us can go farther back into such times than many of us suppose; just as I believe the power of observation in numbers of very young children to be quite wonderful for its closeness and accuracy. Indeed, I think that most grown men who are remarkable in this respect, may with greater propriety be said not to have lost the faculty, than to have acquired it; the rather, as I generally observe such men to retain a certain freshness, and gentleness, and capacity of being pleased, which are also an inheritance they have preserved from their childhood. (2.3)

Obviously, as a narrator, David has to be pretty invested in the idea that we can remember more from our childhoods than most people think. He wouldn't have a nine hundred page novel, otherwise. But we're also interested in this statement that men who are fresh, gentle, and easily pleased, retain these qualities from childhood. Dickens seems pretty strongly invested in the idea that children are born good, and that growing up in society makes them evil. When David looks back on his old days, he sounds nostalgic not only for past times, but for David's own past goodness.

Peggotty and I were sitting one night by the parlour fire, alone. I had been reading to Peggotty about crocodiles. [...] I had reached that stage of sleepiness when Peggotty seemed to swell and grow immensely large. I propped my eyelids open with my two forefingers, and looked perseveringly at her as she sat at work; at the little bit of wax-candle she kept for her thread—how old it looked, being so wrinkled in all directions!—at the little house with a thatched roof, where the yard-measure lived; at her work-box with a sliding lid, with a view of St. Paul's Cathedral (with a pink dome) painted on the top; at the brass thimble on her finger; at herself, whom I thought lovely. I felt so sleepy, that I knew if I lost sight of anything for a moment, I was gone. (2.12)

We love this passage because it is a really interesting experiment. Dickens isn't just describing how a child sees the world as he is growing sleepy. He is also trying to evoke that sense of sleepiness for the reader. This is an amazing word portrait of that feeling you get when you're just about to go to sleep and you're really, really fighting it. These word portraits contribute to the realistic effect of the novel's narration: we trust that David has an excellent memory of what happened to him as a child because he can conjure what it's like to be a child so skillfully.

Gradually, I became used to seeing the gentleman with the black whiskers. I liked him no better than at first, and had the same uneasy jealousy of him; but if I had any reason for it beyond a child's instinctive dislike, and a general idea that Peggotty and I could make much of my mother without any help, it certainly was not the reason that I might have found if I had been older. No such thing came into my mind, or near it. I could observe, in little pieces, as it were; but as to making a net of a number of these pieces, and catching anybody in it, that was, as yet, beyond me. (2.63)

This passage sums up in a nutshell the difference between main-character-David and narrator-David. Main-character-David is still a child, with a child's instincts. He knows that something is wrong with Mr. Murdstone, but he doesn't know what. But narrator-David knows all too well what Mr. Murdstone will mean for character-David. And narrator-David's pity for his past self, who "could observe, in little pieces" but could not "[catch] anybody," influences our own sympathy for character-David.

A great wind rises, and the summer is gone in a moment. We are playing in the winter twilight, dancing about the parlour. When my mother is out of breath and rests herself in an elbow-chair, I watch her winding her bright curls round her fingers, and straitening her waist, and nobody knows better than I do that she likes to look so well, and is proud of being so pretty. (2. 10)

David knows best that Mrs. Copperfield "is proud of being so pretty" because he is a child, and she is one, too, at least emotionally. The two of them share this intense mutual sympathy not only because they are mother and son, but also because they're both so young. This is a moment in the second chapter when narrator-David lapses into present tense narration. By moving from past to present tense, he makes the scene David describes seem that much more immediate, as though it's happening right in front of us. What's the emotional effect of this shift in narrative tone?

There was more laughter at this, and Mr. Quinion said he would ring the bell for some sherry in which to drink to Brooks. This he did; and when the wine came, he made me have a little, with a biscuit, and, before I drank it, stand up and say, 'Confusion to Brooks of Sheffield!' The toast was received with great applause, and such hearty laughter that it made me laugh too; at which they laughed the more. In short, we quite enjoyed ourselves. (2.82)

Mr. Murdstone brings David on a visit to Lowestoft, which is near Blunderstone, David's home town. This is when he is still courting Mrs. Copperfield, before Mr. Murdstone has sealed the deal. So, he doesn't want to mess things up by alienating David yet. On this visit to Lowestoft, Mr. Murdstone meets up with two friends of his. And he warns them not to talk too openly of Mrs. Copperfield because "Brooks of Sheffield" – a.k.a. David – is listening. David is so innocent and naive that he does not realize who Brooks of Sheffield is, and he doesn't know that they are laughing at David by making him drink a toast to his own confusion. This scene is an excellent illustration of one of the common lessons of this novel: to be innocent is to be easily deceived. Emily would be another great example of this cynical lesson.

Chapter 4
David Copperfield

God help me, I might have been improved for my whole life, I might have been made another creature perhaps, for life, by a kind word at that season. A word of encouragement and explanation, of pity for my childish ignorance, of welcome home, of reassurance to me that it was home, might have made me dutiful to him in my heart henceforth, instead of in my hypocritical outside, and might have made me respect instead of hate him. (4.31)

When David returns to his home made strange by his mother's marriage to Mr. Murdstone, the narrator goes into this long speculation about his entire life might have been different and better if Mr. Murdstone had offered him one word of encouragement at this key moment. This seems to be the key tragedy of this novel: there are a thousand moments when a single word can make all the difference in improving (or ruining) that kid's life. But you can only know in retrospect, looking back on the event, what would have made things better.

Chapter 8
David Copperfield

God knows how infantine the memory may have been, that was awakened within me by the sound of my mother's voice in the old parlour, when I set foot in the hall. She was singing in a low tone. I think I must have lain in her arms, and heard her singing so to me when I was but a baby. The strain was new to me, and yet it was so old that it filled my heart brim-full; like a friend come back from a long absence. (8.34)

David hears Mrs. Copperfield singing to his nameless baby brother and immediately starts remembering how Mrs. Copperfield used to sing to David himself. David's baby brother isn't really an independent figure in the book. He represents David's own vanishing childhood trust and innocence. Once Mrs. Copperfield dies and David is left alone with Mr. Murdstone, it makes narrative sense that this symbol of David's own infancy must also die, to underline David's transition to a new phase of his life.

Chapter 9
David Copperfield

Thus ended Peggotty's narration. From the moment of my knowing of the death of my mother, the idea of her as she had been of late had vanished from me. I remembered her, from that instant, only as the young mother of my earliest impressions, who had been used to wind her bright curls round and round her finger, and to dance with me at twilight in the parlour. What Peggotty had told me now, was so far from bringing me back to the later period, that it rooted the earlier image in my mind. It may be curious, but it is true. In her death she winged her way back to her calm untroubled youth, and cancelled all the rest. (9.104)

David seems really committed to the idea that youth is "calm" and "untroubled." So, when Mrs. Copperfield passes away, she is at peace again: she becomes like a child winding her "bright curls round and round her finger." And children who are not untroubled grow up too fast – like David himself, or like Emily. What do you think of this line between childhood and adulthood, where childhood is calm and adulthood is troubled? Is childhood really all that calm? Don't David's own experiences provide strong proof that childhood is a time of profound vulnerability and difficulty?

Chapter 10
David Copperfield

Now, the whole place was, or it should have been, quite as delightful a place as ever; and yet it did not impress me in the same way. I felt rather disappointed with it. (10.69)

When David goes to visit Yarmouth after his mother's death and before he goes to London for the first time, he finds the boat house not "quite [as] delightful a place as ever." It looks different because he is different: David is growing up, and is viewing the world through new eyes. At the same time, David can't perceive his own internal changes. So, he thinks the disappointment of the old, familiar boat house must be some flaw in it rather than in him. This is another example of Dickens using the setting to show a character's transition; the location is a powerful tool of characterization in David Copperfield.

Chapter 25
David Copperfield

As [Uriah Heep] sat on my sofa, with his long knees drawn up under his coffee-cup, his hat and gloves upon the ground close to him, his spoon going softly round and round, his shadowless red eyes, which looked as if they had scorched their lashes off, turned towards me without looking at me, the disagreeable dints I have formerly described in his nostrils coming and going with his breath, and a snaky undulation pervading his frame from his chin to his boots, I decided in my own mind that I disliked him intensely. It made me very uncomfortable to have him for a guest, for I was young then, and unused to disguise what I so strongly felt. (25.107)

Uriah Heep has come to meet with David in David's apartments in Mrs. Crupp's house. David is revolted, as usual, by the sight of Uriah Heep. But he also includes this interesting line almost in passing, that he feels uncomfortable hosting Uriah Heep because he "was young then, and unused to disguise what [he] so strongly felt." Again, we get further evidence that David links childhood with innocence and honesty and adulthood with lies. At the same time, we're not so sure of this distinction – we told a fair number of lies when we were kids....

Chapter 26
David Copperfield

There is no doubt whatever that I was a lackadaisical young spooney; but there was a purity of heart in all this, that prevents my having quite a contemptuous recollection of [my courtship of Dora], let me laugh as I may. (26.49)

When David is courting Dora, he behaves like a really sentimental fellow, strumming his guitar and writing her love letters. David looks back on this time with some nostalgia, because while he may feel a bit embarrassed, he loved her with a "purity of heart" that seems lost to later David. All right, all right, Dickens, we get it: youth = goodness and innocence!

Chapter 44
David Copperfield

I had a great deal of work to do, and had many anxieties, but the same considerations made me keep them to myself. I am far from sure, now, that it was right to do this, but I did it for my child-wife's sake. (44.112)

We still feel a little wigged out that David calls Dora his "child-wife" – and at her own request! Dora wants David always to remember that she is trying her best, but that she is simply too childlike to be practical and serious. She may be an adult in years, but Dora seems resigned never to be an adult in mind. And David encourages her childishness by keeping his anxieties to himself, for his "child-wife's sake." How does David's approach to Dora differ from, say, Doctor Strong's approach to the much younger Annie? What are we supposed to make of the difference in the two marriages?

Chapter 62
David Copperfield

We stood together in the same old-fashioned window at night, when the moon was shining; Agnes with her quiet eyes raised up to it; I following her glance. Long miles of road then opened out before my mind; and, toiling on, I saw a ragged way-worn boy, forsaken and neglected, who should come to call even the heart now beating against mine, his own. (62.76)

As David stands with Agnes, he can look back on the whole trajectory of his life, back to the moment when he was running away to Dover and Miss Betsey Trotwood. David seems to feel that he has achieved everything he wants in life by the end of the book; he has also moved us from his childhood to his adulthood. Are there any plot holes that Dickens fails to tie off to your satisfaction? Do you find all of the endings Dickens gives to his characters equally compelling or believable? Why does Dickens work so hard to resolve every single narrative plot line?

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