Study Guide

David Copperfield Chapter 11

By Charles Dickens

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Chapter 11

I Begin Life on my Own Account, and Don't Like It

  • As an adult, David isn't surprised by much, but he's still surprised to remember how young he was when he was thrown away.
  • So, at 10 years old (we can't get over this), David becomes a worker at Murdstone and Grinby's wine warehouse.
  • David's job is to look at empty bottles, make sure they're not too flawed for use for bottling wine, rinse them out, label them, seal them, and pack them away in casks once they've been filled.
  • The first day that David gets to the warehouse, Quinion sets an older boy to teach David his job: this boy's name is Mick Walker.
  • Mick introduces David to a kid nicknamed Mealy Potatoes because he's pale like a potato.
  • Spending time with these two working kids, David starts to miss the company of his old school buddies.
  • David increasingly despairs of growing up to be a distinguished, educated man.
  • At around 12:30, Quinion calls David into the counting house (his accounting office).
  • There, David sees a middle-aged bald guy.
  • Quinion introduces David to the stranger, whose name is Mr. Micawber.
  • Mr. Micawber is David's new landlord.
  • Mr. Micawber speaks to David in a very stiff, formal manner, but he also seems friendly. He offers to come meet David after work and walk him to the Micawber home so David won't get lost.
  • Mr. Micawber leaves the counting house.
  • Quinion explains to David that he will make six shillings a week (which is about U.S. $40 in today's money (source).
  • David uses a little bit of his first week's wages to pay Mealy Potatoes to help him with his trunk to Mr. Micawber's house (which is called Windsor Terrace).
  • Mr. Micawber arrives to pick David up at the right time, and they walk over to Windsor Terrace together.
  • The house is like Mr. Micawber: shabby, but attempting to look as good as it can.
  • Mr. Micawber has a wife and four children: two infant twins, a girl of around three, and a boy of about four.
  • There is also a girl who works for the Micawbers, whom they rescued from the poor house. She is "the Orfling" – the orphan.
  • Mrs. Micawber is constantly breast-feeding one or both of these twins, which startles David a bit.
  • Mr. Micawber is in a bad financial place right now; he tells David all about it. This is the reason the Micawbers are taking him on as a lodger.
  • She continues to complain: the people Mr. Micawber owes money to can't get blood from a stone.
  • David has no idea why Mrs. Micawber is confessing all of this family business to David – does she think he's older than he is? At any rate, the Micawbers totally take David into their confidence.
  • Creditors – people who collect debts – visit the Micawbers all the time.
  • These visits really embarrass Mr. Micawber, but he bounces back pretty quick: he threatens to kill himself one minute and then settles down to polishing his shoes the next.
  • The same is true of Mrs. Micawber: she'll faint over their tax situation one minute and then eat a heavy meal the next.
  • David is so young and childish at this point that he often can't resist buying a pastry in the morning, which leaves him with no money to buy dinner at night.
  • Because David is such a child, sometimes the pubs worry about serving him because they think he has run away.
  • David's condition is pretty appalling: when he's not working, he's got nothing better to do than hang around the streets.
  • Even though he's so poor and unhappy, he has some status at the warehouse because his manners are so much better than those of the other boys. The boys call him "the little gent" or "the young Suffolker," because he's from the country county of Suffolk rather than London.
  • David has absolutely no hope that his life is going to get better, so he doesn't reveal how unhappy he is in his letters to Peggotty.
  • David does start to get attached to the Micawbers.
  • There's a lot of sympathy between David and the Micawbers because they are all struggling with money.
  • Finally, one Wednesday, Mrs. Micawber comes entirely clean: she and Mr. Micawber no longer have anything at all left to eat.
  • David offers to lend her some of his (very little) money, and she refuses.
  • What she wants is for David to go and pawn some of her things for her. She can't because she's busy nursing the twins, and Mr. Micawber won't because he has so much pride.
  • David understands at last, and promises Mrs. Micawber that he'll pawn whatever she wants him to on his way to work.
  • So, he starts visiting the pawnshop (Clickett's) almost every morning before work.
  • Mr. Micawber also gets David to sell off Mr. Micawber's books for him.
  • David becomes very well known at the local used bookstore and pawnshop.
  • Finally, everything comes to a head, and Mr. Micawber gets arrested and sent to debtors' prison.
  • (Debtors' prison was a nineteenth-century English institution. When people couldn't pay their taxes or other debts, they would be arrested and sent to these workhouses to stay for varying lengths of time. Even though it's called a "prison," these aren't prisons the same way we know them – while the people in them couldn't come or go freely, they could have their families to live with them.)
  • The following Sunday after Mr. Micawber's arrest, David goes to visit him in prison.
  • Mr. Micawber sends David up to Captain Hopkins, another debtor, to borrow a knife and fork.
  • Captain Hopkins has his whole family in there: a woman to whom he's not married and their two children.
  • David enjoys his meal with Mr. Micawber, even though he's eating with borrowed cutlery.
  • When David goes back to Windsor Terrace, he comforts Mrs. Micawber, telling her that her husband seems to be in high spirits.
  • Mrs. Micawber finally decides to move into the debtors prison with Mr. Micawber, and she hands over the keys of the Micawber house to their landlord.
  • David moves to a small room near the debtors prison because he doesn't want to part with the Micawbers.
  • The Orfling also moves to a similar small room in the same neighborhood.
  • David quite enjoys his quiet new home.
  • Throughout all of these upheavals with the Micawbers, David keeps doing to the same dreary, lonely work, day in and day out at the wine warehouse.
  • The only changes David notices in himself is that, first, his clothes are getting worse and worse, and second, he feels relieved that the Micawbers are pretty safe inside their prison.
  • In fact, the Micawbers are more comfortable in the prison than outside of it: at least they get regular food.
  • David regularly goes to have breakfast at the debtors prison; he sometimes meets up with the Orfling at the wharves on the Thames river, and then in the evening, he returns to the prison to talk to (or play cards with) the Micawbers.
  • David's not too clear on the details of Mr. Micawber's debt (he is, after all, ten, and can't really follow heavy financial details too well).
  • All David knows for sure is that, one day, Mrs. Micawber informs David that she has persuaded Mr. Micawber to apply for freedom from debtors prison under the "Insolvent Debtors Act," which should make him a free man in about six weeks.
  • Mr. Micawber is an energetic man who is never so happy as when he's working hard at something that won't make him any money.
  • At this time, Mr. Micawber is busy preparing a petition to the House of Commons (the British equivalent of the American Congress) to change the law allowing imprisonment for debt.
  • Mr. Micawber presents this petition to the other prisoners, who view Mr. Micawber as an authority because he is a gentleman.
  • Captain Hopkins reads the petition aloud to the prisoners to persuade them to sign.
  • They are all strongly in support of Mr. Micawber's petition.
  • David looks back on his youth and wonders at what strange, romantic histories he invented for the poor, lowly people he knew back then.

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