When Charles Dickens sat down to write what would eventually become the novel David Copperfield, he first intended to write an autobiography, a recollection of his tumultuous, eventful life. Many of his memories, however, were too painful for him to record as they truly were, so David Copperfield was born as an alternative account. Many of the events in the work are dramatizations or fictionalizations of events in Dickens’ own life. For example, Dora Spenlow, with whom David falls passionately in love and marries—only to realize that the whole affair was a big mistake—is modeled on Maria Beadnell, the recipient of young Dickens’ unrequited love. In addition, David has a remarkable memory for detail, which mirrors Dickens’ own ability, and he uses this ability to describe important scenes and characters.
As a result of such parallels, the novel became Dickens’ favorite among the fifteen that he wrote. He often mentioned that David Copperfield evoked emotions in him unlike any other work that he created. Dickens felt a powerful relationship to the unhappiness and trials that David goes through.
Many critics believe that when Dickens wrote David Copperfield, he was at the height of his literary proficiency. He had fewer difficulties in the creation of this novel than with any of the others which he produced, and even his main competitor, William Makepeace Thackeray, admitted the excellent skill displayed by the novelist in this case. One improvement over previous writings that one can observe in David Copperfield is Dickens’ use of fewer and less complex words and tangents, making the work much easier to follow and enjoy.
Because the novel focuses on the life and obstacles of David, it is often classified as a bildungsroman. This genre of literature focuses on the growth and development of an individual as he or she matures and deals with life’s challenges. The bildungsroman protagonist often has an early experience that separates him or her from home and family, which starts the character on a more or less independent life journey. In the case of David Copperfield, one thinks of the sending of David off to school in London, or perhaps the scene in which David bites Mr. Murdoch and is severely beaten for it. Apart from familiar surroundings, his growth truly begins. The bildungsroman’s protagonist often follows a long and painful path of maturation, filled with many clashes among needs, desires, and social pressures. Eventually, the protagonist finds a niche in society, and such novels usually end with an assessment or reflection on the character’s life. The structure of David Copperfield almost perfectly fits the usual format of a bildungsroman novel. Whether Dickens meant his work to follow this format so closely, however, is unknown.
The novel’s main arena of discussion is less about “the condition of English question,” as literary critic Thomas Carlyle called it, and more about a personal journey towards true peace and happiness. David Copperfield, along with Great Expectations, certainly has less to say about societal injustices than Dickens’ other novels, notably Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. Still, social commentary is not completely absent from David Copperfield. The work makes significant points about emigration to Australia, the English prison system, unnecessarily harsh boarding schools, and prostitution. Nevertheless, Dickens is more concerned with relating an individual’s story and somehow relating to his audience something of the trials and tribulations that developed Dickens himself into the man he was.