David Copperfield Themes

Themes

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Social Class

Social status and class are ubiquitous as issues throughout the novel. In fact, the novel can be viewed in large measure as a commentary on social status and class-based wealth.

Favoritism and undeserved respect are shown constantly for those of a higher class. For example, in the case of Steerforth, it is obvious that he is treated much better than David and the other students at Salem House. Furthermore, he is highly regarded by David and even by Mr. Peggotty and Ham, both of whom are of a lower class, when in fact Steerforth is the one who should be respecting them for their moral character. He constantly puts down those below him in status, such as Mr. Mell and Ham once he gets engaged to Little Em'ly.

The striving for social status can also be seen through David's and Dora's courtship and marriage. David's first thought after hearing of Miss Betsey's financial downfall is shame at being poor, and Dora cries at the thought of David being poor and of having to do her own housework. David is constantly striving to make money so that he can live and provide Dora with a life of wealth. Little Em'ly also expresses unhappiness at her low social status and longs to be a "lady," which is why she runs off with Steerforth in the first place.

True Happiness

Many times throughout the novel, the search for true happiness takes prominence. The narrator notes in particular the innocent joy David had as a child before his mother married Mr. Murdstone. The plot in general focuses on David's search for true happiness, and it is up to the reader to judge whether or not he has succeeded.

All of the characters find or try to find their own routes to happiness. Some, such as David and the Peggottys, find true happiness through their families and spouses. Others, such as the Micawbers and Uriah, believe that money will bring them great happiness, although the Micawbers are also happy just remaining with one another. Still others, such as Dora, find happiness in simple, frivolous pleasures. Dickens appears to question whether any of these characters can ever find true happiness, for each of these methods of reaching happiness has its pros and cons.

Good vs. Evil

Dickens makes the symbols of good and evil very easy to distinguish in the novel, although one must note that these concepts are more complex than they might seem, not least because they are embodied as fairly complex characters. The theme of good versus evil is prevalent especially as a symbolic battle for David's soul between Agnes Wickfield and Steerforth. Agnes represents David's "good angel," as he calls her. She is his voice of reason and is the person who is able to calm him and give him the advice that he needs. Steerforth, in contrast, is his "bad angel," as Agnes says. He is the one who feeds David's desire for upper-class, shallow wealth and leads him to do things like get very drunk and embarrass himself in public.

Uriah also is very commonly a symbol of evil. He is eventually defeated by Agnes, Miss Betsey, Mr. Micawber, and Traddles, all of whom are symbols of good. Yet, there are times when the evil wins out, namely in the case of David's mother Clara and the Murdstones. The evil duo overpower her and contribute to her death.

The "Undisciplined Heart"

David's "undisciplined heart" is his tendency to fall victim to passion. He falls very quickly and very strongly for girls. This is especially the case regarding Dora, with whom he falls in love even before he has had the chance to say one word to her. He learns that she does not like to work around the house and is unwilling to learn about keeping a house, but he still decides to marry her.

Minor examples of David's undisciplined heart include his feelings for Miss Shepherd, a brief crush on a person he barely knew, and his impractical crush on another woman much older than he. It is not until the very end of the novel that he learns to control or understand his undisciplined heart, and it is then that he finally realizes that Agnes is the person whom he truly loves maturely.

Children and Their Treatment

Dickens apparently is fascinated with children, and this novel examines in detail how children are treated. The narrator mentions near the beginning of the novel how impressive it is that children can remember so many details so clearly, and he claims that he is proud to have such a childlike memory himself.

Furthermore, the simpler, more childlike characters are among the sweetest in the novel. For example, Tommy Traddles is very simple and sweet in demeanor, and he goes on to be a successful lawyer, engaged to a beautiful, generous woman. Dora Spenlow may not know how to do household chores, but her devotion to David is extremely touching and admirable, and it wins David's heart. Finally, Mr. Dick, very simple-minded, is perhaps the best-liked character in the novel.

Childlike simplicity and innocence thus are valued in the moral world of the novel. When Dickens writes scenes that show cruelty to children, he most likely is demonstrating an evil to raise readers’ passions against such cruelty.

Female Empowerment

The novel explores feminine power to some degree, seeming to favor strong, powerful women, such as Peggotty and Miss Betsey. In contrast, women who do not hold much power or who simply exist in their marriages, such as Clara Copperfield, do not fare very well. Miss Betsey, an admired character throughout the novel, fights against her husband and manages to acquire a divorce, a feat that was not simple for women at the time (although he continues to bother her for money some time afterward). Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, however, are a good example of a married couple in which each spouse holds almost an equal amount of power, and they are a very happy couple, even though they are broke. Thus, Dickens seems to be a proponent of feminine power in the sense of basic equality in institutions such as marriage.

The Role of the Father

The role of the father figure is one of the first issues that comes up in the novel, for David is born six months after his father dies. Dickens is apparently suggesting that a father figure is essential for happiness and developing a good character. Still, not all fathers or father figures fit the norm or are even beneficial. Peggotty seems to be David's father figure growing up, for he describes her as large and "hard." Thus, he has a disciplinary figure along with his warm, loving mother to give him a balanced childhood. Little Em'ly and Ham have Mr. Peggotty, and both turn out to be very good people, especially Ham. Little Em'ly is simply seduced by Steerforth, who, as it turns out, never had a father figure and even admits that he regrets that and wishes that he could have had a father figure so that he could be a better person. Uriah has no father mentioned either, and he is one of the most evil characters in the novel.