Literature: David Copperfield

David Copperfield is a coming-of-age tale that follows the title character almost literally from birth to death. In-between that is Charles Dickens at his finest...

Little David's father dies before he's even born, and his mother Clara dies not many years later, leaving him in the care of Mr. Edward Murdstone, his evil stepfather. Murdstone in turn heartlessly turns little Davey out into the big bad world, first in a Boarding School of Horrors in which he's beaten and humiliated on a regular basis, then to earn his own living in a factory. While navigating Victorian London at the tender age of ten or so, David boards with the Micawbers, a good-natured but completely irresponsible family who make him pawn the silver to buy supper and eventually end up in debtor's prison.

Desperate, David runs away, finally reaching a safe haven with his eccentric Aunt Betsey Trotwood - who magnanimously forgives him for not being a girl - and her own... interesting... coterie. It's at this point David meets Uriah Heep, an evil clerk in the family law office, who cheats Aunt Betsey out of her fortune just as David's fallen hopelessly in love with his boss' daughter Dora. Meanwhile, his sweet, beautiful best friend Agnes Wickfield is being menaced by a fate worse than death, ie. marriage to the loathsome Heep. Even Micawber, now Heep's clerk, is acting strangely. Oh, and over in the main subplot, David's oldest and dearest schoolfriend, James Steerforth, is busily seducing and ruining David's childhood sweetheart, little Emily...

...do you see a pattern here? It doesn't help that David is by nature a sensitive artistic type who suffers miseries under hardship. Nor that he's so ridiculously gentle and naive (Steerforth dubs him 'Daisy', as in 'fresh as a...') that he's taken advantage of more or less constantly.

Nevertheless, in the main, the book reads as a sweet-natured comedy. Good ol' Dave is repeatedly downed but never broken, making it through his crummy life by relying on his imagination and on his true friends, at least one of whom is always to be found standing loyally by his side (albeit how they get there often stretches deep into Contrived Coincidence territory). The valiant but foolish Micawbers, the stalwart seafaring Peggottys, the diamond-in-the-rough Tommy Traddles - they may be eccentric, they may be impecunious, but they're always loveable, as only Dickensian characters can be.

Through his involvement in their convoluted adventures, and the lessons in pluck and determination arising therefrom, David finally rises to the top: marrying his One True Love - well, his second after Dora, she's dead by now - having children, launching a successful writing career...

A lot of Dickens's books stem from direct experience, but David Copperfield is his most autobiographical tale, and his 'favourite child' among his works. David's seemingly over-the-top anguish at being so degraded by factory work has its roots in Dickens' own trauma, when at ten his father similarly yanked him out of school and sent him out to augment the family finances (Mr. Micawber is by all accounts an only slightly exaggerated portrait of John Dickens). Writing many years later, as a world-honoured and beloved man, he confided to friends that merely revisiting those memories caused him nearly insupportable pain.

Many critics have also hailed it as one of their favorite books, including Tolstoy and Freud. Several of its characters - including Aunty Betsey, villanous Uriah Heep and above all the Micawbers - became household names in the 19th-century and are still familiar to some extent today.

Although countless TV adaptations have been made, to date only one theatrical adaptation has been released, in 1935 produced by David Selznick. A new film adaptation was announced in 2007, but nothing has been heard of it since.

If it's mentioned in a Sitcom, it'll be because the individual has the title confused with the magician.

David Copperfield provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adults Are Useless: David's guardians almost exclusively fall under this, being too childish themselves (Clara Copperfield, Mr. Dick), heartless (the Murdstones, Uriah, Creakle), drunks (Wickfield), or severely in debt (Micawbers). Even kind and capable Aunt Betsey ends up losing all her money and throwing herself on David's doorstep.
  • All Is Well That Ends Well: David overlooks the abuse of his childhood and other experiences to focus on the happy present.
  • Amoral Attorney: Uriah Heep and, by blackmail, Wickfield. Also David's first bosses Spenlow and Jorkins, to an extent.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love:
    • But it doesn't go quite according to plan, what with Dora breaking down into sobs, David trying to calm her down, and her yippy little dog barking his head off the entire time.
    • There's a second one at the end of the book.
    Agnes: I have loved you all my life!
  • Antiquated Linguistics: It's Dickens. It's the Victorian era. Hemingway this was never gonna be.
  • Arch-Enemy: Uriah for David. Largely over the girl the both love, Agnes Wickfield.
  • Armor-Piercing Slap: David to Uriah, who exasperates him even more by acting innocently wounded.
  • The Atoner: Little Emily — to the fully Victorian extreme — after escaping from Steerforth.
  • Author Avatar: Although it's important to realise this isn't by any means a straight autobiography.
  • Author Filibuster: Comes with the territory. Often goes so far as to become an...
  • Author Tract: Good and evil, in Dickens, are largely defined as 'agrees with the author' and 'doesn't agree with the author'. Luckily, he was a warmhearted, generous spirit in most respects, and had a real sense of humour.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Played straight with Agnes Wickfield and Uriah Heep, although characters like Handsome Devil Steerforth blur the lines somewhat. The dwarf Mrs. Mowcher goes from exemplifying this trope on first appearance to totally subverting it the next.
  • Berserk Button: Do not let the donkeys on Betsey Trotwood's green. Ever.
  • Blackmail: Uriah Heep gains control of Mr. Wickfield by encouraging him to drink, and then taking advantage of Wickfield's inability to remember what he did while under the influence.
  • Boarding School of Horrors: Salem House.
  • Break the Cutie: Murdstone's verging-on-Mind Rape campaign to teach Clara (and later his unnamed second wife) 'firmness of character', apparently out of some kind of sadistic fetish (one his sister Jane clearly shares, making things that much weirder). Later, when Aunt Betsey points out David might be starting down a similar path with Dora, he immediately flips out.
  • Break the Haughty: Aunt Betsey does this to Murdstone, subtly, when the latter tries to reclaim David from her care: he admits nothing, but they both know she has his real motives pegged, and they aren't pretty.
  • Broken Ace: Steerforth is this all over. He's charming, brilliant, and no one but Agnes can keep from adoring him, and yet he's got serious problems in his perception of morality, entitlement, and self-control, due to his over-privileged upbringing.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Mr. Dick, at least to Aunt Betsey. She insists he's actually brilliant, and relies on his judgment. When he gets a job as a copyist later in the story, he does very well at it, and as he has a small independent income, he puts his wages in a trust fund for Betsey.
  • Byronic Hero: James Steerforth.
  • Catchphrase
    • Mrs. Micawber's defiant (albeit frequently unasked-for) insistence that "I never will desert Mr. Micawber!" achieved the nineteenth-century equivalent of a Memetic Mutation.
    • David: "Dear me!"
    • Uriah: "We are/I am so very umble ... "
    • Mr. Dick: "She [Miss Betsey] is the most wonderful woman in the world, sir!"
    • Mr. Peggotty: "You'll find me rough, but you'll find me ready."
    • Rosa Dartle: "Is it really, though?"
    • Miss Mowcher: "Ain't I volatile?"
    • A drunken old pawnbroker: "Goroo! Oh, goroooooo!"
    • Mr. Micawber is fond of mentioning something 'turning up'. He also has a habit of letting his florid turns of phrase get way out of hand, so that his speeches invariably end with "in short —"
  • Character Title
  • Childhood Friend Romance: David grew up with Agnes and views her as his "sister", unaware of her true feelings even though they're obvious to pretty much everyone but him.
  • Childhood Marriage Promise: David promises to marry 'Little Em'ly' when they're about 8 years old, but it never comes to pass, since she 'wants to be a lady'. Steerforth artfully uses both David's sentimentalism and Emily's desire to further his seduction, heightening his villainy.
  • Cleaning Up Romantic Loose Ends: Interestingly lampshaded by Dora's death; she herself comments that it's better this way, as she would never have gotten past her silliness and stupidity and David would've eventually despised her for it.
  • Coming-of-Age Story
  • Contrived Coincidence: Most of the major plot twists involve characters just happening to walk past doorways or meet on the street. In the heart of London!
  • Crapsack World: It's Dickens. He grew up in one.
  • Dead Guy Junior: David is named after his late father, and renamed by Aunt Betsey (to 'Trotwood') after the girl he wasn't. Also, one of David and Agnes's daughters is named Dora.
  • Death by Childbirth: Dora, albeit this is referred to only very obliquely in the text. Also, Clara dies just a few weeks after giving birth to her and Edward Murdstone's child, and Agnes Wickfield's mother is implied to have died giving birth to her, heightening her father's melancholy and her own sense of guilty responsibility to him in turn. In an era well prior to modern hygenic let alone obstetric techniques, all this was very much Truth in Television.
  • Deceptive Disciple: Uriah Heep to Mr. Wickfield, for the first part of the book.
  • Disproportionate Restitution: In exchange for having seduced her, taken her from her loving family, dragged her all over Europe as his pet, completely broken her sense of self-worth, and broken her heart, Steerforth offers Em'ly marriage to his odious, much-older, and fully cooperative manservant, Littimer, as a consolation prize. Em'ly doesn't go for it.
  • The Ditz: Dora is this trope, something Dickens gleefully lampshades at every opportunity.
  • Does He Have a Brother?: Steerforth asks David if he has a sister. A subtle indication that if there had been a female version of David in existence, Steerforth would have loved to know her.
  • Doting Parent: Clara (and to a certain extent Aunt Betsey) to David, and Spenlow to Dora.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Mr. Wickfield, actively encouraged by Uriah in order to gain further control.
  • Either/Or Title: The book's full title is "David Copperfield, or The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (which he never meant to publish on any account)"
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Mrs. Heep and her "Ury" are very close; in fact her unconditional worship may have played a part in spoiling his character.
  • Evil Makes You Ugly: Uriah Heep is depicted as being physically repulsive.
  • Evil Redheads: Uriah Heep. The pale eyelashes and -brows that go with this colouring are played up for maximum creepiness.
  • Fat Bastard: Mr. Creakle
  • Faux Affably Evil: Uriah Heep
  • First Love: This trope is an important element in the story, used both ways, since David marries his first love, Dora, only to realise that they are not well-suited. He loves her but she can't be a partner to him. Upon her death, he marries Agnes, who considered him to be her first love, and who had loved him the whole time. A rare case of both the unhappy First Love type and the triumphant First Love type, for Agnes, who ultimately ends up marrying David - in one story.
  • Foil: The upright Thomas Traddles to the cad Steerforth, at strategic points, and David to Steerforth at others. Also Agnes to Dora. Uriah to David, Uriah to Traddles, Uriah to Steerforth, Traddles/Sophy to David/Agnes and David/Dora &c, &c, &c ...
  • Freudian Excuse: David's attachment to women like his mother, and Uriah Heep's issues with humility via his father.
  • Funetik Aksent: several of the lower class characters, and especially Uriah Heep ("We're very umble, mother and me...") Not to mention the Peggottys.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: The ugliness under Rosa Dartle's uber-accommodating personality is symbolised by the scar on her lip — given to her by Steerforth throwing a hammer as a spoiled child — which flares red when she's upset.
  • The Grotesque: Miss Mowcher, the dwarf hairdresser ("Ain't I volatile?!"). Originally, Dickens was going to make her an amoral little creep, but quickly switched gears after her real-life inspiration complained.
  • Guess Who I'm Marrying?: Clara Copperfield and Mr. Murdstone, through the eyes of young David.
  • Handsome Devil: James Steerforth
  • Happily Adopted: David runs to his aunt Betsey, who takes him in and turns his life around.
  • Happily Married: Peggotty and Barkis and Tommy Traddles and Sophy. Also David and Agnes.
  • Hate at First Sight: David's reaction on meeting Uriah.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: After Steerforth and Copperfield talk very loudly in their room, Steerforth is afraid of being reprimanded for "disorderly conduct in the bedroom"
  • Hero-Worshipper: David and his fellow students at Salem House are unabashedly this to Steerforth; Mrs. Steerforth later explains to David that this is specifically why she placed her son at such a lowly school, so that he would naturally stand out and thus be 'appreciated' as he deserved.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Martha's friendship with Emily and her assistance to Dan Peggotty.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Littimer to Steerforth until he runs away with his master's money, gets arrested, and becomes Uriah's rival for the position of Most Valued Prisoner.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: Used for the first several chapters.
  • Irony: Ham dies trying (and failing) to save Steerforth, the man he swore to kill because he stole and subsequently ruined his fiancee.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Exemplified by Agnes, also Dora on her deathbed.
  • I Will Wait for You: Sophy will wait for Traddles to be financially able to marry her.
  • Just Between You and Me: Villainous Uriah Heep confides his love for Agnes to David, knowing how much it will hurt him.
  • Kick the Dog: Oh God, Steerforth kicks pups horribly hard. First, when as a 14-years-old he insults Mr. Mell for trying to do his work and helps Mr. Creakle get him fired. Years later, he seduces David's childhood friend Emily when she's about to get married to her stepbrother/cousin Ham and they run away. And later we find out that he abuses her during the time they're together.
  • Kick Them While They Are Down: Uriah toward Wickfield; also, in one vivid scene, Rosa Dartle's response to poor Emily.
  • Kindly Housekeeper: Peggotty.
  • Kissing Cousins: Ham and Emily were going to be this.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: David and Dora. Also, possibly, the Micawbers (they keep having children, though they increasingly cannot support them.)
  • Like Brother and Sister: David and Agnes... according to David, that is.
  • Long Title
  • Love Makes You Evil: Rosa Dartle, who sees Steerforth for exactly what he is, but takes her fury out on any girl Steerforth loves and leaves (including his mother) rather than hate him.
  • Love Martyr: Emily, to Steerforth.
  • Love Triangle: A few, but the main one is Agnes/David/Dora. Others include Ham/Emily/Steerforth, Emily/Steerforth/Rosa Dartle, Uriah/Agnes/David, and for a time, we're led to believe Dr.Strong/Annie/Jack Maldon is one.
  • Loving a Shadow: David falls in love with Dora, it is heavily implied (mostly by Aunt Betsey), because she reminds him of his mother Clara.
  • May-December Romance: Several instances, including Wickfield and his late wife, Clara with both David Copperfield Sr. and Mr. Murdstone, Dr. Strong and Annie. Again, a very common Real Life situation in this time period, in which young women were seen as needing the 'protection' of an older, wealthy man.
  • Meaningful Name: It's a safe bet that anyone named 'Murdstone' isn't going be a major fount of human kindness. See also 'Blunderstone', David's hometown, and Heep, used to spectacular effect by Micawber in exposing him. ("You - you - HEEP of infamy!!")
  • Morality Pet: Steerforth is a cad, but he's usually really nice to David, so if you realize early on, their relationship can seem like this. Some believe that Steerforth hopes David will become his Morality Chain.
  • The Nicknamer: Miss Betsey, who is a bit of a benign control freak, likes to rename the people around her to her taste. David is "Trotwood" or "Trot", Richard Babley is "Mr. Dick", Clara is "Baby", the Murdstones are "the Murderers" and Dora is "Little Blossom".
  • Nice Guy: Tommy Traddles, Ham, and usually David himself.
  • Neologism: "Micawbers" are optimistic in spite of hardship, and "Uriah Heeps" are weasels who pretend humility.
  • Not So Different: Uriah Heep points out the similarities between himself and David, freaking David right out.
  • Old Maid: Rosa Dartle. Milked for all the drama it's worth. David thinks of her as "dilapidated, like a house, from being so long to let".
  • One of the Kids: Mr. Dick is very simple and kind, and relates well with the young David.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: David loses his mother and is stuck with the Murdstones.
  • Oblivious to Love: David. And David.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Mrs. Markleham, Annie's mother, who is always pestering Dr. Strong to support her poor relations while making him feel guilty about being too old for her.
  • Parental Substitute: David encounters several of these including Mr. Wickfield, Aunt Betsey, and Mr. Micawber. Also Dan Peggotty to Ham and Emily.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Spenlow's putting the squash on his daughter Dora's romance with newly-penniless David. Right before he actually dies.
  • Platonic Life Partners: Aunt Betsey and Mr. Dick.
  • The Plot Reaper: It gets to Dora, and to some extent Clara Copperfield.
  • The President's Daughter: Agnes again, since Heep wants her as much for the power it will bring him as anything else. Dora also is this to David, being his boss's daughter; half his daydreams at that point (the ones that don't involve her) are about his boss, Mr. Spenlow, giving the couple his unconditional blessing: "Here are twenty thousand pounds, be happy!"
  • Proper Lady: Agnes Wickfield.
  • Protagonist Title
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: As per above, Aunt Betsey gives a great one to Mr. Murdstone and his sister when they try to take David from her.
  • Red Right Hand: Uriah Heep's ugly physical characteristics - including an unpleasant habit of wringing his dry hands together - are repeatedly emphasized to illustrate his evilness.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Mr. Micawber, after months of being blackmailed by Uriah into helping him forge documents and just generally being exploited past endurance, finally exposes all his misdeeds in truly epic fashion.
  • Sadist Teacher: Mr. Creakle.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: Uriah Heep's ultimate plan is to gain total control of the Wickfields by blackmailing Agnes into marrying him out of concern for her father.
  • Second Love: David, for Agnes — although a case can be made that the first, Dora, was only boyish infatuation.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Mr Micawber. Oh god, Mr Micawber.
  • Shipper on Deck: Miss Mills for David and Dora.
  • Shotacon: Implied with Rosa, who has been working for the Steerforths since their son was a toddler, and has loved him for a very long time.
  • Slut Shaming: Rose Dartle blames Little Em'ly for beguiling Steerforth and corrupting him into running off with her, leaving his family bereft, when it's blatantly clear it was the other way around. Then again, Rose is a) living in the 19th century and b) in denial.
  • Society Is to Blame: Uriah Heep turned out evil because of class injustice... according to Uriah, anyway.
  • Stepford Smiler: Miss Mowcher turns a Type A prototype after Dickens switches gears from The Grotesque (she hides her depression under laughs, even at her own expense). It's possible to read Agnes Wickfield as a very determined version of this.
  • The Storyteller: To cope with the Boarding School of Horrors's crap, David becomes this.
  • They Call Me Mister Tibbs: Uriah makes a habit of calling David "Master Copperfield" (the form of address for a young boy) even when they are both adults, subtly belittling him.
  • Take That: Uriah Heep was often said to be based on the real life Hans Christian Andersen, with whom Dickens was quite annoyed with after he invited himself to stay at the Dickens' house for a month.
  • Tender Tears: Let's just say people cry a lot in this novel and leave it at that.
  • Three Faces of Eve: The three women David loves over the course of his life fit this pretty well: Agnes, who is sensible, a fabulous homemaker, and always lends wisdom and support is the wife; Dora, who is woefully ignorant and naive but affectionate and often described in terms of children and even called 'child-wife' is the child, and Em'ly, who has an affair with Steerforth and may or may not have worked as a prostitute but is at the very least keeps company with ex-prostitute Martha is the seductress.
  • Truth in Television: Dickens based many instances on elements of his own life and real London people/occurrences at the time.
  • Victorian Britain
  • Victorian London
  • Villain by Default: Uriah Heep to a certain extent. Also, again, anybody named Murdstone isn't real likely to end up a noble philanthropist.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Uriah, who has spent the whole book pretending to be "umble" to disguise his greedy, spiteful, obsessive nature, only shows his true colors during his final confrontation with Mr. Micawber.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Mr. Murdstone is a rare male case.
  • Widow's Weeds: Spear Counterpart. David wears a black armband to show mourning for his wife Dora.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Several passages.
  • You ALL Share My Story: Everyone contributes to David's journey and subsequent self-discovery.
  • You Know What You Did: Uriah's 'umble' admission of Annie Strong and Jack Maldon's supposed relationship to Annie's husband.

Examples particular to the adaptations include:

  • Adaptation Distillation: Pretty much a necessity for any novel of this era. The 1935 adaptation heavily streamlines the plot and dialogue, and completely omits David's time at Salem Hall. Most of the TV adaptations, though they have more time to work with, also do some streamlining.
  • Disneyfication: The 1993 animated adaptation. All the characters are replaced with anthropomorphic house pets (including mice); and the poorhouse has a sub-plot with a Festering Fungus in the basement.
  • Shipper on Deck: The 1935 film makes it clear that Aunt Betsey and Agnes are shipping Agnes/David long before David himself is.