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Literature / David Copperfield

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David gets married

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 Wicked 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, a clerk in the local law office, whose fawning professions of 'umbleness' mask a scheming, vengeful nature. By the time David's graduated high school Uriah's well on his way not only to taking over the business but menacing David's sweet, beautiful best friend Agnes Wickfield, the boss' daughter, with plans for their marriage. In his spare time, Uriah cheats Aunt Betsey out of her fortune just as David's fallen hopelessly in love with his boss' daughter Dora. Even Micawber, now Heep's clerk, is acting strangely. Oh, and over in the main subplot, David's oldest and dearest school friend, James Steerforth, is busily seducing and ruining David's childhood sweetheart, little Emily... 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 Aunt Betsey, villainous Uriah Heep and above all the Micawbers - became household names in the 19th-century and are still familiar to some extent today.

Adaptations include:

If it's mentioned anywhere in pop culture, it'll be because the individual has the title confused with the magician. Or, if someone mentions Uriah Heep, they'll confuse that with the British rock band.

Can be read here.

David Copperfield provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adults Are Useless: David's guardians (save for Peggoty) almost exclusively fall under this, being too childish themselves (Clara Copperfield, Mr. Dick), heartless (the Murdstones, 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.
  • Affectionate Gesture to the Head:
    • When Miss Betsey Trotwood visits David's mother Clara Copperfield, who is very pregnant and very sad over her dead husband, she seems very determined, opinionated, stubborn and almost rude. However, at one moment she gently touched Clara's hair ("she had a fancy that she felt Miss Betsey touch her hair, and that with no ungentle hand"). When Clara has a boy instead of a girl that Miss Betsey had wanted to take care of, she left abruptly. Later in the narrative, when David is unsure if Miss Betsey will help him, he keeps thinking particularly about this gesture of kindness.
      My aunt walked into that story, and walked out of it, a dread and awful personage; but there was one little trait in her behaviour which I liked to dwell on, and which gave me some faint shadow of encouragement. I could not forget how my mother had thought that she felt her touch her pretty hair with no ungentle hand; and though it might have been altogether my mother’s fancy, and might have had no foundation whatever in fact, I made a little picture, out of it, of my terrible aunt relenting towards the girlish beauty that I recollected so well and loved so much, which softened the whole narrative.
    • Soon after Mr Murdstone meets little David and his young widowed mother, he pats him on his head, but David dislikes him very much, and dislikes the thought that he is interested in his mother.
  • Affectionate Nickname: David is apparently just too cute for people to resist nicknaming him.
    • Steerforth calls him "Daisy" purportedly in reference to his "freshness" and naivety.
    • Dora calls him "Doady" and asks him to refer to her as his "child-wife".
    • Agnes calls him "Trotwood" throughout his life, since that was how he was first introduced to her by David's aunt.
    • Miss Betsey decides to call David "Trotwood Copperfield", as a compromise (she had intended his nonexistent sister to be christened Betsey Trotwood) and often shortens it to Trot.
  • The Alleged Boss: Mr. Jorkins of the law firm of Spenlow and Jorkins does little beside hide in his office upstairs, with a small desk and a writing pad yellowed in age. Outside the office, Jorkins is a reclusive bachelor who lives in a house needing painting. In effect, for many years Mr. Jorkins chose to leave the running of the firm to his more competent partner Spenlow.
  • All Is Well That Ends Well: David overlooks the abuse of his childhood and other experiences to focus on the happy present.
  • Ambiguously Evil: Steerforth is often cast as one of the villains of the piece, although his actions betray a mere careless self-interest (coupled with an unfortunately potent charisma), rather than any actual desire to do harm.
  • Amoral Attorney: Uriah Heep and, by blackmail, Wickfield. Also David's first bosses Spenlow and Jorkins, to an extent. Dickens gleefully lampshades the disastrous state of the British judicial system at every opportunity.
  • 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 they both love, Agnes Wickfield.
  • 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 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 isn't quite as bad as the famous Dotheboys Hall from Nicholas Nickleby, but only because Mr Creakle isn't quite as devoted to his sadism, being more stupid and lazy than outright evil.
  • Breaking Bad News Gently: Mrs. Creakle, much more kindhearted than her husband, tries to gently tell David that his mother has died... to the point where she's on the borderline of torturing him by the end.
    'When you came away from home at the end of the vacation,' said Mrs. Creakle, after a pause, 'were they all well?' After another pause, 'Was your mama well?'
    I trembled without distinctly knowing why, and still looked at her earnestly, making no attempt to answer.
    'Because,' said she, 'I grieve to tell you that I hear this morning your mama is very ill.'
    A mist rose between Mrs. Creakle and me, and her figure seemed to move in it for an instant. Then I felt the burning tears run down my face, and it was steady again.
    'She is very dangerously ill,' she added.
    I knew all now.
    'She is dead.'
    There was no need to tell me so. I had already broken out into a desolate cry, and felt an orphan in the wide world.
  • 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 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: Played with in James Steerforth, whose handsome, dashing good looks and potent charisma are explicitly discussed as compelling. Unfortunately his failures of self-control leave him far short of his heroic potential.
  • Character 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 —"
  • 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.
  • Child Hater: Jane Murdstone, though only towards boys. Her opinion of girls is unknown.
  • 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.
    • In the same portion of the story, Steerforth's death. Whether or not one considers him a strictly "romantic" interest (David certainly refers to the relationship that way at times), he has been enough of a draw for David to keep him from Agnes (which she herself acknowledges), who must now receive David's undivided attention.
  • Comically Missing the Point: The old lady who bought David's caul, supposedly a charm against drowning in a shipwreck, eventually died of old age and everyone commented on the fact she had, indeed, not drowned in a shipwreck. She had also never been in a ship, and didn't understand why anyone would do do.
  • Coming of Age Story: Very literally, and one of the finest examples in Western literature.
  • 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 Trotwood by Aunt Betsey in homage to the girl he was supposed to be, whom she was prepared to insist would be named after her. 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 hygienic 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.
  • Defiled Forever: The reason everyone is so distraught by Emily's escape with Steerforth. If he seduces her but neglects to marry her, she will be forever stained in the eyes of Victorian society.
  • Destructive Romance: Emily's all-consuming ambition to "be a lady" and Steerforth's tendency to woo and then discard collide with disastrous results.
  • 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 very ditzy, 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.
  • Does Not Like Men: At the beginning of the story Aunt Betsey has a grim view of men and boys in general, due to her bad experiences in her own marriage. Clara giving birth to the male protagonist instead of the girl Betsey wanted induces the latter to storm out of the house in a rage. However, she gradually softens, and grows very fond of David after taking him in.
  • Doting Parent: Steerforth's mother, so much. Also 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: Both Steerforth and Heep have close relationships with their mothers, whom they closely resemble. The women's unconditional worship of their sons is suggested to have played a part in the boys' negative development.
  • Evil Counterpart: Mr. Murdstone is this to the adult David, in respect of their treatment of their frail, child-like wives. The former utterly destroyed Clara with his cruelty in attempting to instil "firmness of character" in her. Although David is kind to his first wife Dora, he similarly shows signs of wanting to mould her and train her to be an efficient housekeeper, and Aunt Betsey cautions him against going down a similar path to that his stepfather took with his mother. David takes this to heart and resolves to allow Dora to just be who she is.
    Aunt Betsey: (to David) I want our pet to like me, and be as gay as a butterfly. Remember your own home, in that second marriage; and never do both me and her the injury you have hinted at!
  • Evil Makes You Ugly: Uriah Heep is depicted as being physically repulsive.
  • Evil Redhead: Uriah Heep. The pale eyelashes and -brows that go with this colouring are played up for maximum creepiness.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Uriah Heep makes a pretense of being "'umble" and friendly, and maintains a superficial attitude of obsequiousness, but is actually an evil schemer looking to take over Mr. Wickfield's business and force Agnes to marry him.
  • 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.
  • Flat Character: Mrs. Micawber is a textbook example of this trope in use. Her sole character trait is her devotion to her husband, but she still plays an important role in a narrative that focuses on the plight of the working class.
  • Flower Motifs: David is rather fond of flowers, and most of the characters around him get compared to one at some point. Most notably, Steerforth's Affectionate Nickname for him, "Daisy."
    Steerforth: We’ll drink the daisies of the field, in compliment to you; and the lilies of the valley that toil not, neither do they spin, in compliment to me—the more shame for me!
  • 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 Angel, Bad Angel: Discussed. David repeatedly refers to Agnes as his "good angel," maintaining that her influence guides him in life. When Agnes learns of this association, she takes the opportunity to warn him against his "bad angel," Steerforth, whom she sees as a corrupting influence. Throughout the book, Agnes and Steerforth are paralleled and contrasted in terms of their relationships to David and linked by the shared metaphor of guiding star.
  • Good Samaritan: The young, unnamed wife who Emily becomes acquainted with in Italy, who takes her into her home after she escapes Littimer and nurses her through her subsequent illness. Averted with the seemingly friendly woman who later takes her in in London, who nearly ends up luring the vulnerable Emily into prostitution.
  • 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.
  • Hand Rubbing: Uriah Heep is almost certainly the Trope Codifier. His constant rubbing of his hands together is a sign of his true, evil nature.
  • Happily Adopted: Desperate orphaned David seeks his aunt Betsey, who takes him in and turns his life around.
  • Happily Married: A few explicit examples, pretty clearly intended to further David's exploration of the topic: comically unromantic but comfortable Peggotty & Barkis, then plain but-sensible Tommy Traddles & his devoted, self-denying Sophy. Partly due to the lessons he learns from them, David and Agnes end up as this.
  • 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".
    • Mr. Dick's name becomes an example when coupled with the belief, very much current in Dickens' time, that mentally-handicapped men are notably well-endowed.
    • Following David's first marriage:
      It was a strange condition of things ... when I found myself sitting down in my own small house with Dora; quite thrown out of employment, as I may say, in respect of the delicious old occupation of making love.
  • 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.
  • Hired Help as Family: Clara Peggotty is Mrs Copperfield's housekeeper and David's nurse. She is absolutely devoted and loyal to both of them. Peggotty never leaves the family even when David's young widowed mother marries Mr Murdstone, and the Murdstones actively campaign to get Peggotty out of the house. David is grateful for her friendship and devotion. (Peggotty is so loyal and self-sacrificing that she begins to feel like a stereotype: a model of a working-class woman in classist and class-segmented society.)
  • Homoerotic Subtext: James Steerworth nicknames David, his younger, starstruck bro, "Daisy".
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Martha's friendship with Emily and her assistance to Dan Peggotty.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: How David sees Littimer, Steerforth's loyal servant, later employed with another man. Later reveals his true colours when he runs away with his next master's money, gets arrested, and becomes Uriah's rival for the position of Most Valued Prisoner.
  • Hypocrite: Uriah Heep, who in spite of claiming to be "humble", shows himself to be anything but humble when he uses his scheming power to forge Wickfield's signature in his attempt to embezzle the Wickfields' fortunes.
  • 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. (At least, that's one possibility — the other is that Ham dies making sure Steerforth drowned.)
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Exemplified by Agnes, who nobly puts her own feelings for David aside and becomes Dora's best friend — then Dora herself, on her deathbed, when she has Agnes promise that only she will fill Dora's 'vacant place' afterwards.
  • I Will Wait for You: Sophy faithfully and happily waits for Traddles to be financially able to marry her.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Betsy Trotwood can be... difficult to approach with all her stubborn eccentricities, but at the core, she is kind and good-natured.
  • Just Between You and Me: Villainous Uriah Heep confides his love for Agnes to David, knowing how much it will hurt him.
  • Karma Houdini: Mr. Murdstone never really gets what he deserves for abusing David and his mother, and continues to marry and abuse women.
  • Kick Them While They Are Down: Uriah toward Wickfield, in that he uses the latter's alcoholism as a weapon against him. Also, in one vivid scene, Rosa Dartle's response to poor Emily, whom she finds broken and defenseless on returning to England.
  • Kindly Housekeeper: Peggotty, to the extent that she becomes more of an affectionate auntie figure to David.
  • Kissing Cousins: Ham and Emily were going to be this, as their marriage had been arranged, but Emily gets seduced by Steerforth instead.
  • 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. Conjectures are also made that Rosa and Steerforth, as well as Ham and Emily, have this sort of relationship. But it's not that simple in any of these cases.
  • Like Parent, Like Spouse: David's first wife, the beautiful, frail and empty-headed Dora Spenlow, is reminiscent of his mother Clara. Lampshaded by Aunt Betsey.
  • 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. He's too self-absorbed to properly return her feelings.
  • 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.
  • Manchild:
    • Clara Copperfield and Dora are both good-natured but with the emotional range of children which leaves them unable to take on the adult role of managing their households. In Clara's case this left her vulnerable to Murdstone, who took advantage of her naivety. In Dora's case it leaves David with the pressure to pick up the slack.
    • David is a downplayed example. Despite spending a good portion of his childhood on the streets of London, he remains fairly naive as an adult.
    David: (upon his aunt's suggestion that he become a proctor) What is a proctor, Steerforth?note 
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: Tommy Traddles's fiancee Sophy is the fourth of ten daughters.
  • The Matchmaker: Miss Mills, having despaired of ever finding love herself, reportedly plays this role for every young couple she can get her hands on. She consequently becomes the Shipper on Deck for David and Dora, and is instrumental in their continued relationship.
  • May–December Romance: David's mother was "not yet twenty" when she married his father, who was twice her age.
  • Meaningful Name: This is Dickens, so it's reasonable to assume every name in the story is significant in one way or another.
    • "Copperfield" could very well be a reference to David's socioeconomic status—he is neither gold nor silver, but still one of the legacy metals. Class and class relations are major themes of the novel, and David's own situation is vital to his development, as it affords him mobility and exposure to a wide variety of demographics.
    • As Aunt Betsey lampshades repeatedly, no one named "Murdstone" is going to be a fount of human kindness.
    • Uriah Heep. Used to spectacular effect by Micawber in exposing him.
      Mr. Micawber: You - you - HEEP of infamy!
    • Agnes Wickfield is frequently associated with candle and fire imagery. The similarity to David's own surname is also telling.
    • Dora is nothing but adorable, and David's relationship with her cannot sustain itself beyond adoration.
    • Steerforth's is possibly the most significant and multilayered. He is associated throughout the book with the ocean and navigation, in terms both metaphorical ("Steerforth, you'retheguidingstarofmyexistence!") and practical, leading up to his eventual watery demise. It also refers to his perpetual "steering forth"—always in search of new adventures before the old have been concluded—and the captivating, guiding influence he commands over everyone who encounters him. This last is lampshaded by Steerforth himself, who in a rare moment of depression laments the irony in his situation:
      Steerforth: I wish with all my soul I had been better guided! [...] I wish with all my soul I could guide myself better!
  • Mood Whiplash: Often Played for Laughs with Mr. Micawber, who can go in an instant from being assured that he has reached the uttermost depths of despair to cheerfully assuming that all will be well.
  • Morality Pet: David to Steerforth. Steerforth typically carries on relationships only as long as he believes they will benefit him, yet he seems to manifest a genuine attachment to David, especially in their young adulthood before meeting the Peggottys and Little Em'ly, when Steerforth stands to gain nothing from the relationship. Indeed, Mrs. Steerforth maintains that "he feels an unusual friendship for you, and ... you may rely on his protection." Some, including Mrs. Steerforth, believe that James hopes David will become his Morality Chain.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: The book ends with David having become a successful novelist. Justified, since David is a loose portrait of Dickens himself.
  • Neologism: "Micawbers" are optimistic in spite of hardship, and "Uriah Heeps" are weasels who pretend humility.
  • Mr. Muffykins: Dora's yappy, snappy little spaniel, Jip, has several of these qualities.
  • Napoleon Delusion: Downplayed. Mr. Dick believes himself to be King Charles I, but unlike most examples makes no attempt whatsoever to act or dress the part.
  • Nice Guy: Tommy Traddles, Ham, and usually David himself.
  • 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".
  • "No More Holding Back" Speech: Miss Mowcher gives one of these to David in her second appearance, calling him out for snap-judging her based on her appearance and behavior in company of Steerforth and describing her struggles growing up as a dwarf and the effort she spent carving out a niche for herself in society.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: 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 bonds easily with the young David.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: David loses his mother and is stuck with the Murdstones.
  • Oblivious to Love: David is capable of absolutely maddening the reader with his obtuseness re: Agnes' feelings.
  • 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.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Everyone notices how strange it is when the normally irrepressibly cheerful Micawber becomes withdrawn and irritable. It turns out he's being manipulated into taking part in Heep's evil schemes, and is right back to his old self after publicly exposing Heep.
  • 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.
  • Pinball Protagonist: David, increasingly towards the end of the book, is a mere looker-on at the dramatic resolution of others' subplots, including Micawber's expose of Heep and (less plausibly) Dan Peggotty's rescue of Emily.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Aunt Betsey and Mr. Dick, whom she rescued when his family wished to institutionalize him. He unabashedly adores her for it.
  • The Plot Reaper: It gets to Dora, and to some extent Clara Copperfield. Clara has to die so David can be sent off as an orphan and move on to the next part of the story; Dora has to die so David can wind up with his real true love and proper match, Agnes.
  • Proper Lady: Agnes Wickfield is pretty much the template of the Victorian feminine ideal.
  • Protagonist Title: The book is named David Copperfield after its hero.
  • "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 Eyes, Take Warning: David sometimes refers to the villainous Uriah Heep's eyes as red, with an ambiguous degree of seriousness.
  • 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.
  • Rich Boredom: Steerforth comes from a rich upper-class family. He doesn't have to do anything, and as a result, he flits from one fancy to the next without truly accomplishing anything.
  • 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, whose unpleasant fetish for hitting his students in general, amd the chubby ones in particular, is explicitly called out.
  • 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 marries Agnes to be his second wife. Although a case can be made that his first love, Dora, was only boyish infatuation. (He mentions several other crushes, though.)
  • Selective Obliviousness: Near the end, David thinks to himself that he rather suspected that Agnes had loved him when they were younger, but since he wasn't interested in her like that he just ignored it. She's actually still interested, but now he's genuinely oblivious because presumably she's hiding her feelings now.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Mr Micawber has become a kind of unofficial emblem of this trope in English literature.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: Dora, tragically. She doesn't know anything about household management or upper-middle-class life, a fact which frustrates David to no end.
  • Shout-Out: All the books David mentions reading as a child are real books Dickens probably read in his. The novel is filled with allusions to other famous works of literature, primarily Shakespeare.
  • Slimeball: Uriah Heep is a smarmy villain with sanctimonious "umble" mannerisms, inspiring loathing from most other characters. On their first meeting, David tries to be polite but is repulsed by Uriah's clammy handshake. Uriah even manages to take any fun out of it when David finally clobbers him one, merely looking hurt and saying he was too generous of a man to hit back.
  • 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.
  • Social Climber
    • Little Em'ly spends all her life wishing to be a lady. So when the dashingly highborn James Steerforth offers himself up, she jumps at the opportunity.
    • Uriah Heep works the backstabber angle of this trope, plotting to supplant his employer in the law firm.
  • 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, Steerforth makes young David recount the tales he has learned from his beloved books. Steerforth suggests it purely for his own entertainment, but David later muses that the practice likely helped develope the tendency towards authorship he would later avail himself of.
  • Supporting Protagonist: David toes the line, especially when Steerforth is around.
  • 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. Though David, Dora, and David's mother Clara probably cry the most.
  • The 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.
  • 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.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The last two chapters are primarily concerned with sketching the current circumstances of the characters.
  • Wicked Stepfather: Mr. Murdstone, who marries David's mother Clara and treats young David brutally, and finally ships the small child to work in his factory in London, prompting David to run away.
  • Widow's Weeds: Spear Counterpart. David wears a black armband to show mourning for his wife Dora.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Several passages, usually involving Micawber or Dan Peggotty.
  • 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.
  • Anthropomorphic Animal Adaptation: The 1993 animated adaptation in which the main characters are felines, and others are dogs, rats, monkeys, etc.
  • 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.
  • Pet the Dog: Noticeably in the 1999 version, the truly horrible Mr. Creakle is quite sympathetic and gentle with David when informing him of Clara's death. In the novel it was his wife who relayed the information, sobbing as she did so.
  • You Should Have Died Instead: The 1999 version has a moment where a distraught,disheveled Murdstone yells at David that he should died instead of Clara and the baby.