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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...

Advertisement: 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, villainous 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 two theatrical adaptations have been produced. The first, in 1935, was produced by David Selznick and directed by George Cukor. It boasted an All-Star Cast that included child star Freddie Bartholomew (young David), Basil Rathbone as Mr. Murdstone, Lionel Barrymore as Dan Peggotty, and W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber. The second, The Personal History of David Copperfield, was written and directed by Armando Iannucci and boasts a similarly starry cast, including Dev Patel as David, Gwendoline Christie as Jane Murdstone, Peter Capaldi as Mr. Micawber, Tilda Swinton as Aunty Betsey, Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick, and Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep. It screened at film festivals in 2019 ahead of a 2020 release date. The trailer can be seen here.

If it's mentioned in a Sitcom, 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 had a boy instead of a girl that Miss Betsey had wanted to take care of, she left the little family abruptly. Later in the narrative, David is unsure if Miss Betsey will help him from the evils of child labour and poverty, but he remembers the story (told by his mother and their servant-girl Pegotty) and he keeps thinking particularly about this gesture of kindness, and hopes that Miss Betsey will be kind to him as well.
      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 Trotwood decides to calls David "Trotwood Copperfiled", and often shortens it to Trot.
  • 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 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 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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 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.
  • 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 want to get Peggotty out of the house. David is grateful for her friendship and devotion. (Peggotty is so loyal and self-sacrificing that she never seems to want anything of her own that she looks like a stereotype: the ideal of what a rich gentleman would want his servants to be, 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Manchild: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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: 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.
  • 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.
  • OOC 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Black Vikings: The 2019 film uses deliberately colour-blind casting, allowing characters to be played by actors of a variety of different backgrounds regardless of their role.
  • Composite Character: In the 2019 version:
    • Mr. Mell's role, as a kindhearted teacher who is bullied and driven out of his job by Steerforth, ends up going to Mr. Micawber in one of his many failed attempts at finding a successful career.
    • Mrs. Steerforth takes on a few elements of Rosa Dartle, most notably the facial scar from Steerforth having thrown a hammer at her in a childhood rage.
  • 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.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: In the 2019 version, during the denouement with Heep, Dora scolds him and Mr. Dick asks in confusion "What is she doing here?", as a nod to the fact that Dora wasn't in this scene in the book, but rather at home dying by inches.
  • 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.
  • Spared by the Adaptation:
    • Dora survives in the 2019 movie, choosing instead to amicably break up with David after realizing they'd never be happy together.
    • Also in the 2019 version, Ham survives his failed attempt to save Steerforth during the storm.
  • Spiritual Successor: The 1993 Animated Adaptation is one to the Disney's Robin Hood right down to Murdstone being a lion.
  • 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.


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