David Copperfield

by: Charles Dickens


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Mothers and Mother Figures

Mothers and mother figures have an essential influence on the identity of the characters in David Copperfield. Almost invariably, good mother figures produce good children while bad mothers yield sinister offspring. This moral connection between mothers and children indicates Dickens’s belief that mothers have an all-important role in shaping their children’s characters and destinies.

The success of mother figures in the novel hinges on their ability to care for their children without coddling them. Miss Betsey, the aunt who raises David, clearly adores him but does not dote on him. She encourages him to be strong in everything he does and to be fair at all times. She corrects him when she thinks he is making a mistake, as with his marriage to Dora, and her ability to see faults in him helps him to mature into a balanced adult. Although Miss Betsey raises David to deal with the difficulties of the world, she does not block those hardships. Instead, she forces David to confront them himself. In contrast, Uriah’s mother, Mrs. Heep, dotes on her son and allows him to dominate her. As a result, Uriah develops a vain, inflated self-regard that breeds cruel behavior. On the whole, Dickens’s treatment of mother-child relationships in the novel is intended to teach a lesson. He warns mothers to love their children only in moderation and to correct their faults while they can still be fixed.

Accented Speech

Dickens gives his characters different accents to indicate their social class. Uriah Heep and Mr. Peggotty are two notable examples of such characters whose speech indicates their social standing. Uriah, in an attempt to appear poor and of good character, consistently drops the “h” in “humble” every time a group of Mr. Wickfield’s friends confront him. Uriah drops this accent as soon as his fraud is revealed: he is not the urchin-child he portrays himself to be, who grew up hard and fell into his current character because of the cruelty of the world. Rather, Uriah is a conniving, double-crossing social climber who views himself as superior to the wealthy and who exploits everyone he can. Mr. Peggotty’s lower-class accent, on the other hand, indicates genuine humility and poverty. Dickens uses accent in both cases to advance his assertion that class and personal integrity are unrelated and that it is misleading to make any connection between the two.

Physical Beauty

In David Copperfield, physical beauty corresponds to moral good. Those who are physically beautiful, like David’s mother, are good and noble, while those who are ugly, like Uriah Heep, Mr. Creakle, and Mr. Murdstone, are evil, violent, and ill-tempered. Dickens suggests that internal characteristics, much like physical appearance, cannot be disguised permanently. Rather, circumstances will eventually reveal the moral value of characters whose good goes unrecognized or whose evil goes unpunished. In David Copperfield, even the most carefully buried characteristics eventually come to light and expose elusive individuals for what they really are. Although Steerforth, for example, initially appears harmless but annoying, he cannot hide his true treachery for years. In this manner, for almost all the characters in the novel, physical beauty corresponds to personal worth.