I wonder what they thought of me!
David’s companions at Mr. Murdstone’s business dismay David. They are coarse, uneducated boys whose fathers work in blue-collar professions. David meets Mr. Micawber, a poor but genteel man who speaks in tremendous phrases and makes a great show of nobility despite his shabby appearance. Through an agreement with Mr. Murdstone, David goes to live with Mr. Micawber, his wife, and four children. The Micawbers befriend David and openly tell him of their financial troubles, each time becoming overwhelmingly upset and then recovering fully over good food and wine.
David gets very little pay at his factory job and lives primarily on bread. In retrospect, David wonders what the waiters and shopkeepers must have thought of him, so independent at so young an age. At the factory, David is known as “the little gent” and gets along fine because he never complains. Eventually, Mr. Micawber’s debts overwhelm him. He is thrown into debtors’ prison, where he becomes a political figure among the inmates, lobbying to eliminate that establishment.
Mr. Micawber is released from jail and his debts are resolved. The family decides to move to look for work. David decides he will not stay in London without the Micawbers and resolves to run away to his aunt Betsey. He borrows some money from Peggotty and hires a young man to help him move his box to the coach station. Along the way, the young man steals David’s money and possessions.
David sells some of the clothes he is wearing in order to buy food. The shopkeepers who buy the clothes take advantage of him, and travelers abuse him on the road. David arrives at the home of his aunt, Miss Betsey Trotwood, who initially tries to send him away.
When he tells her that he is her nephew, she consults with Mr. Dick, the man who lives upstairs in her home. Mr. Dick suggests that before she do anything, she give David a bath. Miss Betsey repeatedly compares David to the sister he never had and concludes that his sister would not have done the stupid things David has done.
Miss Betsey is a tough, sharp woman obsessed with keeping donkeys off the grass in front of her house. She bathes and feeds David and speaks to Mr. Dick at length about David’s mother, whom she pitied very much. David is nervous about whether his aunt will keep him or will send him away.
The next morning, Miss Betsey reveals to David that she has written Mr. Murdstone to tell him where David is. She has invited Mr. Murdstone there to discuss David’s fate.
Miss Betsey sends David up to check on Mr. Dick’s progress on his Memorial, an autobiography he is trying to write. But Mr. Dick continually starts his project over from scratch because, each time, he begins to muse in the text about King Charles I, whose demons he believes possess him. Mr. Dick has an enormous kite that he promises to fly with David someday. David returns to Miss Betsey and tells her that Mr. Dick sends his compliments to her. Miss Betsey reveals that she took in Mr. Dick when his brother tried to have him placed in an asylum.
Mr. and Miss Murdstone arrive on donkeys, and Miss Betsey rushes out to chase the donkeys off her lawn. The Murdstones are rude to David during their visit, and Miss Betsey scolds them and forces them to leave. Mr. Murdstone warns her that if David does not come with him immediately, he will never be able to come back again. Miss Betsey asks David what he wants to do, and he says he wants to stay with her. It is resolved that he will do so, and Miss Betsey renames him Trotwood Copperfield.
Dickens uses the Micawbers, who turn up periodically throughout the novel, to comment on the debtors’ prisons common in England in the 1800 s. Debtors were placed in these prisons until they were able to resolve their financial difficulties, which often took years. In the meantime, families were torn apart and suffered hardships as the imprisoned heads of households were unable to earn money to support them. Dickens himself, as a member of a family with enormous financial problems, suffered as a direct result of debtors’ prisons during his youth. Much like Mr. Micawber, Dickens’s father, for all his financial woes, could not control his spending when it came to dining and drinking. The passages involving Mr. and Mrs. Micawber are based in large part on Dickens’s own experience, as are the descriptions of David’s job at the wine-bottling factory. David’s sympathetic portrayal of Mr. Micawber suggests Dickens’s concern for the underclass and his frustration at the harsh conditions of the debtors’ prisons.
The episodic, plot-heavy nature of David Copperfield stems from the fact that it was originally published as a serial, in pieces over time. Dickens inserted several mini-climaxes and resolutions and deliberately built suspense toward the end of each section in order to compel his readers to buy and read the next installment. The unnatural segmentation of David’s life into separate parts and the heavy-handed foreshadowing add to the novel’s suspense. For example, Dickens’s description of David’s life with his mother and Mr. Murdstone constitutes one self-contained section, which comprised the entire first part of the novel as it was published in serial form. The change of scene that opens the second section mirrors an internal change in David as he grows older.
Because David Copperfield was written as a serial novel, it focuses in large part on plot and rarely stops to describe characters or settings in detail. The characters develop chiefly through their actions, and it is only over time that we get to know them—Dickens never includes any kind of thorough character analysis or description when he introduces a character. The novel’s serial nature also partly explains why the characters’ physical attributes match their internal characteristics. This correlation made character identification easier for readers who may have waited weeks since reading the previous installment of the novel. Ultimately, although many critics claim that Dickens’s characters are too simple and flat, this simplicity is largely the practical result of Dickens’s desire to gain new readers and keep current readers interested.
When David arrives at Miss Betsey’s, the tone of the novel changes to reflect David’s increased tolerance for the harshness of his world. We see that David’s voice has lost some of its naïveté and that he seems more prepared to deal with tragedy than in previous chapters. Miss Betsey plays a significant part in bringing about this change in the novel’s tone, for she both provides David with physical comfort and is herself a quirky, humorous character, which contrasts the tragic drama of the first chapters. The fact that Miss Betsey turns out not to be the imposing character that she seems to be in the opening scenes of the novel brings some relief to the dark tone of the first part of the story. Miss Betsey’s obsession with keeping donkeys off her lawn, for example, is an amusing touch that lightens the mood of the novel. Her concern about her lawn is inconsequential relative to David’s troubles, yet she takes it as seriously as David takes his struggle to survive. Miss Betsey also introduces Mr. Dick, whose optimistic, simple faith in David and Miss Betsey contrasts with the Murdstones’ dark pessimism. Unlike most of the other men in David Copperfield to this point, Mr. Dick is kind, gentle, and generous toward David—a far cry from the unforgiving Mr. Murdstone and the brutal Mr. Creakle. As we see, then, not only Miss Betsey but also the characters related to her momentarily change the tone of the novel from tragedy to comedy.