Skip over navigation

David Copperfield

Charles Dickens

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

How does the idea of constancy of emotion and love figure into the novel and illuminate David’s character?

For Dickens, constancy of heart is a sign of single-mindedness, which is one of the most positive characteristics a person can possess. The happiest characters in the novel are those whose affection is unwavering. Chief among them is Agnes, whose quiet faith and calm love sustain her through Uriah’s attempts to seduce her and ruin her father. Agnes’s devotion to her father, which she exhibits throughout the novel, is evidence of her stability, as is her persistent love for David. Her constant good eventually leads her to happiness, as she restores her father to his previous glory and marries her true love.

Dora, by contrast, represents the flighty heart, whimsical and impulsive. She comes across as childish because of her fickle desires, and her unhappiness in her marriage to David is the direct result of this inconstancy. Although Dora loves David, her inability to control her emotions prevents her from enjoying married life. The failure of David and Dora’s union, contrasted with the success of David and Agnes’s, conveys Dickens’s belief that constancy and fidelity of emotion are among the most important moral qualities.

The most significant element of David’s process of maturity is his learning to control his emotions and keep a steady heart. Early in the novel, David’s emotions get the better of him. As a boy, David bites Mr. Murdstone’s hand out of hatred. As a young man, he falls into excesses of alcohol and infatuation, as we see in his dinner party with Steerforth and his obsession over Dora. Before David can obtain true love, he must learn to curb these excesses and master his own emotions. As he brings his heart under the control of his intellect, David finally realizes his love for Agnes. By strongly believing in this love even though he does not believe that she loves him, he ultimately wins her.

2.

How does the fact that the novel was published serially affect its structure? What devices does Dickens use to make the novel coherent for readers who received the text piecemeal?

Like many of Dickens’s other works, David Copperfield was originally published in serial installments, small sections that appeared in magazines over the course of many months. Dickens employs several methods to make the novel flow smoothly and to sustain his readers’ interest over the novel’s publication period. First, he uses strong imagery to make each character’s physical appearance and qualities easy to remember. Uriah Heep’s red hair, for example, reminds us of his fiery personality, while Dora’s silly dog, Jip, reminds us of Dora’s impetuous mannerisms. Also, the names Dickens gives his characters serve as keys to their personalities. Agnes, for example, whose name is rooted in the Latin word for “lamb,” is gentle and soft-spoken. Similarly, Miss Murdstone, whose name has a hard, metallic feel to it, is mean and petty.

Dickens also holds his readers’ interest by making the novel suspenseful, particularly through the use of foreshadowing. Because he was writing in installments and wanted to keep his readership hooked, Dickens ended each section with a strong hint of what was to come in the next section. By creating a number of intriguing plot strands involving various characters, he generated a devoted readership that waited expectantly to see how these multiple subplots would resolve themselves and how these familiar characters would end up. To contribute to the intrigue of each section, Dickens focuses chiefly on plot elements rather than character development or setting. As a result, David Copperfield is almost always lively and energetic—the kind of story a reader would want to continue to reading over an extended period of time.

3.

How does Dickens use contrasting pairs of characters to illustrate good and evil in the novel?

Many of the characters in David Copperfield have foils—similarly situated characters whose characteristics contrast with, and thereby accentuate, those of other characters. One such pair of foils is Agnes and Steerforth, who are both well situated in society. Whereas Agnes shows complete devotion to her family and remains constant in her affections, Steerforth is ever-shifting in his allegiances. In the end, Agnes’s wholesome steadfastness gains her David’s love, while Steerforth’s restless, misdirected energy brings him an untimely death. By placing Agnes and Steerforth in close proximity in several places throughout the novel—as, for example, at the theater on the night of David’s dinner party—Dickens implicitly contrasts the two, creating an opposing pair that illuminates his view of good and evil. Similarly, Miss Betsey and Miss Murdstone, both old ladies in a position of authority over David, represent good and evil, respectively. Whereas Miss Betsey, for all her tough exterior, is caring and loving toward David, Miss Murdstone treats him cruelly. In these and other pairs of characters within the novel, the contrast between figures illustrates the contrast between good and evil characteristics.

Suggested Essay Topics

1 . How does foreshadowing contribute to the overall narrative flow of david copperfield?

2 . How does David’s perspective as an adult narrator shape our understanding of the different characters in the novel?

3 . The idea of redemption plays an important role in the latter part of the novel. What are the key elements of redemption for Dickens? What makes Little Em’ly redeemable while Littimer is not?

4 . What role do minor characters such as Miss Dartle, Mr. Omer, and Mr. Spenlow play in the novel?

5 . What is the importance of motherhood in the novel? How does motherhood figure into Dickens’s exploration of the strong’s domination over the weak?

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us