Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Plight of the Weak
Throughout David Copperfield, the powerful abuse the weak and helpless. Dickens focuses on orphans, women, and the mentally disabled to show that exploitation—not pity or compassion—is the rule in an industrial society. Dickens draws on his own experience as a child to describe the inhumanity of child labor and debtors’ prison. His characters suffer punishment at the hands of forces larger than themselves, even though they are morally good people. The arbitrary suffering of innocents makes for the most vividly affecting scenes of the novel. David starves and suffers in a wine-bottling factory as a child. As his guardian, Mr. Murdstone can exploit David as factory labor because the boy is too small and dependent on him to disobey. Likewise, the boys at Salem House have no recourse against the cruel Mr. Creakle. In both situations, children deprived of the care of their natural parents suffer at the hands of their own supposed protectors.
The weak in David Copperfield never escape the domination of the powerful by challenging the powerful directly. Instead, the weak must ally themselves with equally powerful characters. David, for example, doesn’t stand up to Mr. Murdstone and challenge his authority. Instead, he flees to the wealthy Miss Betsey, whose financial stability affords her the power to shelter David from Mr. Murdstone. David’s escape proves neither self-reliance nor his own inner virtue, but rather the significance of family ties and family money in human relationships.
Equality in Marriage
In the world of the novel, marriages succeed to the extent that husband and wife attain equality in their relationship. Dickens holds up the Strongs’ marriage as an example to show that marriages can only be happy if neither spouse is subjugated to the other. Indeed, neither of the Strongs views the other as inferior. Conversely, Dickens criticizes characters who attempt to invoke a sense of superiority over their spouses. Mr. Murdstone’s attempts to improve David’s mother’s character, for example, only crush her spirit. Mr. Murdstone forces Clara into submission in the name of improving her, which leaves her meek and voiceless. In contrast, although Doctor Strong does attempt to improve Annie’s character, he does so not out of a desire to show his moral superiority but rather out of love and respect for Annie. Doctor Strong is gentle and soothing with his wife, rather than abrasive and imperious like Mr. Murdstone. Though Doctor Strong’s marriage is based at least partially on an ideal of equality, he still assumes that his wife, as a woman, depends upon him and needs him for moral guidance. Dickens, we see, does not challenge his society’s constrictive views about the roles of women. However, by depicting a marriage in which a man and wife share some balance of power, Dickens does point toward an age of empowered women.
Wealth and Class
Throughout the novel, Dickens criticizes his society’s view of wealth and class as measures of a person’s value. Dickens uses Steerforth, who is wealthy, powerful, and noble, to show that these traits are more likely to corrupt than improve a person’s character. Steerforth is treacherous and self-absorbed. On the other hand, Mr. Peggotty and Ham, both poor, are generous, sympathetic characters. Many people in Dickens’s time believed that poverty was a symptom of moral degeneracy and that people who were poor deserved to suffer because of inherent deficiencies. Dickens, on the other hand, sympathizes with the poor and implies that their woes result from society’s unfairness, not their own failings.
Dickens does not go so far as to suggest that all poor people are absolutely noble and that all rich people are utterly evil. Poor people frequently swindle David when he is young, even though he too is poor and helpless. Doctor Strong and Agnes, both wealthy, middle-class citizens, nonetheless are morally upstanding. Dickens does not paint a black-and-white moral picture but shows that wealth and class are are unreliable indicators of character and morality. Dickens invites us to judge his characters based on their individual deeds and qualities, not on the hand that the cruel world deals them.
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.
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.
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.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The sea represents an unknown and powerful force in the lives of the characters in David Copperfield, and it is almost always connected with death. The sea took Little Em’ly’s father in an unfortunate accident over which she had no control. Likewise, the sea takes both Ham and Steerforth. The sea washes Steerforth up on the shore—a moment that symbolizes Steerforth’s moral emptiness, as the sea treats him like flotsam and jetsam. The storm in the concluding chapters of the novel alerts us to the danger of ignoring the sea’s power and indicates that the novel’s conflicts have reached an uncontrollable level. Like death, the force of the sea is beyond human control. Humans must try to live in harmony with the sea’s mystical power and take precautions to avoid untimely death.
Flowers represent simplicity and innocence in David Copperfield. For example, Steerforth nicknames David “Daisy” because David is naïve. David brings Dora flowers on her birthday. Dora forever paints flowers on her little canvas. When David returns to the Wickfields’ house and the Heeps leave, he discovers that the old flowers are in the room, which indicates that the room has been returned to its previous state of simplicity and innocence. In each of these cases, flowers stand as images of rebirth and health—a significance that points to a springlike quality in characters associated with their blossoms. Flowers indicate fresh perspective and thought and often recall moments of frivolity and release.
Mr. Dick’s Kite
Mr. Dick’s enormous kite represents his separation from society. Just as the kite soars above the other characters, Mr. Dick, whom the characters believe to be insane, stands apart from the rest of society. Because Mr. Dick is not a part of the social hierarchies that bind the rest of the characters, he is able to mend the disagreement between Doctor and Mrs. Strong, which none of the other characters can fix. The kite’s carefree simplicity mirrors Mr. Dick’s own childish innocence, and the pleasure the kite offers resembles the honest, unpretentious joy Mr. Dick brings to those around him.
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