“It’s very hard… that in my own house—”

My own house?... Clara!”

“OUR own house, I mean…I hope you must know what I mean, Edward—it’s very hard that in YOUR own house I may not have a word to say about domestic matters. I am sure I managed very well before we were married… I am not unreasonable. I only want to be consulted sometimes.”

The above interaction between David’s mother and Mr. Murdstone occurs shortly after the two are married. Clara attempts to push back against Mr. Murdstone’s many demands and is instantly abused for it. Mr. Murdstone’s assertion that it is his house, not Clara’s, shows that he does not believe theirs to be a marriage of equals. Dickens is critical of this belief and depicts Mr. Murdstone as a villain out of a young David’s worst nightmares to comment on inequality within the domestic sphere.

“He is better able to judge of it than I am; for I very well know that I am a weak, light, girlish creature, and that he is a firm, grave, serious man. And he takes… he takes great pains with me; and I ought to be very thankful to him, and very submissive to him even in my thoughts; and when I am not, Peggotty, I worry and condemn myself, and feel doubtful of my own heart, and don’t know what to do.”

Tragically, the Clara from the previous quote, who fought back against Mr. Murdstone’s demands, has been utterly destroyed. In her place is a meek, tearful woman who has been effectively bent to her husband’s will. It is important to note that neither Dickens nor David blames Clara for giving into Mr. Murdstone’s every demand. Instead, she is later referred to as a “victim” because she has been beaten down by a domestic hierarchy that seeks to subjugate women.

“... because you had not done wrong enough to her and hers, you must begin to train her, must you? begin to break her, like a poor caged bird, and wear her deluded life away, in teaching her to sing YOUR notes?”

Betsey Trotwood launches this criticism at Mr. Murdstone shortly after Clara has died. Here, she compares marriage to the act of trapping a bird in a gilded cage and forcing it to sing whatever its captor wants to hear. It is an apt metaphor because the bird is being forced to sing against its nature in order to please its owner just like Clara was forced to cater to her husband’s every demand. It is worth mentioning that Betsey is speaking on good authority when she laments the dangers that accompany an unequal marriage because she was abused by her former husband.

“When you are going to be angry with me, say to yourself, ‘it’s only my child-wife!’ When I am very disappointing, say, ‘I knew, a long time ago, that she would make but a child-wife!’ When you miss what I should like to be, and I think can never be, say, ‘still my foolish child-wife loves me!’ For indeed I do."

Dora Spenlow delivers this line to David after they have been married for some time with varying degrees of success. Dora is aware that she is unequipped to run a home and she compares herself, a grown woman, to a young child who does not know how to take care of herself or other people. While Dickens is sympathetic to Dora, he is still noticeably wary of a household that is not equally maintained by both husband and wife.

“I was thinking of all that had been said. My mind was still running on some of the expressions used. ‘There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.’ ‘The first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart.’ ‘My love was founded on a rock.’ But we were at home; and the trodden leaves were lying under-foot, and the autumn wind was blowing.”

David is distracted as he walks home after having witnessed the level of devotion that the Strongs have for each other. He is most notably struck by their repeated insistence that marriage is no place for disparity. David realizes, while watching the reconciliation between the Strongs, that a marriage cannot work unless both parties are equals. This realization forces David to contemplate his marriage to Dora in a new light.