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David Copperfield

Charles Dickens

Chapters XV–XVIII

Summary Chapters XV–XVIII

Summary — Chapter XVIII. A Retrospect

In retrospect, the adult David recounts several years in Doctor Strong’s school and his two love interests during his time there—a young girl named Miss Shepherd and an older woman named Miss Larkins. David also recalls a fistfight he had with a young arrogant butcher. Eventually, to his surprise, David rose to be the top boy at the school. When he was seventeen, he graduated.

Analysis — Chapters XV–XVIII

The retrospective Chapter XVIII marks the end of David’s boyhood and his entrance into the world as a man. Throughout his childhood, David’s character traits remain fairly constant. Although his life changes radically and frequently, often in cruel ways, David remains for the most part the naïve, hopeful boy he is in the first chapters of the novel, when his mother is alive. As David later observes when speaking of Uriah Heep, a miserable childhood can easily turn a boy into a monster. David’s resilience, in contrast, is striking. Nonetheless, for all his pride in his growth, David remains gullible. This innocence lends a freshness to the narrative’s perspective—a freshness that has prompted many critics to label David Copperfield the finest portrayal of childhood ever written. As David grows older, he does remain somewhat simple-hearted and maintains a startling faith in humanity, but his narrative perspective does mature alongside him. David gradually leaves his childhood romanticism behind and looks at the world in more realistic terms, and the novel’s narrative tone reflects this change.

Mr. Dick, who is both a man and a boy, contrasts with the other adult male characters in the novel, who tend to be harsh and gruff. In a story focused on the process of maturation, Mr. Dick is a model of a mature adult who is not jaded by the cruelties of the world. Like Miss Mowcher, who appears later in the novel, Mr. Dick might be described as a young mind in an adult body. Like a boy, he is unable to control his impulses or order his thoughts. Furthermore, as an innocent character, Mr. Dick demonstrates the power of love over cruelty within the moral framework of the novel. Mr. Dick’s love for David and Miss Betsey gives his character moral credibility throughout the novel. In the closing chapters of David Copperfield, Mr. Dick becomes heroic in his own right, demonstrating the supremacy of simplicity and gentleness over cunning and violence. In this way, he shows that craftiness does not signify maturity or adulthood—an important lesson for David as he becomes a man.

At one point or another, each of the admirable adult characters in the story becomes slightly crazy, allowing Dickens to explore the relationship between intelligence and insanity. Miss Betsey’s obsession with donkeys makes her eccentric to the point of madness. Most of the characters consider Doctor Strong’s faith in Annie to be lunatic. Later, Mr. Peggotty’s faith in Little Em’ly leads some to consider him a raving madman travelling the countryside in search of his niece. Although the outside world would dismiss many of Dickens’s characters as insane, within David Copperfield, characters who are crazy are often of high moral quality. This contrast emphasizes Dickens’s rejection of the logic of the external world, which he sees as flawed. In the same way that Dickens rejects class as a marker of a good heart, he likewise rejects sanity as a marker of maturity. Instead, he focuses on the purity of his characters’ intentions and their willingness to follow their convictions.