Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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.
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.