David Copperfieldis a bildungsroman, the story of the narrator’s life from early childhood to maturity. In it Copperfield describes the obstacles he overcame and the unhappy events he lived through before becoming a successful novelist in later years. The book is an expert blend of fiction and autobiography. While Dickens was not an orphan, he felt abandoned by his parents during the harsh experiences of his early years. David Copperfield’s father has died before his birth and his mother dies when he is twelve years old. David has led a happy life with his mother and the housekeeper Peggotty until his mother’s second marriage to Murdstone, who beats David severely and whose treatment breaks his mother’s spirit and finally causes her death. Before her death, Murdstone sends David to Salem House, a school presided over by a master as cruel as Murdstone himself. It is here, however, that David meets two lifelong friends, James Steerforth and Tommy Traddles. With his mother dead, he is sent to Murdstone’s business in London as his stepfather hates him. He lodges with the amiable Micawber family. He then runs away from the hated warehouse and becomes the ward of his great-aunt Betsy Trotwood, who sends him to school in Canterbury, a vast improvement over Salem House. Here he lodges with the Wickfields and is attracted to Agnes Wickfield, but dislikes Uriah Heep, Agnes’ father’s obsequious clerk. He studies law under Mr. Spenlow and falls in love with and marries his daughter Dora. Micawber and Traddles ultimately expose Uriah Heep as a thief, and the Micawber family immigrates to Australia. David himself eventually becomes a skilled journalist, but shortly after he finds success, his wife Dora dies. After a period of wandering, David begins his career as a popular novelist and marries Agnes.
Dickens attempted to write his autobiography, but found that some episodes in his early life were too painful to relive in an autobiographical, or confessional fashion. David Copperfield, on one level at least, is a fictionalized account of some of these episodes. Dickens succeeded in recreating the mind of a child and young man in an unsurpassed psychological portrait. Copperfield obviously depends on the memory of others to give an account of his birth and baby years. Dickens was a close observer of the world around him from childhood and had a strong memory of events in his life. David Copperfield has this quality too. Dickens’ imagination allied with the memories of that period in his own life recaptured not only the physical scene where early events took place but their emotions as well. The feel of the past lent that quality of magic so often attributed to the writing of the first part of David Copperfield. It is unlikely that Dickens knew the term bildungsroman but he set up his novel along the lines of the classics in that genre. The events of an individual’s life from childhood to a successful maturity with special emphasis on the difficulties he faces and overcomes in childhood and youth forms an integral part of these works. Difficulties with parents occur in the early years of the person’s story. Fatherless at birth and an orphan before his teen years, David Copperfield has a succession of father substitutes. His is the only point of view given in this novel.
“Absence” is the most lyrical chapter in David Copperfield, and shows how versatile Dickens could be in his prose styling. David’s life is coming into focus for him again. In the village to which he descends, letters are waiting for him. The letter from Agnes reconfirming her faith in him further aids the healing process. She assures him that his great grief would become not endless sorrow, but the source of new strength. His love for her increases. David Copperfield remembers frequently a phrase used by Dr. Strong’s young wife, Annie, when she confesses to her husband a brief infatuation she has had for her cousin Maldon. She has not wronged her husband, and the scene has been described by some critics as typical of the distraught sentimentality too frequent in Dickens. But David realizes that his own heart is as poorly disciplined. Disciplining his emotions has been an important part of his self-realization, the successful conclusion of his bildungsroman. Having come to the maturity that his life with Agnes has achieved, he can look on himself as an achiever in life and in his chosen profession as a writer.
Charles Dickens has been one of my favorite authors since I was forced to read A Tale of Two Cities, but this work, David Copperfield, is truly extraordinary. Like all of Dickens' novels, this one contains an amazing number of complex and colorful characters. The novel is in the first person narration, with the voice looking back as an older man at the entirety of his life. Dicken's creates an incredible cast of characters and paints a strong portrait of 19th-century England. Aside from fulfilling those important elements of writing a novel, Dickens told a terrific story. In the end everything of course comes together beautifully and the characters all get their just desserts. This is yet another clinic by Dickens in how to write a well organized, though unpredictable, novel that maintains the interest of a reader through approximate 900 pages of writing. It is a wonderful experience that all lovers of good fiction should at least attempt.