David Copperfield, universally recognized as Dickens’s autobiographical novel, remains to this day as an enduring piece of literature, for not only offering candid glimpses of the author’s personal life; but for creating vibrant characters that are timelessly realistic in essence. All of them, either flat or round, have definite traits that make them stand apart and remain alive in the reader’s memory.
The Important Characters
The central character, David Copperfield brings to life many happenings of Dickens’s personal life. For instance, the fact that Dickens had to work in a blacking factory due to his father’s imprisonment gets echoed in the novel when David is shown to work in a warehouse following his mother’s death. On the other hand, the virtues that David upholds reflect the values Dickens believed his readers should have. Thus, David goes through a lot of tribulations such as tremendous neglect from Mr. and Miss. Murdstone or deprivation of education; but he finally succeeds, due to his hard work and the reader eventually exults in his subsequent achievements.
Mr. Wilkins Micawber is representative of those men, who are mostly faulty in one respect or the other; but their drawbacks are not so great that they cannot be forgiven. His financial troubles land him up in debtor’s prison a number of times, but he never realizes his folly. In fact, it is humorous how he can disclose all his problems and even seeks advice from a ten-year-old David, when the latter rents a room in his house. Nonetheless, he has a helpful nature, and this is apparent in the way he exposes Uriah Heep. Thus, David declares that he is, “a thoroughly good-natured man, and as active a creature about everything but his own affairs as has ever existed” despite being responsible for leaving him uncared for during his imprisonment.
Miss Betsy Trotwood
Amidst the two female guardians of David, his great aunt, Miss Betsy Trotwood, offer a striking contrast to his mother and stand out in being the perfect role model, whose selfless guidance helps him to become competent and stable in life. At the beginning of the novel, she emerges as an unpleasant character, who storms out of David’s household, chiefly because he is born a boy. However, as the novel progresses, she comes across as a generous and sensible character. She accepts an impoverished David when the latter escapes from the clutches of Mr. Murdstone, is shown to shelter a careless Mr. Dick and has the courage to rightfully condemn Mr. Murdstone for his cruelty. Thus, she is someone most readers would idolize in real life.
Peggotty is the ideal governess, one generally aspires to have. A role model for working-class women, she proves her worth at several phases in the novel. She refuses to leave an ailing Mrs. Copperfield in spite of Mr. Murdstone’s commands, is an only solace to young David after his mother’s death, and later becomes a permanent maid to Miss Betsy and David after Mr. Barkis dies.
The one line dialogue that makes this character memorable is his marriage proposal speech “Barkis is willin,’’ that is made to Peggotty. Barkis is the cart driver, with whom David goes to Yarmouth and though, in the novel, he does little other than marry Peggotty and leave her a sum of £3,000 at the time of his death; he nonetheless succeeds in capturing the reader’s hearts by dint of his straightforward and innocent ways.
James Steerforth meets David in his school, Salem House and instantly develops a fondness towards him. Steerforth, David acknowledges, is both handsome and popular; his personality so pronounced that even the firm headmaster, Mr. Creakle does not dare punish him. So what draws Steerforth to David? It’s the latter’s vulnerability and inherent goodness that triggers Steerforth to protect him. The underlying fact is that Steerforth has everything in life – money, good looks and a respectable background and these securities turn him wild and make him commit mistakes, such as seducing Little Em’ly.
Emily (Little Em’ly)
Emily, David’s childhood friend, brings upon herself a host of troubles by attempting to go beyond her social boundaries. She dislikes her humble background, and this is hinted rather early in the novel when she exclaims to David, “your father was a gentleman, and your mother is a lady, and my father was a fisherman, and my mother was a fisherman’s daughter.” Quite expectedly, she falls for Steerforth, leaving Ham, becomes pregnant and is ultimately rescued from a brothel in London.
If there is one character who has no flaws and who dedicates herself for others, disregarding her own wishes, it is undoubtedly Agnes. It is as if Agnes exists to make other’s lives smooth. Thus, in spite of knowing that Uriah Heep is taking advantage of her father, she never objects, in fear of offending her father. She also patiently hears all David’s love stories though she is genuinely attracted to him. Thus, her character though angelic, lacks vivacity and life.
Dickens had a penchant for creating characters whose names matched their personas. Uriah Heep is one such character, whose repelling features – pale face, high shoulders, red eyes and “long, lank, skeleton” hands are suggestive of his deep-rooted wickedness. He blackmails Mr. Wickfield, gets hold of his money and even nurtures a longing for marrying Agnes. And all throughout, he maintains how he is nothing but an ” ‘umble servant.” However, it is his craftiness that makes him interesting too.
Even after 150 years, David Copperfield remains an endearing novel, and one of the factors that help it to be so is, of course, its adequate characterization.