Dickens’ classic ‘David Copperfield’ speaks to contemporary readers

Allison Hawbaker, IV Leader Columnist

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” So begins one of Charles Dickens’ most popular works. Published originally as a serial then as a complete work in 1850, “David Copperfield” is the only one of Dickens’ fourteen completed novels to be told in the first person point-of-view and solely through the perspective of one character. “David Copperfield,” along with many of his other stories, contains autobiographical elements from Dickens’ life. The most notable of these is the character of Mr. Macawber from “David Copperfield,” an ambitious man who is constantly running from debtor’s prison, who was based off of Dickens’ own father.

“David Copperfield” is the story of an orphan who finds himself in rough situations. His step-father and step-aunt mistreat him and suppress his mother, making her believe that he is a bad child. He is sent away to a squalid boarding school where he becomes friends with the roguish Steerforth. After the death of his mother, David is sent to his step-father’s bottle factory where he cleans bottles in poor working conditions while boarding with the Macawbers who are constantly hounded by money lenders. Eventually, he runs away, and his great-aunt adopts him and provides him with a good education and a profession. During this time, he meets his future wife and begins to establish himself. He renews an acquaintance with an old friend and suffers under the betrayal of another. He also watches a dear friend and her father suffer under the oppression of a very conniving, “humble” man.

“David Copperfield”, though written so long ago, has themes that are familiar to us today. David struggles with the betrayal of one of the dearest friends of his childhood. This man that everyone believed to be honorable, seduces, runs away with, then abandons a trusting, yet vain young woman who was engaged at the time. The sense of betrayal and wrong is not easily forgotten. The idea of “friend-zoning” is also present as David doesn’t realize that the girl who was like a sister to him was in love with him, even though he often confided to her all of his wild fancies about other girls.

Understanding the tumultuous, progressive, yet stodgy time in which Charles Dickens lived often helps the reader to understand his stories better. His works, including “David Copperfield”, are a social commentary on his time, particularly on the treatment of the lower classes in the cities. Because of this, he often wrote about dark places, evil people, and sinful situations. Despite all of this, his stories contain a great deal of humor and wit. Combining this with his complicated plot lines and the generally large cast of characters, he created his unique style that is so memorable today. “David Copperfield” was the first novel by Dickens that I ever read. His complexity and wit caused me to fall in love with his style and continues to charm many other readers of classic literature today.