Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

David Copperfield and Great Expectations are among Charles Dickens's most famous novels. In both books, the hero tells the vivid and absorbing tale of his education by life, presents a rich range of characters and scenes, and tackles profound moral, social and psychological themes.

Part I of this essential study:
• provides lucid and penetrating analyses of key passages
• discusses the crucial topics of patriarchy, class, obsession, eccentricity, death, breakdown and recovery
• summarizes the methods of analysis and offers suggestions for further work.

Part II supplies key background material, including:
• an account of Dickens's life and works
• a survey of historical, cultural and literary contexts
• samples of significant criticism.

Also featuring a valuable Further Reading section, this volume provides readers with the critical and analytical skills which will enable them to enjoy and explore both novels for themselves.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Introduction

Abstract
David Copperfield and Great Expectations are two of Dickens’s most popular novels. Both are examples of the Bildungsroman, the novel of personal development and education by life, but they do not simply adopt an established form — rather, they enlarge and enrich ideas of what the Bildungsroman can encompass and set precedents and standards that future writers of Bildungsromane will seek to emulate, surpass and challenge. Both have first-person narrators who look back on their experiences as boys and young men from a later perspective, employing sophisticated adult language in their descriptive prose, withholding information to create suspense and produce dramatic climaxes, and moving between vivid re-creation of their earlier impressions and feelings and more distanced views.
Nicolas Tredell

Analysing David Copperfield and Great Expectations

Frontmatter

1. Sons and Patriarchs

Abstract
Near the start of both Copperfield and Expectations, the protagonist of each novel, then a small, vulnerable, fatherless boy, encounters a threatening, quasi-paternal male figure that suddenly appears in his life: Murdstone in the case of David, Magwitch in the case of Pip. The fathers of both boys are dead; while David’s mother is alive and feels affection for her son, she is not a strong character and cannot protect him from her second husband; David’s nurse, Peggotty, is deeply loving but limited in what she can do by her social position and temperament. Pip has lost not only his father but also his mother and five little brothers; he lives with his surviving sister, over twenty years his senior, and her husband, Joe Gargery, the blacksmith; but Mrs Joe, as she is known, is callous, quick to administer corporal punishment, incurious and unimaginative, and while Joe is loving towards Pip, in a way that is both boyish and maternal, he dare not stand up to his wife when she bullies her younger brother, fearing that to do so would only make matters worse.
Nicolas Tredell

2. Ladies and Gentlemen

Abstract
In Copperfield and Expectations, the aspiration to upward social mobility is primarily expressed in terms not of class, money or fame, but of the desire to become a lady or a gentleman. Given the mixed material, social, ethical and idealistic connotations of the terms ‘lady’ and ‘gentleman’, this can result in a confusion between social, material ascent and ethical elevation: between a desire to hold the status of lady or gentleman for the self-gratifying privileges it brings and the desire to behave in those ethically proper, self-abnegating ways which are associated with the ideals of being a lady or gentleman. In Copperfield, David is a gentleman born and remains one, despite his spells at Murdstone and Grinby’s and as a vagabond. Little Em’ly, however, is a fisherman’s daughter who wants to become a lady — and this is one of the characteristics that will later make her vulnerable to Steerforth’s seductive powers.
Nicolas Tredell

3. Obsessives and Eccentrics

Abstract
One of the best-known aspects of Dickens is his gallery of obsessive and eccentric characters (the boundary between the two is often blurred). These characters can seem to take on an independent existence — life is perhaps not quite the right word, given their exaggerated and caricatural aspects — and some of them have become detached from the texts in which they first appeared to function, even with those who have never read Dickens, as shorthand ways of denoting certain kinds of behaviour, as when we call a miserly person a Scrooge or a financially careless one a Micawber. But these characters are originally constructed of words and set within plots and narratives that help to animate them, turn them into figures who act even if only (like Miss Havisham) through stasis and repetition. It is fascinating to analyse how the text constructs these characters and it increases the understanding of Dickens’s art to do so. Our sense of the reach and depth of that art deepens when we explore how these characters and their situations, and the responses of other characters to them, embody and dramatize wider social concerns such as women and marriage, attitudes to psychological disorder and the division between public and private life.
Nicolas Tredell

4. Moments of Truth

Abstract
Key strands in both Copperfield and Expectations lead up to moments of truth in which masks are shed and relationships reconfigured, often radically. In these novels, as elsewhere in Dickens, such moments mix psychological and social realism with melodrama and sometimes melodrama dominates. The priority is not realism in the sense of verisimilitude or probability, but the shock of recognition that rhetorically accomplished melodrama can achieve. Dickens’s fondness for melodrama has sometimes been seen as a flaw, a lapse from the convincingness and complexity of realism into a simplified kind of writing that draws on a repertoire of stereotyped phrases and poses, and solicits stock responses; but in another perspective, which seems more fruitful in Dickens’s case, we can see melodrama as a particular literary convention that, once we accept its terms sympathetically, provides a stylized and heightened means of truth-telling that is as effective as realism in its own way, and sometimes more so, partly because it highlights the essentials of a situation and partly because it provides a means of obliquely saying more than realism, constrained by the dominant discourses of its day, can encompass (in Dickens’s work, for example, it can provide ways of talking about sexuality that were not available in the public language of the time).
Nicolas Tredell

5. Dying in Style

Abstract
In Copperfield, Dora dies at home and Ham and Steerforth in a shipwreck. In Expectations, Magwitch receives the death sentence, along with others, in a courtroom and then dies in prison. But wherever and however key characters meet their end in Dickens, they do so in style — that is, Dickens provides a memorable verbal orchestration of their passing. Such orchestration has sometimes provoked mockery and rejection, as in Oscar Wilde’s famous comment on The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–41), that ‘one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing’. But analysis of Dickens’s scenes of dying reveals a more various, complex and robust treatment of the approach and arrival of death than Wilde’s quip allows, in which sentimentality and religiosity are mixed with real pathos and an unsparing sense of loss. We shall look first at David’s conversation with Dora as she nears death.
Nicolas Tredell

6. Breakdown and Recovery

Abstract
Bildungsromane characteristically bring their protagonists to crises from which they emerge sadder but wiser and make some sort of settlement with themselves and with existing society. This pattern is vividly realized in Copperfield and Expectations. The severe losses which befall David and Pip culminate in breakdowns which make them feel close to death but ultimately help to reconfigure their identities and ways of life. David becomes a despairing wanderer in Europe and Pip collapses into fever and delirium, but both recover and, sooner or later, seek happiness in marriage. David finds this, but it is an open question whether Pip does so. We will look first at David’s descent into the depths of despondency and the start of his awakening to hope.
Nicolas Tredell

The Context and the Critics

Frontmatter

7. Charles Dickens: Life and Works

Abstract
The life of Charles Dickens was a spectacular success story. From humble beginnings, with little in the way of money, formal education or family connections, he made his mark at the age of 24 with The Pickwick Papers (1837) and went on to complete 13 more novels and to become nationally and globally famous. A man of great creativity, enormous energy, strong self-discipline and intense conviviality, he packed a vast amount into his 58 years. But his success was not unshadowed. Some of his experiences in boyhood and early adolescence, especially his spell of employment in a blacking factory at the age of 12, haunted him throughout his life; his marriage to Catherine Hogarth produced ten children but ended in a separation that he procured with ruthless cruelty; his embroilment from his mid-forties with Ellen Ternan, a woman 27 years his junior, left him deeply unhappy; his punishing programmes of public readings in his later years had a manic, near-suicidal quality. The world-class writer, the indefatigable worker, the genial host, the passionate performer, was also a melancholy, driven man; but these painful elements of his life helped to enrich his books.
Nicolas Tredell

8. The Historical, Cultural and Literary Context

Abstract
Charles Dickens was born in the year of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow and three years later, in 1815, Wellington’s victory over the French emperor at Waterloo marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the start of almost a century in which Britain would be free of military involvement in major European conflicts. In June 1837, when Dickens was 25 and publishing the first instalments of Pickwick Papers, the young Queen Victoria came to the throne and remained there until her death in 1901. By then, Dickens had been dead for 31 years but he had helped to define the Victorian age. Victoria reigned over, and Dickens wrote in, a country of contradictions: national prosperity and widespread poverty; increasing industrialization and burgeoning anti-industrial attitudes; sharp social divisions and spectacular instances of upward mobility (Dickens himself being a notable example); government regulation (for example, in factory working conditions) and free trade; eschewal of war in Europe and engagement in conflicts further afield; imperial consolidation and armed resistance (most notably in India).
Nicolas Tredell

9. A Sample of Critical Views

Abstract
Both Copperfield and Expectations won great praise in early reviews, but with some reservations. For example, the Athenaeum (23 November 1850) voiced its strong opinion that Copperfield was ‘in many respects [Dickens’s] most beautiful and highly finished work’, but it did detect ‘one or two strained incidents and forced scenes’, such as Rosa Dartle’s tirade against the fallen Em’ly. Eleven years later, the Atlantic Monthly (September 1861) called Expectations ‘an artistic creation’ that ‘demonstrates that Dickens is now in the prime … of his great powers’ but found less ‘quotable epithets and phrases’ than in Dombey or Copperfield. These reservations foreshadowed the shape of things to come: in the years after Dickens’s death, an increasingly critical view of his work developed, fostered by figures such as G. H. Lewes. This persisted into the mid-twentieth-century, culminating in the exclusion of Dickens from the top rank of English novelists by the most influential British literary critic of the time, F. R. Leavis. In The Great Tradition (1948), Leavis dismissed Dickens’s ‘genius’ as that of a ‘great entertainer’ who (with the exception of Hard Times) failed to offer the ‘adult mind’ a ‘challenge to an unusual and sustained seriousness’ (Leavis 9).
Nicolas Tredell
Additional information