David Copperfield


Charles Dickens

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David Copperfield: Foreshadowing 4 key examples

Definition of Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the story. Foreshadowing can be achieved directly or indirectly, by making... read full definition
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the story. Foreshadowing can be achieved... read full definition
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the... read full definition
Chapter 7: My 'First Half' at Salem House
Explanation and Analysis—Steerforth's Spell:

In Chapter 7, David introduces Mr. Peggotty and Ham to his friend James Steerforth at Salem House. The way the narrator describes Steerforth’s effect not only on him but on the others as well foreshadows the way Steerforth will eventually lead little Em’ly astray:

There was an ease in his manner—a gay and light manner it was, but not swaggering—which I still believe to have borne a kind of enchantment with it. I still believe him, in virtue of this carriage his animal spirits, his delightful voice, his handsome face and figure, and, for aught I know, of some inborn power of attraction besides (which I think a few people possess), to have carried a spell with him to which it was a natural weakness to yield, and which not many persons could withstand.

At this point in the novel, young David Copperfield is completely captivated by Steerforth’s “spell.” He thinks of this “enchantment” as a good quality about Steerforth, and he readily yields to it. Still, the passage is colored with the more knowledgeable perspective of the adult narrator. The idea that someone may want to “withstand” the spell suggests that Steerforth may not always use his “inborn power of attraction” for good. There are already signs of Steerforth's snobbishness and overly high value of money. For instance, Steerforth gets a teacher fired by revealing to Mr. Creakle that the man does not come from a wealthy background.

This scene gives the sense that someone, if not David, is in danger because of Steerforth’s draw. The passage foreshadows Emily's seduction and downfall because what makes Steerforth special, and what draws David to him as a friend, is ultimately the same thing that will lead Emily to fall prey to him. Not unlike David, she is powerless to resist his spell. Furthermore, the presence of Ham and Mr. Peggotty in this scene hints at the fact that their family will have something to do with it.

In addition to foreshadowing what will happen to Emily, the passage also reveals a double-standard at play in Victorian society. Emily and David alike are drawn in by Steerforth's "spell." David spends years under this spell and even introduces Steerforth to Emily's family, but it is nonetheless Emily who suffers the most consequences for her naivety with regard to him. The different degrees of risk David and Emily face for their social mistakes highlight how David's success in Victorian society is as much an accident of his gender as anything else.

Chapter 8: My Holidays, Especially One Happy Afternoon
Explanation and Analysis—Careworn Clara:

In Chapter 8, when David returns home from Salem House for the holidays, he notices that his mother has changed since he last saw her. The change foreshadows her death soon after he leaves again for Salem House:

I remarked that my mother, though she smiled when Peggotty looked at her, became more serious and thoughtful. I had seen at first that she was changed. Her face was very pretty still, but it looked careworn, and too delicate; and her hand was so thin and white that it seemed to me to be almost transparent. But the change to which I now refer was superadded to this: it was in her manner, which became anxious and fluttered.

David notices that his mother looks "delicate," as if she has become a fragile creature while he has been away. Her "thin and white" hand, which he describes as "almost transparent," is an indicator of her failing health. Furthermore, it is reminiscent of a ghost or an angelic apparition. This angelic ghostliness is emblematic of the fact that she is going to die soon and transform into a mere memory rather than a real person David can touch. Her memory will become one of the guiding forces in David's life, and he will spend years trying to reclaim the feeling of his happy childhood life with her.

That happy childhood life is difficult to recapture in part because it hardly ever existed. Like an "almost transparent" body, it is practically intangible. The way Clara dies emphasizes the chasm between David's idealized domestic life and life as it actually is for most people, including him and his mother. Peggotty eventually attributes Clara's death to the "anxious and fluttered" state that overtakes her in her marriage to Mr. Murdstone. As opposed to Betsey Trotwood, who escapes her abusive marriage, abuse eventually kills Clara Copperfield. The adult narrator does not seem to know for sure how much Peggotty and his mother are aware in this moment of Clara Copperfield's failing health. The "serious and thoughtful" look Peggotty and Clara exchange could indicate a sense of dramatic irony: the adults may know that Clara is not long for this world, even as young David can't quite tell what the look means. His naivety at the time gives this moment different significance for David. For him, Clara's transformation into memory rather than body, and into angel rather than human, is not simply concerning. It can foreshadow his happy marriage to Agnes as well as his mother's tragic death. The narrator barely describes this marriage because it is almost too good to be true. David imagines both his mother and Agnes as angelic figures, providing him with otherworldly happiness and eventually leading his way to heaven. Clara's failing health begins turning her into one of the angels of David's life.

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Chapter 16: I Am a New Boy in More Senses Than One
Explanation and Analysis—Pirate Ship Dream:

In Chapter 16, a disconcerting conversation with Uriah Heep leads David to dream about him. The dream foreshadows Steerforth and Ham's eventual drowning:

This was the proximate cause, I suppose, of my dreaming about him, for what appeared to me to be half the night; and dreaming, among other things, that he had launched Mr Peggotty’s house on a piratical expedition, with a black flag at the mast-head, bearing the inscription ‘Tidd’s Practice,’ under which diabolical ensign he was carrying me and little Em’ly to the Spanish Main, to be drowned.

The dream seems fantastical and childish at first, but it represents growth for David. He is learning (at least in his sleep) to have a healthy suspicion of ambitious and self-serving people. Uriah has betrayed a hint of jealousy because Mr. Wickfield is going to promote David over him. This jealousy turns out to run deep. It consumes Uriah and leads him to commit all sorts of dastardly deeds against Mr. Wickfield, Agnes, and even David's aunt, Miss Betsey. David's dream is urging him to trust his instincts about Uriah and other suspicious people.

It is Steerforth, not Uriah, who will seduce Emily and lead her to ruin her reputation. Eventually, it is Steerforth who will drown despite Ham's ill-fated attempts to save him. Although the dream is about Uriah and Emily, not Steerforth and Emily, it it not necessarily a misdirect about what will happen. Uriah and Steerforth have much in common, and all these characters' fates are intertwined. The image of Uriah as a pirate is emblematic of the sinister ends to which he and Steerforth are willing to go for their own gain.

David learns over the course of the novel to be careful about the introductions he makes. For instance, despite his affection for Mr. Micawber, he urges Traddles to be careful about lending him money. If David had had the same suspicion about Steerforth as he has about Uriah in this dream, he may never have introduced him to the Peggotty family. The dream foreshadows the way David's youthful indiscretion about Steerforth has already launched the Peggottys' house into tragedy.

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Chapter 31: A Greater Loss
Explanation and Analysis—Troubled Sky:

In Chapter 31, immediately on the heels of Mr. Barkis's death, the Peggotty family suffers another tragedy when little Em'ly runs away with Steerforth. As he describes Ham's reaction to the news, David personifies the sky:

The face he turned up to the troubled sky, the quivering of his clasped hands, the agony of his figure, remain associated with that lonely waste, in my remembrance, to this hour. It is always night there, and he is the only object in the scene.

The sky is simply a reflection of the weather, which is not influenced by the interpersonal affairs of the Peggotty family. Nonetheless, in this scene, the sky is "troubled." It mirrors Ham's own face and feelings. The idea that the natural world is in tune with Ham and his feelings foreshadows the way Ham will eventually die, swallowed up by the sea while he is trying to save Steerforth.

Even more importantly, David personifies the sky to comment once again on the intense and all-encompassing impact emotion has on memory. David's memory is laid over the entire scene, so that it becomes impossible to tease them apart. David has described this physical place before, in the context of other memories, but now he says that, "It is always night there, and he is the only object in the scene." Given the way David's memory of Ham here takes over the physical landscape, the "lonely waste" David refers to could be the outdoor space just outside the Peggottys' house, or it could be this particular piece of the landscape of David's own remembrance. He is admitting that his mind is playing tricks on him, such that he can't even remember the sky as anything other than a full participant in the emotional scene. This brief moment is a reminder that the entire novel takes place on the stage of David's memory. He is never trying to trick the reader, but he is self-conscious of his inability to recount anything objectively.

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