David Copperfield


Charles Dickens

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David Copperfield: Metaphors 6 key examples

Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other... read full definition
Chapter 4: I Fall Into Disgrace
Explanation and Analysis—Rainy Memory:

In Chapter 4, David bites Mr. Murdstone in self-defense and is locked away in isolation. He uses metaphorical imagery to describe how it felt to spend five days alone like this:

[…] the setting in of rain one evening, with a fresh smell, and its coming down faster and faster between me and the church, until it and gathering night seemed to quench me in gloom, and fear, and remorse—all this appears to have gone round and round for years instead of days, it is so vividly and strongly stamped on my remembrance.

The rain imagery allows the narrator not only to depict an accurate scene, but also to conjure the feeling of the memory for the reader. The rain can hardly be an effect of what is happening to David. It simply happened to rain while he was locked away, and Mr. Murdstone and others may not even have remarked upon the rain. Still, in David's memory, the rain's “fresh smell” combines with the “gathering night” as a metaphorical punishment. The physical sensations brought on by the rainy night come to represent the emotional sensation of biting Mr. Murdstone and of being locked away.  By describing the physical sensations, David helps the reader access the emotional sensations as well.

The way the rain magnifies the length of time David spends locked away also stands in metaphorically for the way memory can distort reality like a lens that makes everything appear out of proportion. The narrator is always conscious of the way certain memories are drawn out when he begins to investigate them. In this instance, he recalls the days locked in his room with such intensity that everything seems like it has "gone round and round for years instead of days." The way he describes this effect is sensory: he claims that the time is "vividly and strongly stamped" on his memory, so it seems more expansive than it actually was. The memory is David's attempt to describe his life story, and everything comes to the reader through the sensations and experiences that have stuck with him through the years.

Explanation and Analysis—Tainted Blood:

The Murdstones are the villains of David's childhood, and they are often associated with darkness. In Chapter 4, David uses a racial metaphor to describe their cruelty.

The gloomy taint that was in the Murdstone blood, darkened the Murdstone religion, which was austere and wrathful.

The idea of "taint[ed]" blood has connections to the problematic discourse around race in the 19th century. White people were (and, in the case of some groups, still are) obsessed with the idea of racial purity and believed that a white family's blood could be "tainted" by mixture with a Black family. The Murdstones do not seem to actually be Black, but they do have dark hair and coloring. It was not uncommon in 19th-century English literature for white villains to be described as bearing features usually associated with Blackness. These descriptions metaphorically suggests that the villains were cursed or "tainted" and that they were to be feared.

David does indeed fear the Murdstones, and not just because they abuse him. Just a few pages later, David describes "having made a Mulatto of myself" by getting dirt on his skin from the slate he is using to do math lessons under Mr. Murdstone's cruel instructions. "Mulatto" is a derogatory term for someone of mixed race. David seems to think he is in danger of catching the Murdstones's "taint," which here is even more explicitly racialized.

This casual anti-Blackness becomes more sinister when we consider the role Australia plays in the novel. Australia is the place poor white characters, including the Micawbers and the Peggottys, emigrate so they can finally achieve prosperity that was unavailable to them in England. Australia was a British colony where many debtors were really sent for the purpose of starting over. This colonial endeavor involved land theft and the subjugation of Aboriginal peoples already living there, who were quickly distinguished racially from white British colonizers. That socially-constructed racial distinction helped Britain justify the atrocities it committed in Australia and elsewhere. Blackness is represented in the novel primarily as a metaphorical threat. In the background, unacknowledged, the novel also buys into the racist idea that colonization is a viable solution to the cruel class structure of Victorian England.

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Chapter 9: I Have a Memorable Birthday
Explanation and Analysis—Mother and Sons:

In Chapter 9, David goes home for his mother and half-brother’s funeral. He uses a metaphor comparing his brother and mother in their grave to himself and his mother in his own infancy:

In her death she winged her way back to her calm untroubled youth, and cancelled all the rest.

The mother who lay in the grave, was the mother of my infancy; the little creature in her arms, was myself, as I had once been, hushed for ever on her bosom.

To modern readers, this idealization of death may seem grim. David almost seems to envy his baby brother for lying dead in their dead mother's arms. This does not seem like an especially healthy mindset for a young child. To Victorian readers, though, this moment would have constituted not only trauma, but also important character growth for David. In the Victorian era, death and childhood were frequently compared to one another. Both were viewed as a sacred space outside of time, where the cruelties of the industrial world could not reach. A happy childhood was a preview of the afterlife, and dying was the ultimate trip home after the longest working day. This moment is when David first understands his life as one long journey home to the happy childhood he barely ever had.

Imagining himself lying in his brother's place is not exactly a wish for death, or at least not immediate death. The baby is the version of David that never had to endure the trials of the world. While David has some nostalgic attachment to that untested version of himself, his metaphor emphasizes that remaining too grief-stricken about his childhood would rob him, just like this child, of the chance to grow. David idealizes the journey his mother has taken through tribulation and "back to her calm untroubled youth." By giving David somewhere to put his grief about his own lost childhood, the grave allows him to turn back to the living world and make his way in true Bildungsroman fashion. He now has a meaningful and even religious goal for his life: if he struggles through life as his mother did, he may, like her, “wing his way back” to peace in her arms. He can then be just as "hushed" as the baby while also having made a self-actualized version of himself.

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Chapter 21: Little Em'ly
Explanation and Analysis—Aboriginal Conditions:

In Chapter 21, at Steerforth's urging, David takes Steerforth to the Peggotty house in Yarmouth. Steerforth uses a telling anthropological metaphor that demonstrates his low opinion of working class people:

‘I shall not give them any notice that we are here, you know,’ said I, delighted. ‘We must take them by surprise.’

‘Oh, of course! It’s no fun,’ said Steerforth, ‘unless we take them by surprise. Let us see the natives in their aboriginal condition.’

The idea of observing "natives in their aboriginal condition" comes from the discourse of colonialism. In the 19th century and earlier, it was common for Europeans to study native populations in colonial territories as supposed examples of humans at an earlier stage of development. Steerforth gleefully adopts this racist practice as a metaphor for what he and David are doing: they are observing the Peggottys (representatives of the working class) as an example of a less developed kind of people.

Steerforth is clearly being classist and cruel. Still, the fact that the language is figurative demands further investigation into the way humans are categorized within the world of the novel. Steerforth imagines the relationship between the Peggottys and himself as comparable to the relationship between Black and Indigenous peoples and himself. The way he reaches for a racial comparison reveals that class differences are similar to but not exactly the same as racial differences. Racial differences are clearer cut and better established, in Steerforth's mind, than class differences, which he can't quite describe without resorting to metaphor. This slipperiness in Steerforth's understanding of class difference stems from the novel's deep interest in class and social mobility, and from its setting during a time when industrialization had for many decades led to rapidly changing class structures. Through Steerforth, the novel is working out how class categories work in 19th-century Britain.

Ironically, though, the novel does a better job of representing class diversity than racial diversity. The novel does not outright reject the idea of "observing natives" in the same way it rejects the idea of "observing the poor," and it does not venture much further than this metaphor to consider the racial politics of several poor white characters' emigration to Australia. While Dickens is often credited as a strong social commentator, this metaphor—and the overall limited way race shows up in the novel—illustrates his limitations on this subject.

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Chapter 39: Wickfield and Heep
Explanation and Analysis—Uriah's "Apology":

In Chapter 39, Uriah upsets Mr. Wickfield and claims that he is entitled to marry Agnes due to his upward mobility. In the morning he claims to have smoothed things over with Mr. Wickfield while also using a metaphor to suggest that he has already made sexual advances toward Agnes:

I obliged myself to say that I was glad he had made his apology.

‘Oh, to be sure!’ said Uriah. ‘When a person’s umble, you know, what’s an apology? So easy! I say! I suppose,’ with a jerk, ‘you have sometimes plucked a pear before it was ripe, Master Copperfield?’

‘I suppose I have,’ I replied.

‘I did that last night,’ said Uriah; ‘but it’ll ripen yet! It only wants attending to. I can wait!’

Uriah smacks his lips while David rides away in the coach. David might be taking Uriah literally, agreeing that he too has picked an actual pear before it was ripe. More likely, he means that he has counted on an opportunity before it was ensured.

As Uriah goes on, his words and demeanor make it clear that his meaning is more sinister. Agnes is the pear. He could mean that he "plucked" her by swearing that he was entitled to marry her, but he could also mean that he approached her sexually after everyone went to sleep. Agnes is not "ripe" yet because she is not married. If Uriah has indeed approached her sexually, it could mean that she will never be "ripe" for marriage to anyone else, according to restrictive Victorian social mores. As the reader has already seen with Emily, premarital sex can be damning for a Victorian woman and her family. Just as the Peggottys are left at the mercy of Steerforth's decision to marry Emily or toss her aside, Agnes and Mr. Wickfield may now be forced to beg for Uriah to marry Agnes.

Whether or not Uriah is using the metaphor in this crass sense, his "'umble apology" to Mr. Wickfield is laden with situational irony. According to manners, Uriah owed Mr. Wickfield an apology for upsetting him by claiming an inherent right to marry Agnes. In this sense, he has behaved honorably. But by behaving honorably toward Mr. Wickfield, Uriah has laid further groundwork for marrying Agnes after all. Rather than being shooed away, Uriah has secured for himself once more the chance to "wait" and "attend to" Agnes. This irony highlights one of the problems with the extreme importance placed on manners in Victorian society. The well-off Mr. Wickfield, good at recognizing politeness but not necessarily sincerity, is convinced by Uriah's performance of good manners and is thus more easily manipulated by him than if he did not care about manners.

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Chapter 54: Mr. Micawber's Transactions
Explanation and Analysis—Purged of a Disease:

In Chapter 54, David, Miss Betsey, and Agnes spend the night at the Wickfield house. David uses a metaphor to describe the relief of returning to the house after Uriah and his mother have been evicted:

We passed the night at the old house, which, freed from the presence of the Heeps, seemed purged of a disease[.]

David imagines that the Heeps were an illness that has been eradicated from the house. It has taken much of the novel to prove exactly how Uriah has been causing harm to the Wickfields. As it turns out, he has committed fraud on an enormous scale by manipulating Mr. Wickfield. He made Mr. Wickfield more pliable by pushing him deeper and deeper into alcoholism, which today is recognized as a literal illness. At first, Dickens seems a little ahead of his time in representing Uriah's effect on the Wickfield home as that of an illness. After all, in the 19th century, alcoholism was generally seen as a moral affliction, not a disease.

On closer examination, the metaphor comparing Uriah to a disease is actually in keeping with this latter understanding of alcoholism as a moral problem. It is not only Mr. Wickfield's body that grows sicker and sicker throughout the partnership with Uriah. Rather, as David points out, it is the entire "old house" that seems to be afflicted. Both Mr. Wickfield and the house's condition begin to improve after Uriah leaves. In the 19th century and earlier, disease and contagion were common metaphors to understand moral crises. For example, many people understood plagues as divine punishment for social evils. Families struck down by illness were supposed to be paying the price of their neighbors' immorality and their own. Disease threatening to spread through a neighborhood represented to moralists the way evil threatened to spread from person to person. Dickens is concerned with this idea that immorality is a sort of contagion. The comparison between Uriah and a disease parallels the comparison elsewhere between Emily and a "pollution" on the Peggotys. Although the novel is generally more sympathetic toward Emily than Uriah, both deviate from social expectations and Victorian value systems. Even good people aren't safe from "pollution" and disease when they start running through society, the novel suggests through both of these characters. By comparing Uriah to a disease, David is not necessarily pointing out Mr. Wickfield's medical condition and recovery so much as his house's moral fall and slow restoration to an upstanding unit of Victorian society.

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