David Copperfield

David Copperfield

The Sea Symbol Icon

Victorian England believed strongly in the possibility of forging one's own path in life. Men in particular were expected to be active and independent; rather than waiting for events to happen to them, they were supposed to create opportunities for themselves. The presence of the sea, however, is a constant reminder that there truly are forces beyond the control of even the most resolute humans. Besides pointing to the broader limits of human agency, the sea functions as a symbolic threat to the ideal Victorian home that men like David work so hard to establish, and that women like little Em’ly are supposed to work to maintain. As a child visiting Yarmouth, for instance, David associates the sound of the wind and waves with the disasters that have recently overtaken his home life (his mother Clara's marriage to Mr. Murdstone, followed by her death). Relatedly, little Em'ly is both drawn to and afraid of the ocean, and the significance of this becomes clear when she runs away to become Steerforth's mistress, throwing her family into chaos and destroying any possibility of marriage with Ham.

The Sea Quotes in David Copperfield

The David Copperfield quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Sea. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Puffin edition of David Copperfield published in 2013.
Chapter 22 Quotes

"I have been sitting here," said Steerforth, glancing round the room, "thinking that all the people we found so glad on the night of our coming down, might—to judge from the present wasted air of the place—to be dispersed, or dead, or come to I don't know what harm. David, I wish to God I had had a judicious father these last twenty years."

"My dear Steerforth, what is the matter?"

"I wish with all my soul I had been better guided!" he exclaimed. "I wish with all my soul I could guide myself better!"

Related Symbols: The Sea
Page Number: 275
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 55 Quotes

And on that part of [the shore] where she and I had looked for shells, two children—on that part of it where some lighter fragments of the old boat, blown down last night, had been scattered by the wind—among the ruins of the home he had wronged—I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.

Related Symbols: The Sea
Page Number: 661
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Sea Symbol Timeline in David Copperfield

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Sea appears in David Copperfield. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2: I Observe
Home and Family Theme Icon
...visit her brother, Mr. Peggotty, in Yarmouth. David is intrigued by her descriptions of the sea and her promise that he can play with her nephew, Ham, but worries about his... (full context)
Chapter 3: I Have a Change
Home and Family Theme Icon
...brother and sister, respectively); both Ham and Emily are orphans, their fathers having died at sea. Mr. Peggotty also introduces his "wife" as Mrs. Gummidge but does not explain who she... (full context)
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
Womanhood and Gender Roles Theme Icon
...to repay him for his kindness. She would also like to move away from the sea, which she says frightens her. This puzzles David, because Emily seems, if anything, careless about... (full context)
Chapter 13: The Sequel of My Resolution
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
...driver tells him to travel up the cliff toward the houses facing out on the sea and also gives David a penny, since he warns him that Miss Betsey is "gruffish"... (full context)
Womanhood and Gender Roles Theme Icon
...marrying. The room itself is neat and airy, and smells of both flowers and the sea. (full context)
Home and Family Theme Icon
...is still somewhat anxious about his future and spends some time looking out over the sea, imagining he can see either his fate or Clara there. He is grateful to be... (full context)
Chapter 21: Little Em'ly
Home and Family Theme Icon
The sea is loud as David and Steerforth approach Mr. Peggotty's, and there is also a lot... (full context)
Memory and Nostalgia Theme Icon
Home and Family Theme Icon
...recounts about a shipwreck. Steerforth also wins the rest of the family over by singing sea shanties and talking about "boats, and ships, and tides." Even Mrs. Gummidge is less gloomy... (full context)
Chapter 22: Some Old Scenes, and Some New People
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
Memory and Nostalgia Theme Icon
Home and Family Theme Icon
...couple of weeks in Yarmouth. Since Steerforth enjoys sailing, he often goes out on the ocean with Mr. Peggotty while David spends time with Peggotty or visits Blunderstone. David uses these... (full context)
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
...David plan to depart the following day, however, and Steerforth is sad to leave the sea; although he acknowledges that his wishes are "capricious," he is enjoying his time out on... (full context)
Chapter 28: Mr. Micawber's Gauntlet
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
Womanhood and Gender Roles Theme Icon
...mentions that he is hungry, having just arrived from Yarmouth, where he says he was "seafaring." This reminds David that Littimer had come looking for Steerforth, but Steerforth simply says Littimer... (full context)
Chapter 30: A Loss
Memory and Nostalgia Theme Icon
Womanhood and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Home and Family Theme Icon
...Barkis will die when the tide goes out, since that is what happens on the coast. For the next several hours, everyone waits in Barkis's room, until Barkis finally begins to... (full context)
Chapter 32: The Beginning of a Long Journey
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
Home and Family Theme Icon
...case Emily returns. As the conversation winds down, Ham goes and looks out over the sea, reflecting that "the beginning of it all did take place here—and then the end come." (full context)
Chapter 40: The Wanderer
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
Memory and Nostalgia Theme Icon
...many places but heard very little. Remembering how fascinated Emily used to be by the sea and the "coasts where the sea got to be dark blue, and to lay a... (full context)
Chapter 46: Intelligence
Memory and Nostalgia Theme Icon
Womanhood and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Home and Family Theme Icon
...Rosa and, as he looks back at them, imagines that the rising mist is a "sea" preparing to engulf them. Later, he says, he had reason to remember this impression. (full context)
Memory and Nostalgia Theme Icon
Home and Family Theme Icon
...alive. Mr. Peggotty, however, is anxious, and wonders whether his niece's childhood fascination with the sea was a warning that she would drown herself. Nevertheless, he says he has a firm... (full context)
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
...conversation in which Ham talked about the "end of it" while looking out at the sea. Mr. Peggotty, however, says that while he has thought about the remark many times, he... (full context)
Chapter 47: Martha
Womanhood and Gender Roles Theme Icon
...her" in the sense that it grows polluted and "defiled" on its way to the sea. Mr. Peggotty is horrified, and David—despite his own discomfort—tries to assure him that Martha doesn't... (full context)
Chapter 55: Tempest
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
...about trees being uprooted and roofing being torn off. By the time David reaches the coast, the wind is creating massive waves at sea. (full context)
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
...the beach, where a crowd has gathered, concerned for the safety of boats currently at sea. The size and strength of the waves unnerves David, and he feels as if the... (full context)
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
Memory and Nostalgia Theme Icon
...shake the fear that Ham will drown trying to attempt to return from Lowestoft by sea, so he goes back to see the boat-builder and asks his opinion. The boat-builder assures... (full context)
Memory and Nostalgia Theme Icon
...Portugal." David hurries down to the beach to see what is happening, and finds the sea stormier than ever. A man on the shore points him to the boat, which has... (full context)
Memory and Nostalgia Theme Icon
At that moment, the crowd parts, and David sees Ham walking out toward the sea, apparently intending to do what the other spectators have just said is too dangerous—namely, wade... (full context)
Chapter 57: The Emigrants
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
...able to. Mr. Micawber doesn't doubt his wife will have opportunities to write, because "the ocean, in these times, is a perfect fleet of ships," and "the distance is quite imaginary."... (full context)