Nineteenth-century England was a highly socially stratified society, but one in which it was theoretically possible to move upwards. Although the Industrial Revolution had in many ways worsened the wealth gap by creating a new class of poor, urban laborers, it also held out the promise of social mobility: capitalist ideology maintained that hard work and perseverance would ultimately pay off, and some individuals did in fact manage to rise from poverty to wealth and status. This is what happens in David Copperfield, as David—the son of poor parents—works his way upward from being a secretary and parliamentary reporter to being a celebrated and successful writer. David's friend Traddles is similarly able to advance through the legal ranks from law clerk to lawyer—and perhaps even to judge—through hard, honest work. However, the novel is careful to point out that only a combination of hard work and pure intentions can lead to true social mobility. In contrast, attempting to move up the social ladder by nefarious means will not work in the end.
Uriah Heep is the clearest example of a character who attempts to climb the social ladder through dishonest means, which ultimately destroys his life. Like David, Uriah is a fatherless young man who works his way up the social ladder and aspires to marry his employer's daughter (Dora in David's case, Agnes in Uriah's). Where David is sympathetic, however, the novel depicts Uriah's ambitions as odious and predatory. David is doe-eyed and in love with pure and innocent Dora, while Uriah aspires to marry Agnes just to secure his own social position and protect his business partnership with Agnes’ father. In addition, Uriah's position at the Wickfield and Heep law firm is completely undeserved in itself: Uriah becomes Mr. Wickfield's partner not through honest hard work, but through a combination of manipulation, blackmail, and forgery. In spite of this, Uriah makes constant and hypocritical assertions that he is "umble," or humble (dropping the letter H, in British English, was associated with working-class dialects). He describes humbleness itself as a fixture of working-class life, saying that his teachers at the charity school constantly instructed their students to show respect to their "betters." Part of what makes Uriah villainous is that he twists the very humility that marks other working-class characters (like Ham Peggotty) as virtuous into a means of advancing his own agenda. Uriah ultimately ends up in prison, however, emphasizing the novel’s assertion that using immoral and deceptive means for achieving social mobility is a flimsy, short-term solution that will eventually catch up with the person.
Little Em'ly's storyline raises similar issues about using immoral means for social advancement. As with Uriah, the novel suggests that what is problematic about Emily is not necessarily her wish to be a lady (that is, to advance socially) but rather the way she goes about making that wish a reality. To do so, she breaks her engagement with Ham Peggotty, a hardworking, honest, loving man who is also of lower-class status. If breaking her engagement weren’t unethical enough (by Victorian standards), Emily pursues her goal of advancing socially to become a lady by prostituting herself as Steerforth's mistress. Like Uriah, Emily’s immoral methods of climbing the social ladder eventually catch up with her—Steerforth grows tired of her, attempts to marry her off to his servant, and Emily is forced to run away. By the end of the novel, she’s recovered from her trauma, given up her goal of being a lady, and resigns herself to living a quiet, simple life in Australia with her father.
Just as the novel attributes Uriah or Emily's social downfalls to moral failings, it attributes David's success to hard work and self-discipline; although David acknowledges that he has been lucky, he says that he "never could have done what [he has] done, without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate [himself] on one object at a time." The implication is that David rises through society because he has character traits that lead to success—namely, honesty and perseverance. In addition, David doesn’t necessarily crave success for himself or want to climb the social ladder for its own sake. Instead, he commits to working so hard in order to financially support his beloved Aunt Betsey, who tragically loses her fortune due to Uriah’s dishonesty. David also works hard in order to prove himself a worthy husband to Dora. Thus, David’s pure intentions bolster his chances success and social advancement, encapsulating the novel’s claim that one’s moral compass as just as important to achieving success as their work ethic.
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality ThemeTracker
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Quotes in David Copperfield
"Perhaps you'll be a partner in Mr. Wickfield's business, one of these days," I said, to make myself agreeable; "and it will be Wickfield and Heep, or Heep late Wickfield."
"Oh, no, Master Copperfield," returned Uriah, shaking his head, "I am much too umble for that!"
"You see," he said, wiping his head, and breathing with difficulty, "she hasn't taken much to any companions here; she hasn't taken kindly to any particular acquaintances and friends, no to mention sweethearts. In consequence, an ill-natured story got about, that Em'ly wanted to be a lady. Now my opinion is, that it came into circulation principally on account of her saying, at the school, that if she was a lady she would like to do so and so for her uncle—don't you see?—and buy him such and such fine things."
"There are some low minds (not many, I am happy to believe, but there are some) that would prefer to do what I should call bow down before idols. Postively Idols! Before services, intellect, and so on. But these are intangible points. Blood is not so. We see Blood in a nose, and we know it, We meet with it in a chin, and we say, 'There it is! That's Blood!'"
"However," he said, "it's not that we haven't made a beginning towards housekeeping. No, no; we have begun. We must get on by degrees, but we have begun. Here," drawing the cloth off with great pride and care, "are two pieces of furniture to commence with. This flower-pot and stand, she bought herself. You put that in a parlor-window," said Traddles, falling a little back from it to survey it with the greater admiration, "with a plant in it, and—and there you are! This little round table with the marble top (it's two feet ten in circumference), I bought."
"Father and me was both brought up at a foundation for boys; and mother, she was likewise brought up at a public, sort of charitable, establishment. They taught us all a deal of umbleness—not much else that I know of, from morning to night. We was to be umble to this person, and umble to that; and to pull off our caps here, and to make bows there; and always to know our place, and abase ourselves before our betters […] Father got made a sexton by being umble. He had the character, among the gentlefolks, of being such a well-behaved man, that they were determined to bring him in."
Some happy talent, and some fortunate opportunity, may form the two sides of the ladder on which some men mount, but the rounds of that ladder must be made of stuff to stand wear and tear; and there is no substitute for thorough-going, ardent, and sincere earnestness. Never to put one hand to anything, on which I could throw my whole self; and never to affect depreciation of my work, whatever it was, I find, now, to have been my golden rules.
How much of the practice I have just reduced to precept, I owe to Agnes, I will not repeat here. My narrative proceeds to Agnes, with a thankful love.
"Copperfield, I have always hated you. You've always been an upstart, and you've always been against me."
"As I think I told you once before," said I, "it is you who have been, in your greed and cunning, against all the world. It may be profitable to you to reflect, n future, that there never were greed and cunning in the world yet, that did not do too much, and over-reach themselves. It is as certain as death."
"I wish Mr. Micawber, if I make myself understood," said Mrs. Micawber, in her argumentative tone, "to be the Caesar of his own fortunes. That, my dear Mr. Copperfield, appears to me to be his true position. From the first moment of this voyage, I wish Mr. Micawber to stand upon that vessel's prow and say, 'Enough of delay: enough of disappointment: enough of limited means. That was in the old country. This is the new. Produce you reparation. Bring it forward!'"
O Agnes, O my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!