David Copperfield is a classic example of the Bildungsroman, or "novel of education." It not only traces the events of its protagonist's childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, but also (and more importantly) aims to demonstrate the role that those events played in David's growth and development. The ideal Victorian man was active and independent—that is, able to control the course of his own life through force of character rather than allowing his character to be shaped by his life. David learns, over the course of the novel, to rise above life’s challenges to become the master of his own destiny rather than a victim of his circumstances.
Dickens suggests that every child (or at least every boy) must go through this process in order to become an adult. Perhaps drawing on the Enlightenment idea of the childhood mind as a "tabula rasa" ("blank slate"), David traces his development all the way to the "blank of [his] infancy," noting his first "observations" of the world around him. Given his young age, however, these observations are not so much active insights into his surroundings as they are passive impressions that leave a mark on his developing personality. He remarks, for instance, that a single "kind word" from Mr. Murdstone might have "improved [him] for [his] whole life" and made him "another creature" than the person he ultimately became. Of course, David never received that kind word, and it's hard to say how the abuse he suffered at the Murdstones' hands impacted his character.
What is clear, however, is that David remains a relatively passive and pliant figure well past the point that it is socially acceptable. It is not simply that he continues to be sensitive to events around him (this, he implies, is ultimately useful to him in his career as a writer). What is problematic, from a Victorian point of view, is the fact that David prefers to hand over control of his life to others. This is particularly clear in his interactions with James Steerforth: when he reconnects with Steerforth as an adult, he takes great pleasure in Steerforth's "dashing way[…] of treating [him] as a plaything" and doesn't object to Steerforth's calling him "Daisy," despite the nickname's feminine (and therefore passive, by the standards of the time) connotations. Steeforth's later affair with Little Em'ly (and thus the end of his friendship with David) removes one obstacle to David's growth.
Even more important, however, is the loss of Miss Betsey's fortune and David's subsequent attempts to establish himself in a line of work—something that not only leads to his financial independence, but channels his energy into bringing about a particular goal. Prior to his aunt's misfortune, David had no clear idea of what to do with himself, and characteristically went along with Miss Betsey's suggestion that he become a proctor. It is only when a crisis forces his hand that David begins to search for a career that will allow him to develop as an individual. He says of his time as a parliamentary reporter, for instance, "I will only add, to what I have already written of my perseverance at this time of my life, and of a patient and continuous energy which then began to be matured within me, and which I know to be the strong part of my character, if it have any strength at all, that there, on looking back, I find the source of my success." This growing sense of independence and self-discipline sets David apart from a character like Steerforth, who, because he has no need to work due to his family’s wealth, never really grows up. For all his intelligence and charisma, Steerforth remains at the mercy of external events and (just as importantly) his own impulses and emotions.
The final piece in David's development is marriage, which (like vocation) Dickens depicts not only as a marker of maturity but also as a way of fostering maturity. Once again, however, David's first choice is a "bad" one, in part because it is not much of a choice at all: David eventually comes to see his love for Dora Spenlow as the "first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart"—that is, an emotional urge rather than a measured decision. Dora's own childishness further inhibits David's growth, because she cannot act as a confidante or adviser, supporting David in his work or encouraging him in his better habits. It is only when David marries Agnes Wickfield (after Dora’s death) that he finds someone who can actually mold him into a more independent and purposeful person. Tellingly, he resolves to "use" his love for Agnes in this way even before he finally confess his feelings for her: "I endeavoured to convert what might have been between myself and Agnes, into a means of making me more self-denying, more resolved, more conscious of myself."
Given how much stock the Victorian middle class placed in marriage and work, it is not surprising that David's experiences of these play such a prominent role in his growth as an individual. In a broader sense, however, the novel suggests that David ultimately learns to turn all of his "observations" and "impressions" to good use as an active participant in the world. It is significant, in this respect, that David eventually becomes a writer, since that profession quite literally allows him to take charge of and rework his experiences as a child and young man. By the end of the novel, in other words, David has provided an answer to the question he posed in the opening pages—namely, whether he would "turn out to be the hero of [his] own life." In learning to act purposefully and independently, David has moved from being the subject of the novel to its active hero.
Coming of Age and Personal Development ThemeTracker
Coming of Age and Personal Development Quotes in David Copperfield
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
This may be fancy, though I think the memory of most of us can go farther back into such times than many of us suppose; just as I believe the power of observation in numbers of very young children to be quite wonderful for its closeness and accuracy. Indeed, I think that most grown men who are remarkable in this respect, may with greater propriety be said not to have lost the faculty, than to have acquired it; the rather, as I generally observe such men to retain a certain freshness, and gentleness, and capacity of being pleased, which are also an inheritance they have preserved from their childhood.
Ah, what a strange feeling it was to be going home when it was not home, and to find that every object I looked at, reminded me of the happy old home, which was like a dream I could never dream again! The days when my mother and I and Peggotty were all in all to one another, and there was no one to come between us, rose up before me so sorrowfully on the road, that I am not sure I was glad to be there.
What happiness (I thought) if we were married, and were going away anywhere to live among the trees and in the fields, never growing older, never growing wiser, children ever, rambling hand in hand through sunshine and among flowery meadows, laying down our heads on moss at night, in a sweet sleep of purity and peace, and buried by the birds when we were dead!
I set down this remembrance here, because it is an instance to myself of the manner in which I fitted my old books to my altered life, and made stories for myself, out of the streets, and out of men and women; and how some main points in the character I shall unconsciously develop, I suppose, in writing my life, were gradually forming all this while.
"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!"
"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."
I cannot bear to think of what did come, upon that memorable night; of what must come again, if I go on.
It is no worse, because I write of it. It would be no better, if I stopped my most unwilling hand. It is done. Nothing can undo it; nothing can make it otherwise than as it was.
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.
"There is nothing," said Annie, "that we have in common. I have long found that there is nothing. If I were thankful to my husband for no more, instead of for so much, I should be thankful to him for having saved me from the first mistaken impulse of my undisciplined heart."
Finding at last, however, that, although I had been all this time a very porcupine or hedgehog, bristling all over with determination, I had effected nothing, it began to occur to me that perhaps Dora's mind was already formed.
"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 am afraid it would have been better, if we had only loved each other as a boy and girl, and forgotten it. I have begun to think I was not fit to be a wife.
[…] If I had been more fit to be married, I might have made you more so, too. Besides you are very clever, and I never was."
"We have been very happy, my sweet Dora."
"I was very happy, very. But, as years went on, my dear boy would have wearied of his child-wife. She would have been less and less a companion for him. He would have been more and more sensible of what was wanting in his home. She wouldn't have improved. It is better as it is."
"When I lost the rest, I thought it wise to say nothing about that sum, but to keep it secretly for a rainy day. I wanted to see how you would come out of the trial, Trot; and you came out nobly—persevering, self-reliant, self-denying! So did Dick."
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.
"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!'"
I had thought, much and often, of my Dora's shadowing out to me what might have happened, in those years that were destined not to try us; I had considered how the things that never happen, are often as much realities to us, in their effects, as those that are accomplished. The very years she spoke of, were realities now, for my correction […] I endeavoured to convert what might have been between myself and Agnes, into a means of making me more self-denying, more resolved, more conscious of myself, and my defects and errors.
And O, Agnes, even out of thy true eyes, in that same time, the spirit of my child-wife looked upon me, saying it was well; and winning me, through thee, to tenderest recollections of the Blossom that had withered in its bloom!
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!