Although it overlaps to some extent with David Copperfield's treatment of gender roles, the question of what constitutes a home or family is also an important theme in its own right. The ideal Victorian home was one that served as a refuge from the outside world, with the wife/mother providing an atmosphere of calm for the husband/father, whose work took him out into a realm of stress and competition. It is only at the very end of David Copperfield, however, that Dickens depicts a family—David and Agnes's—that fits this mold. Up to that point, the families that do exist are constantly under threat from both internal and external forces, illustrating the impossibility of having a perfect Victorian family.
Although the Victorian home is supposed to be a sanctuary, David loses his at a very young age. Clara Copperfield's remarriage to Mr. Murdstone transforms the Rookery into a place of abuse and imprisonment—or, as David puts it, a "home [that] was not home." Arguably, however, David's home-life had already been disrupted before he was even born, by the death of his father, which leaves David in the care of two women (his mother and Peggotty, the maid) rather than the Victorian ideal of the nuclear family. From this point onward, David moves through and encounters several different domestic configurations, but nothing that quite corresponds to the Victorian ideal. His life with his Aunt Betsey and Mr. Dick, for instance, resembles but also parodies the conventional Victorian family: Miss Betsey consistently seeks out and "defers" to Mr. Dick's opinions as an obedient wife would be expected to, but it is quite obvious that she doesn't need his advice (in fact, Miss Betsey has taken Mr. Dick in precisely because, as a mentally disabled man, he requires her protection). Other families, meanwhile are simply fractured or incomplete: Agnes's mother is dead, for instance, as is Steerforth's father.
The Steerforth household in particular illustrates some of the potential ill effects of an inadequate family life (at least to the Victorian mind), consequently bolstering Dickens’ claim that the stable, nuclear family is something to strive for. Steerforth attributes his inability to "guide" himself to his upbringing, telling David he "wish[es] to God [he] had had a judicious father these last twenty years." The fact that he did not in turn makes him a destabilizing influence on other families; he expresses the above wish, for instance, moments after he has a premonition of the Peggotty family "dispersed, or dead, or come to [he doesn't] know what harm." This foreboding comes true when Steerforth seduces and elopes with little Em'ly, separating her from her relatives and setting off a chain of events that contributes to Ham's death and the emigration of the rest of the family. Steerforth’s actions also permanently estrange him from his own mother, who can't tolerate the thought of sharing her son with another woman. This, of course, is another way in which Steerforth's family life was troubled from the start, since Mrs. Steerforth's devotion to her son is obsessive, even verging on incestuous.
In theory, David and Agnes's marriage reestablishes order in the domestic sphere by adhering closely to the Victorian ideal: David is the breadwinner, Agnes is his loyal, moral, supportive wife, and they have at least three children together. As with the novel's depiction of Agnes herself, however, David Copperfield says very little about the family's life, other than that their "domestic joy" is "perfect." This generic, vague description of marital bliss seems unlikely to override either the earlier images of families in crisis or, for that matter, the images of unconventional family arrangements that can sometimes seem functional and happy (for example, Miss Betsey's life with Mr. Dick). In this way, while Dickens attempts to uphold the traditional Victorian household as an ideal, he also questions it throughout the novel. In other words, like the perfect Victorian woman, the perfect Victorian home is something to strive for, but may not actually be possible.
Home and Family ThemeTracker
Home and Family Quotes in David Copperfield
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.
"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."
Wherever Agnes was, some agreeable token of her noiseless presence seemed inseparable from the place. When I came back, I found my aunt's birds hanging, just as they had hung so long in the parlor window of the cottage; and my easy chair imitating my aunt's much easier chair in its position at the open window; and even the round green fan, which my aunt had brought away with her, screwed on to the window-sill. I knew who had done all this, by its seeming to have quietly done itself; and I should have known in a moment who had arranged my neglected books in the open order of my school days, even if I had supposed Agnes to be miles away.
"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."
"Weak indulgence has ruined me. Indulgence in remembrance, and indulgence in forgetfulness. My natural grief for my child's mother turned to disease; my natural love for my child turned to disease. I have infected everything I touched."
"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.
"The miserable vanity of these earth-worms!" she said, when she had so far controlled the angry heavings of her breast, that she could trust herself to speak. "Your home! Do you imagine that I bestow a thought on it, or suppose you could do any harm to that low place, which money would not pay for, and handsomely? Your home! You were a part of the trade of your home, and were bought and sold like any other vendible thing your people dealt in."
"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."
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!