Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that its protagonist is a man, David Copperfield is deeply interested in questions surrounding womanhood and the place of women in Victorian society. Although Dickens is often criticized for writing one-note female characters, femininity actually takes multiple forms in the novel—a fact David himself underscores early on, when he says of the matronly servant Peggotty, "I thought her in a different style from my mother, certainly; but of another school of beauty, I considered her a perfect example." Nevertheless, it is true that the character who most closely resembles the ideal Victorian woman—Agnes Wickfield—comes across as flat and unrealistic in comparison to many of the secondary female characters. Ultimately, this speaks to the many, often irreconcilable demands placed on Victorian women: the only woman who can actually embody her gender role fully is not so much a human being as (in David's words) an "angel."
The novel highlights how it is seemingly impossible for Victorian women to perfectly fulfill all of the expectations placed upon them. This becomes especially clear in David's many unsuccessful attempts at love. David is a romantic and dreamy character who falls in and out of infatuations throughout the novel, but the three most serious candidates for his affections are Little Em'ly, Dora Spenlow, and Agnes. Strikingly, the first two prove unsuitable because they fail in some way to live up to Victorian gender norms: Emily's premarital affair with Steerforth marks her as impure, while Dora's poor housekeeping abilities are an indication of her broader inability to provide her husband with emotional and moral support. Arguably, however, these failings stem from the fact that Emily and Dora so wholly fulfill gender expectations in other respects. Emily, for instance, is repeatedly described as "shy," which jibes well with the meekness expected of a Victorian woman. To the men around her, however, her shyness is indistinguishable from flirtatiousness, which is sexually suspect. David says, at one point, for instance, "[Emily] sat, at this time, and all the evening, on the old locker in her old little corner by the fire—Ham beside her, where I used to sit. I could not satisfy myself whether it was in her own little tormenting way, or in a maidenly reserve before us, that she kept quite close to the wall, and away from him." Meanwhile, Dora's childlike nature is very much in keeping with the Victorian emphasis on innocence and girlishness, but quite clearly prevents her from fulfilling her "duties" as a wife and confidante: she is timid with servants, incompetent at account-keeping, and totally unable to relate to her husband's intellectual pursuits.
The impossibility of reconciling the many demands placed on Victorian women is clearest, however, in the character of Betsey Trotwood. Miss Betsey is a competent housekeeper by virtue of necessity, having separated from her abusive husband years before the novel begins. In order to achieve this efficiency and practicality, however, Miss Betsey seems to have renounced other conventionally "feminine" qualities. This is especially evident in her tendency to attribute all of her softer emotions to David's mother Clara. For instance, when David tells her he hopes to prove himself "worthy" of his aunt, Miss Betsey responds, "It's a mercy that poor dear baby of a mother of yours didn’t live […] or she’d have been so vain of her boy by this time, that her soft little head would have been completely turned, if there was anything of it left to turn." Although the moment is humorous—and in keeping with Miss Betsey's broader eccentricities as a character—it also hints at the difficulty of attempting to live up to gender norms that often contradicted one another. As an entirely independent woman, Miss Betsey has to work doubly hard to prove her rationality and strength.
Agnes is the novel's answer to this problem, but possibly not a convincing one to modern readers. It is not simply that she is an "inhuman" character (in the sense of being unrealistically perfect), but also that her primary function in the novel is to serve as a moral compass for David. As a result, it's hard to describe her beyond the basic fact that she is good and morally upright. In fact, it is striking that Dickens shows his readers so little of David and Agnes's married life, because it suggests that the perfect womanhood Agnes embodies is difficult to represent even in a work of fiction. In other words, while David Copperfield attempts to reinforce Victorian gender roles through the positive image of Agnes, it also reveals the shortcomings, contradictions, and impossibility of those expectations.
Womanhood and Gender Roles ThemeTracker
Womanhood and Gender Roles Quotes in David Copperfield
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 cannot call to mind where or when, in my childhood, I had seen a stained glass window in a church. Nor do I recollect its subject. But I know that when I saw her turn round, in the grave light of the old staircase, and wait for us, above, I thought of that window; and that I associated something of its tranquil brightness with Agnes Wickfield ever afterwards.
"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."
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.
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.
"What shall I ever do!" she said, fighting thus with her despair. "How can I go on as I am, a solitary curse to myself, a living disgrace to every one I come near!" Suddenly she turned to my companion. "Stamp upon me, kill me! When she was you pride, you would have thought I had done her harm if I brushed against her in the street. You can't believe—why should you?—a syllable that comes out of my lips. It would be a burning shame upon you, even now, if she and I exchanged a word."
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."
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!