David Copperfield Model Paper

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The Impact of Child Care on Children in David Copperfield

Written in 1849, David Copperfield illustrates some of the major issues during the Victorian period, such as child labour and women’s low status. Among these issues the most directly influential on David is the child care he receives during his childhood. Motherhood in Victorian England has been a well-known topic due to Queen Victoria’s fame that she “came to represent a kind of femininity which was centred on the family, motherhood and respectability” (Abrams 1). In fact, David Copperfield suggests how “Early separation from [his mother] leaves [him] with only few memories of [his mother’s] gaze” and how that affects “[his] subsequent developments” (Gustafson 53). Adoption of the theme of maternal care is one of the characteristics of Victorian novels due to the symbolic figure of the ideal woman. In contrast, fatherhood had been long recognised as less important as it was seen to be irrelevant to child care, “equated simply with the role of breadwinner” (Gordon 554). However, some historians, including John Tosh, argue that “for men the public and private realm were permeable and interconnected”; in other words fathers also took part in child care (Gordon 554). David Copperfield proves this as some male characters affect the formation of David’s personality, possibly reflecting some of Dickens’s own experience.

The reader also sees the effect of child care on Steerforth from his overprotective but indifferent mother, and on Emily from her de facto family. Interestingly, none of the main characters under parental care have what could be called a complete family structured with mother, father and children; they lack either a father or a mother or both. It was very common that many families did not have mothers in the Victorian period and Victorian fictions often “open with a scene of family rupture, frequently a maternal deathbed or a tale of wanton maternal abandonment” (Dever 1). Although David’s first loss is his father, he consequently loses his mother too, and this illustrates how “Dickens constructs a crisis” by taking out the mother figure which “is a synecdoche for physical origin” (Dever 7). The omission of a complete family emphasises the direct impact of parental attitudes as it avoids setting the standard to compare how much difference can be created between a complete family and a family with either or both parents missing. Parental care has different effects on children depending on the amount of interest shown towards them. By contrasting characters in different circumstances, Dickens explores the impact of child care to suggest how easily life can be marred or supported, depending on parental guidance. David is supported psychologically by his mother and Peggotty, and consequently experiences being treated as an adult by the Micawbers, leading him to become gentle and unaggressive. However, the loss of his parents at young age causes him to be na´ve, and the cruel parenting by Mr. Murdstone, who neglects him and sends him to work, prevents him from getting an education, which would eventually leave him unable to get a proper job in the future. The last parental influence David receives is from Betsy Trotwood who grants him proper education by sending him to boarding school and, in the end, he successfully works at a law office, then uses his writing talent eventually as a writer. The treatment David receives can be compared that of to Steerforth, who is brought up without any guidance and discipline but with emotional attachmentfrom his mother, and Emily, who grows up in a de facto family, again, without formal parental guidance.

David Copperfield, the protagonist, is the character who receives the most various kinds of child care in the novel. The first people who influence his childhood are Clara, his mother, and Peggotty, the servant. David’s mother was married young and loses her husband on the day David is born; “I was a posthumous child” (Dickens 19). Since the late 18th century the idea about “the mother-child relationship” changed and the relationship “conjoined with religious discourses which privileged female piety”, recognising that mothers have “moral and educative responsibilities to children” (Gordon 551-2). Therefore, the reader is expected to see some signs of education for David. David is only seven years old and in Victorian times children from the middle class and above only had to go to boarding school after the age of ten [TEACHER COMMENT]. The children would have been taught by a governess or their mothers at home before that. He lives happily with the two women at home. As a part of his education Clara reads from the Bible, “how Lazarus was raised up from the dead” (26) and then David reads to “Peggotty about crocodiles” (29), and eventually he begins to read his father’s books by himself. Therefore, even though David does not seem to have any education from outside, such as school and tutor, he receives a reasonable education from his mother and his father’s books. This indicates how Clara fulfils her role as an educationally responsible mother to a certain point. However, David’s lack of experience of life with men and unfamiliarity with any male quality still cannot be denied, and this foreshadows the naivety which causes some people to feminise him by calling him by nicknames later on, such as Steerforth calling him “Daisy” and Dora “Doady”.

David’s first mutual contact with men suddenly comes when Clara starts keeping company with Mr. Murdstone. Anxiety and antipathy towards the relationship with Mr. Murdstone can be seen in David’s first reaction towards him; he shakes hands with his left hand, since “[he] was resolved, for [his] former reason [TEACHER COMMENT], not to give [his right hand to] him” (Dickens 32). As a child, it is obvious that David feels uncomfortable about Mr. Murdstone, practically rejecting him as his father, although it is not clear enough to define whether that comes from his sharp intuition or his inexperienced naivety towards men. Marrying Mr. Murdstone takes the role of motherhood away from Clara, compelling her instead to adopt the role of wifehood. Although Clara still shows her affection as a mother as she “kiss[es] [David], pat[s] [him] gently on the shoulder”, she goes back to her housework and David is unable “to look at her . . . look at [Mr. Murdstone]” because David ”knew quite well [Mr. Murdstone] was looking at [them] both” (Dickens 68). This suggests that “The mutual glances between David and his mother are severed by Murdstone” (Gustafson 58), preventing David from receiving maternal care. It can be also said that Clara is unsuccessful in fulfilling the expectation at the time that a woman should connect wifehood and motherhood with self-effacing love, since she can only obey Mr. Murdstone; “I knew as well that he could mould her pliant nature into any form he chose, as I know, now, that he did it” (71). By being obedient and under his control, Clara is unable to create “a peaceful and comfortable home for her husband, then . . . the same for her children” (Lane 27).

Mr. Murdstone’s strict education contrasts with what David has been experiencing and its influence is shown through David’s words through his narration. He receives lessons from Mr. Murdstone at home, which he remembers as “the death-blow of my peace, and a grievous daily drudgery and misery”, and exclaims “Shall I ever forget those lessons!” (82) for the severity and cruelty of Mr. Murdstone. Mr. Murdstone makes David read a book out loud without looking at the book but he trips over some words. His mother feels pity for David and says “Oh, Davy, Davy!” (83) to which Mr. Murdstone replies “That’s childish” (83), again humiliating her by emphasising her naivety and how he recognises her as his property. He canes David when he fails to read correctly and, perhaps, this is the worst physical cruelty the reader witnesses in the novel. Although it cannot be an excuse to hurt David, Mr. Murdstone confesses that he “[has] been often flogged [himself]” (88). Mr. Murdstone can perhaps be sympathised with, since this indicates that being brought up with brutality only leads a person to commit future brutality, implying the possibility of parents’ influence on children to be repeated through generations.

Mr. Murdstone discloses his hatred towards David even more after Clara dies and this leads David to experience neglect from adults. David is sent to work at Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse at the age of ten. It was relatively usual for children to start working at such a young age and, in fact, Dickens himself had to work when he was 12 years old at a factory just as David does. Therefore, Dickens’s own experience is reflected in this episode. David keeps working after he is taken in by the Micawbers. The difference between the circumstances is how David is treated by the adults who are meant to take care of him. As a stepfather Mr. Murdstone should take responsibility for David’s upbringing, which he dismisses so easily by sending him to London. On the other hand, though the Micawbers also do not seem to feel responsible for David, they see him as a source of income and treat him as an adult. It is interesting that the Micawbers adopt David because “Adoption of a stranger’s child raised vexed and ambiguous questions about motherhood” and “Many Victorians active in the purity movement or rescue homes opposed adoption” (Walker 212). [TEACHER COMMENT] This may be one reason they treat him as an adult because it is easier for them to recognise him as an individual rather than a part of their family with no burden to worry about his future as parents. Therefore, although physically and/or logically David is neglected by adults, it does not affect him as much since they are detached in terms of blood relationships and the Micawbers deal with him on an equal basis, so that David becomes able to manage himself, whether the reasons for the Micawbers' behaviour are perfectly correct or not.

David’s time with Mr. Murdstone and the Micawbers can be contrasted with Steerforth’s circumstances at his home. Steerforth is so spoiled by his mother that it is almost debatable whether she really loves him or only wants to be proud of her son’s career as a part of her. Mrs. Steerforth chooses Salem School for her son because she thinks “he should be placed with some man who felt its [i.e., Steerforth's nature's] superiority, and would be content to bow himself before it” (443). Therefore, the care he receives from his mother only helps to ruin his moral development as Steerforth does not have any chance to confront with opposition or face any challenges by himself, which would have shown him how complex but adventurous the world is. According to Magham, it is “more obvious than in the concern . . . that the boundaries between intense motherly care and murder were very fine, and . . . non-existent” (Magham 24). Partly because his mother takes too much care of him and he is rich, he finds time unmanageable and gradually kills his imagination. This is especially shown in his words about the poor; “Their delicacy is not to be shocked, or hurt easily . . . they have not very fine natures, and the may be thankful that, like their coarse rough skins, they are not easily wounded” (440). His lack of imagination for others, especially poor people, leads him to provoke a disaster by running away with and abandoning Emily. His lack of sympathy for others triggers Emily’s misfortune and his own death. Only if he could have received a proper amount of affection and care, he would have been a great person with intelligence and thoughtfulness. Therefore, Mrs. Steerforth’s parental care is not appropriate, spoiling him and disabling him from perceiving others’ thoughts.

Although it is not a conventional form of family, Emily is an example of child care in a working class family without any touch of education. Emily is the one who is most affected by social class difference, which she repeatedly mentions. She compares her family status to David's at the age of 8 or so, suggesting her acknowledgement of class difference; “your father was a gentleman and your mother is a lady; and my father was a fisherman and my mother was a fisherman’s daughter, and Dan is a fisherman” (56). This indicates her sensibility and intelligence by nature, being able understand and analyse the difference between social classes. However, ironically, it is the lack of education and parental guidance which lead her into the trap of Steerforth’s seduction. Therefore, the idea that children without parents are “frail, and incapable, or ... corrupt and uncaring” (Thiel qtd by Lane 75) is illustrated, because Emily’s ignorance and naivety illustrate both her sensitiveness to acknowledge the social class difference from a young age and susceptibility to be influenced by Steerforth’s trick due to “[the] lack [of] the moral guidance and selfless, loving care of a mother and the protective presence of father” (Lane 75). It is ironic that these two characters with unbalanced parental care end up experiencing corruption together. Emily indicates how genuine parents have a significant role to adjust their children’s future by depicting the Peggottys', especially Mr. Peggotty's, caring and appreciative nature.

The last, but not the least, parental influence on David is Betsey Trotwood, who leads him to a better standard of living by supporting him in terms of identity and education. As soon as she adopts David from Mr. Murdstone, she gives him a new name ‘Trotwood Copperfield’ to give him a new identity with middle-class status, rather than being a child labourer. This affects both David himself and the reader as it creates “a gap between the narrating adult subject and the youth who is the subject of narration” (Langland 82). As David expresses it, “That little fellow seems to be no part of me; I remember him as something left behind upon the road of life – as something I have passed, rather than have actually been – and almost think of him as of someone else” (403). Giving a name to one’s child promises the kindred relationship between the ones to name and to be named, and Betsy, added to this, gives him a chance to be re-born, so that he feels as if he is a different person from David Copperfield and to begin his new life as a proper middle class gentleman. She also sends him to the Wickfields to let him attend the school in Canterbury. This is his chance to receive a proper education after Salem House, where boys are often beaten. By sending him to school, Betsy grants him an opportunity to obtain an appropriate job as a proctor, a secretary, eventually a fiction writer. Therefore, Betsy’s child care for David is the ideal and model example of parental care and Dickens implies how children can be trained by education, even in the middle of the process of maturity. However, David’s naivety and non-calculating loyalty for friends cannot be altered as we can see from the way he never comes to suspect Steerforth of having any designs on Emily until he is forced to realise it through the letter Emily leaves after her disappearance.  This suggests how nurture exceeds nature in terms of intellectual development but has little effect on personality. [TEACHER COMMENT]

Child care runs through David Copperfield as the basis of the formation of his character and exemplifies how it affects people’s life consequently. Dickens successfully illustrates this cause-and-effect relationship between parents and children by depicting various forms of parenting, from neglect to overprotection. Bringing up children takes so much responsibility for how they make their decision at every turning point and spend their life overall. Therefore, child care can have either negative or positive effects and this is not only a feature of the Victorian period but still remains as a problem in the present generation, and is expected to continue in the future, too. [TEACHER COMMENT] Dickens’s depiction of Mr. Micawber as a father-figure with resemblances to his own father focuses attention on how children were often treated as adults and expected to be equal to adults, implying that child care is to be assumed as a process of maturity rather than a progress in the formation of humanity. [TEACHER COMMENT] The presence of Betsy Trotwood symbolises the light of hope in education, leading children to a happier and better future, and is emphasised by introducing the worst example of child care by Mr. Murdstone. David Copperfield is a significant novel for understanding the treatment of children in Victorian period, from which it can be inferred that parenting is a permanent problem through generations.

TEACHER COMMENT: This is a good, articulate piece of work, well backed-up by reference to a range of research sources. My only criticism would be that it seems to me that the most significant insight you gain is that "nurture exceeds nature in terms of intellectual development but has little effect on personality". This would work well as the thesis for your paper. I'd like to see that sentence in the introduction as the thesis statement, followed by a summary of supporting arguments. The main body could then lead the reader through the arguments in detail, showing just how it is that Dickens shows nurture changing a person intellectually, but not changing the basic character or personality. This would require only fairly minor changes to what you have written, but it would greatly strengthen the argument.


Works Cited

Abrams, Lynn. “Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain”. BBC, 9 Aug. 2001. Web. 30 June 2015.
Dever, Carolyn. Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud: Victorian Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.
Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. 1849-1850. London: Penguin Classics, 2004. Print.
Gordon, Eleanor, Gwyneth Nair. “Domestic Father and the Victorian Parental Role”, Women’s History Review. Vol. 15. 4 (2006): 551-559. Routledge. EBSCO. Web. 5 July 2015.
Gustafson, Susan. “Watching the Subject: The Mother's Gaze in Dickens's David Copperfield and Kafka's Der Verschollene". Monatshefte Vol. 93. 1 (2001): 53-72. U of Wisconsin System, 2001. EBSCO. Web. 30 June 2015.
Lane, Eve. Re-Defining the Victorian Ideal: The Productive Transformative Family in Sensation Fiction. Mount Allison U, 2009. Web. 1 July 2015.
Langland, Elizabeth. Nobody’s Angels: Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995. Print.
Magham, Andrew. “’Murdered at the Breast’: Maternal Violence and the Self-Made Man in Popular Victorian Culture”, Critical Survey Vol. 16. 1 (2004): 20-34. EBSCO. Web. 6 July 2015.
Morini, Massimiliano. “Point of View in First-Person Narratives: A Deictic Analysis of David Copperfield”. U of Udine. EBSCO. Web. 6 July 2015.
Thaden, Barbara Z. "The Maternal Voice in Victorian Fiction." Google Books. Taylor & Francis, 1997. Web. 01 July 2015.
Walker, Pamela. J. “Adoption and Victorian Culture”, The History of the Family. Vol. 11. 4 (2006): 211-221. Routledge. EBSCO. Web. 5 July 2015.



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