Book Review: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

One of the most popular Dickens’ novels of all time is David Copperfield. Despite its word length, almost double that of Great Expectations, it somehow draws readers to it and keeps them reading chapter by chapter until the end.

There may be some profound psychological reasons for this, but for the average reader, it may come down to identifying David Copperfield as the underdog; an innocent and vulnerable youngster making his way to adulthood in a world out to exploit him.

And therein lies the appeal. Readers can see the trials and tribulations that meet David at every turn, knowing that without a family to protect him he will be prey to a whole host of thieves and thugs on his journey through life.

In some ways, David’s journey through life, is remarkable for it’s dearth of solid familial surroundings.

The death of his parents at an early age throws David into the wide world of nurses, relations, acquaintances, step parents, boarding schools, apprenticeships, employment: some good some bad.

But none of these substitute in any real sense for the lack of the family unit in his life. Dickens’ own experiences as a child, in the struggles that families encounter, undoubtedly impress themselves upon this novel to a great extent.

Indeed it might be said that the lack of a solid and permanent family unit for young David Copperfield, which forms the root of his problems, is the thematic undercurrent that highlights to the reader how important family is.

For this reason alone, this novel carries enduring relevance into 21st Century Western society: the traditional family unit is visibly under siege from pernicious liberal forces, determined to root out anything that has deep cultural roots.

But the novel offers a more explicit thread that runs from beginning to end. The continuing battle of good and evil that David encounters through Dickens’ rich array of characters, makes for some wonderful reading.

Who will forget Uriah Heep, the odious and conniving ulcer on David’s society? Or the lovably infuriating Mr Micawber, who comes to be one of David’s closest friends, despite his repeated falls from grace?

Throughout the novel, Dickens provides rich and striking examples of virtue and vice in a tapestry of characterisation, only found in the few great novels of our times.

The genius in the novel is to present to the reader, not any superhuman examples of good or evil, but real and everyday characters who fall or rise according to the challenges or temptations that come before them: greed, idolatry, selfishness, patience, loyalty, industry, charity, are all on display.

Therefore there is much for readers to juxtapose to their own lives, in the trials they have faced and for those to come. It might be said that the novel is in part a good example of character building for our youth: the pitfalls to avoid and the opportunities to express our deepest values in the face of evil.

Teachers should not baulk at bringing such a lengthy novel into their classroom syllabus. By carefully structuring the novel into readings to be shared across both home and class time, students will encounter and love one of the greatest novels of the 19th Century, which remains a complete antidote to the modern novels of victimhood and degeneracy proliferated around schools today.

There is so much in this novel to excite and mesmerise the reader, from moments of deep sadness to laugh out loud hilarity, that every students should have an opportunity to experience David Copperfield before they set out in the adult world.

This story is recommended for Grade 10 and up.

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