David Copperfield is the title of one of Charles Dickens' best loved works, and is also considered to be a semi-autobiographical account of Dickens’ early life. The novel is populated with numerous memorable characters like the eccentric Betsey Trotwood, the verbose Mr. Micawber, and the villainous Uriah Heep. David Copperfield, the central character, in particular exhibits the prized Victorian quality of earnestness.
While Oscar Wilde later lampooned the concept of earnestness in his play The Importance of Being Earnest, to the earlier Victorians, being earnest meant being hardworking, truthful and fair. In this way, Copperfield is the ultimate Victorian hero, who constantly strives toward right behavior and is ultimately rewarded for such.
David Copperfield is narrated by the main character and the reader first meets David as a child. His widowed mother is described as childlike but very loving. Unfortunately, she soon makes a bad marriage to Mr. Murdstone, who quickly sends him to a school where he is both mocked and abused.
After David’s mother dies, Mr. Murdstone rapidly disposes of his charge by sending Copperfield to work in a bottle-blacking factory. This section of the novel is thought to rely heavily on Dickens’ own childhood. His own father was for a time imprisoned for debt and young Dickens did in fact, black bottles. Since he resides with the Micawbers, and Mr. Micawber is soon arrested for debt as well, one can see the connection between autobiography and the fictional work.
Instead of remaining at the factory, Copperfield sets off to find his great aunt, Betsey Trotwood. His reunion with her, and her subsequent decision to raise him, helps him embark on a new life. The new life is not without its perils, especially in living with Uriah Heep, who clearly has quite evil intent toward the family with whom David resides, the Wakefields. Copperfield also forms an important friendship with Agnes Wakefield, who will become his counselor through the simple hardships of growing up.
Once he graduates from Dr. Strong’s academy, he pursues studies to become a proctor. However, he is cut off from his career when his aunt announces she has lost all her fortune. Instead, he learns how to become a law reporter, and falls desperately in love with the childish Dora. He and Dora marry, but Dora, like Copperfield’s mother dies after childbirth, leaving David free to marry his true partner in earnestness, Agnes.
The sections in the book pertaining to law reporting and to the main character's beginning career as a writer are often thought to be similar to Dickens' life as well. His wistful love for Dora, which is tinged with a whisper of regret for choosing a woman who is not like him in purpose, may also echo Dickens' regret of his choice of a wife. Dickens and his wife Caroline separated after many years together, and Dickens was known to have cherished a passion for one of Caroline’s sisters who had died young.
In addition to the exploration of the earnest life, David Copperfield is celebrated for its comic elements. The main character is a likeable hero, who navigates through the moral uncertainties of the time, and seems almost to deserve his end reward of marrying Agnes. The novel also gives us some, though clearly not all, perception into Dickens’ life, and introduces concepts Dickens will explore in several of his masterworks. Especially the issue of the proctory, touched on loosely in the book, became the central element of the novel Bleak House. As well, the brief mention of the Marshalsea debtor’s prison portends the main subject of the masterful Little Dorrit.