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David Copperfield - Success and EthicsDavid Copperfield - Success and Ethics


David Copperfield (1849-50)

Written by the Englishman Charles Dickens (1812-70), pictured right.

First published as a monthly serial (May 1849 - November 1850.


Fun facts

  • David Copperfield is Dickens’s favourite book and character.
  • David works as a boy in a factory, as Dickens once did, when his father was sent to a debtors' prison (like the the character of Mr Micawber, famously played by W.C.Fields in the 1935 film, pictured right below with David). David Copperfield - Success and Ethics
  • Made into a BBC TV film in 1999. Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as the young David helped make him Harry Potter!


Key characters

David Copperfield, the novel’s hero and narrator.

Peggotty, his nanny.

Agnes Wickfield, David’s second wife and daughter of Mrs Wickfield.

Uriah Heep, villain who cheats his boss, Mr Wickfield.

James Steerforth, another immoral villain.

Mr. Micawber, a penniless spendthrift.


The storyDavid Copperfield - Success and Ethics

David Copperfield’s father died before he was born, and he lives happily as a young boy with:

  • his nanny, Peggotty, and
  • his mother (who then marries the violent Mr. Murdstone).

Mr. Murdstone and his sister, Miss Murdstone, beat him cruelly and send him away to boarding school, where he befriendsTommy Traddles (Traddles)  and the selfish James Steerforth.

Peggoty takes him to visit her family in Yarmouth, where he meets her brother, Mr. Peggotty, and his adopted children Ham and Emily.

After his mother’s death, David works at Mr Murdstone’s wine bottling business. He lives with Mr Micawber who is always short of money and flees from London away from his creditors.

David’s aunt, Miss Betsey Trotwood, and her friend, Mr Dick, then look after him and send him away to another school, run by Dr. Strong.

At school he lives with Mr. Wickfield, his daughter, Agnes (who becomes David’s best friend) and the evil Uriah Heep .

On leaving school, he and Steerforth visit Peggotty who has married Mr. Barkis. David then becomes an apprentice lawyer in London and falls in love with Dora, the daughter of his boss, Mr. Spenlow.David Copperfield - Success and Ethics

He visits Peggotty after hearing from Steerforth that Mr Barkis is terminally ill. After his death, Ham plans to marry Emily but she runs off with Steerforth, devastating her father, Mr. Peggotty.

Miss Betsey then tells David she has been cheated by a partnership between Mr Wickfield and Uriah Heep.

David’s request to marry Dora is refused by Mr Spenlow, but they do so after he dies in a carriage accident. David loves her, despite being silly, stupid and a terrible housewife.

Steerforth deserts Emily, who moves to Australia with Mr Peggotty. Mr and Mrs Micawber do the same after exposing Uriah Heep’s fraud against Mr Wickfield, so saving Miss Betsey from financial ruin.

A powerful storm hits Yarmouth. Ham is killed, trying to rescue a shipwrecked sailor who turns out to be the drowned Steerforth. Dora falls ill and dies.

David travels abroad settling in Switzerland, but his love for Agnes grows. He marries her and has several children, becoming a famous writer.


Lessons for success and ethics


1. Know the true meaning of humility

Uriah Heep’s false humility disguises his fraud and evil

But the really humble people selflessly love others (like Agnes, Mr. Dick, Ham and Peggotty).

 David Copperfield - Success and Ethics

2. Equal partners make the best relationships

David (Daniel Radcliffe, pictured right, in the 1999 BBC adaptation) is much happier married to his equal, Agnes, than the beautiful but stupid Dora.

He learns from Dr Strong’s wife, Annie that

“There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose”

In other words, married couples are happiest when they have the same aims and attitudes.

Annie Strong also says:

“My love was founded on a rock”.

Dora isn't David's rock but Agnes is.


3. Character means more than cash

Kindness and integrity are always more important than beauty and social class.

The rich and immoral Steerforth family contrast with the poor but principled Peggottys.

 David Copperfield - Success and Ethics

4. Accept other people’s weaknesses

David’s idolization of Steerforth blinds him to his selfishness.

Uriah Heep's mother also fails to accept (and so correct) her son's evil weaknesses.

Heep (Nicholas Lyndhurst) is pictured right in the 1999 BBC adaptation.


5. Be kind and assertive

Through his experiences with others, David:

  • gradually loses his gullible naïvity.
  • learns the importance of tough assertiveness (with evil people like Heep).
  • values kindness and humility.

David’s father advised his mother that:

“a loving heart was better and stronger than wisdom”.

 David Copperfield - Success and Ethics

6. Don’t get into debt

Mr Micawber (Bob Hoskins in the 1999 BBC adaptation, pictured right) is constantly in debt, because of his poor money management.


7. Don’t exploit the weak and helpless

The book shows the cruelty of:

  • child labour (experienced by David).
  • debtors’ prisons (where Mr Micawber is sent).


8. Determination pays dividends

Tommy Traddles, David’s school friend, is fat, bullied and without money or great intelligence.

But, he overcomes his problems and makes a successful career for himself.

 David Copperfield - Success and Ethics

9. Selfishness makes you sad

Like other people in the book, David is happiest when he gives selflessly to others, as in his marriage to Agnes.

But Steerforth’s selfishness destroys him.


10. Live in the present

Make the most of today, and don’t let the past get in your way.

“It’s in vain, Trot, to recall the past, unless it works some influence”, David’s Aunt Betsey tells him.


Key quotes on success

Ride over all the obstacles and win the race!, Steerforth.

Whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well, David Copperfield.

 Barkis is willin', Mr. Barkis.


Key quotes on marriage

There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose, Annie, Doctor Strong's wife.

My love was founded on a rock, Annie (talking about her husband). 


Key quote on money

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six (£19.97 ½ p!), result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery, Mr Micawber.


Key quote on the past

It’s in vain, Trot, to recall the past, unless it works some influence, David’s Aunt Betsey.


Key quote on time management

Never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time, Mr. Micawber.


Key quote on business ethics

Unless we do our duty to those whom we employ, they will never learn to do their duty to us, David (to Dora).


Key quote on ethics

Never said, my aunt, be mean in anything; never be false; never be cruel, David Copperfield.


Key quote on economics

It was as true... as taxes is. And nothing’s truer than them, Mr. Barkis.


Key quote on family

Accidents will occur in the best regulated families, Mr. Micawber.


Two literature websites to recommend 

1. sparknotes.com

2. litcharts.com


A big thank you to...

The BBC for the pictures. 

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