[Unless otherwise noted, all ellipses have been added by the author.]

Dickens and Carlyle

The opening lines of David Copperfield are, of course, among the most famous in the British novel: ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show’ (9). The narrator, in his statement of intent, pointedly avoids passing judgement in order to allow the text to speak for itself. However, suggested also is what Ackroyd implies in his description of Dickens ‘seeing’ himself in the novel; this is a novel of self-examination, an autobiographical attempt (if not by Dickens, then by the narrator David Copperfield) to gleam self-identity from the textual self-construct. Steven Connor notes of Great Expectations (similar in its use of the first person singular and autobiographical form), Pip’s ‘self is constituted out of language’, and so too, one might easily contend, is Copperfield’s (24). Not only is the world created by the author, but the self, the authorial presence, is also recognisable as a textual construct.

There is, however, also a third interpretation of these opening lines, that can most easily be illuminated by our knowledge of Dicken’s relationship with Thomas Carlyle. Charles Dickens first met Carlyle in March 1840 at a dinner party in Dover Street and, as Michael Goldberg notes, ‘from the first, the relationship was that of disciple and master’ (1). An instant liking sprung up between the two; Carlyle described Dickens in a letter: ‘he is a fine little fellow . . . who seems to guess pretty much what he is and what others are’ (Goldberg, 1). They would become close friends and, as Forster would later write, ‘there was no one whom in later life he [Dickens] honoured so much, or had a more profound regard for’ (Goldberg, 2). There seems little doubt that Carlyle and his ideas influenced Dickens, and that these ideas then diffused into the work of the younger author. Dickens himself wrote to Carlyle in 1880, ‘I am always reading you faithfully and trying to go your way’ (Goldberg, 2). Indeed, Ackroyd describes Dickens reading Carlyle during the writing of David Copperfield:

By the beginning of May he [Dickens] had come to a crucial point in the narrative . . . He was reading Carlyle’s Latter-day Pamphlets, even then being issued, and he was about to read Tennyson’s newly published In Memoriam; both of these books would have an influence upon David Copperfield itself’ (600).

The opening concern with the role of the ‘hero’ in David Copperfield might therefore be argued to be a diffusion of Carlyle’s own earlier concern with the heroic. Indeed, one is tempted to agree with Ackroyd’s argument that Dickens ‘could not have helped to be stirred by Carlyle’s encomia on “The Hero as Man of Letters”’, despite having ‘reservations about Carlyle’s worship of power, and the men of power’ (301).

Carlyle’s ‘The Hero as Poet’ (1841), describes a ‘figure of a Great Soul living apart in that anomalous manner; endeavouring to speak forth the inspiration that was in him by Printed Books’ (390). This figure attempts to ‘penetrate’ into ‘this divine mystery, the Vates’ (390). Dickens, in David Copperfield, if not overtly attempting this penetration into ‘the open secret’, certainly shows Carlyle’ influence enough for it to have some meaning and relevance within the text. Indeed, in David Copperfield, Dickens acknowledges the powerful influence of the successful author figure: ‘Your growing reputation and success enlarge your power of doing good; and if I could spare my brother . . . perhaps the time could not’ (708). David Copperfield can thus be considered, in light of its break from the targeted social reform and light comedy of Dickens’ earlier novels, as exerting a different sort of power from that of the social reformer, the power of the Carlylean heroic figure. This new stance does not represent that great a change, for, as Ackroyd suggests, Carlyle’s ‘Hero as Poet’, ‘shorn of its idealistic elements, is precisely the position which Dickens was moving towards; and precisely the role which he seems to have wanted to assume’ (302).

David Copperfield — a Personal or Universal Novel?

How then does one marry these two statements of intent, on one the hand seeking self-knowledge through introspection, and on the other aspiring to the universality of the Hero concept? It is well to remember Forster’s words on the autobiographical form: ‘Take autobiography as a design to show that any man’s life may be as a mirror of existence to all men, and the individual career becomes altogether secondary to the variety of experiences received and rendered back into it’ (13). The introspection and self-concerned nature of the novel does not preclude a universal relevance. Buckley makes the point that ‘Dickens frequently complained of having missed one real happiness in life, and David, too, repeatedly suffers from “the old unhappy feeling of a lack never fully defined” . . . But David is not to be consumed by restless desire; he ultimately finds the satisfaction his creator was denied’ (ix-x).

By writing David Copperfield, Dickens resolved his own sense of restless unease. This resolution assumes a greater significance when one places the novel in a historical, as opposed to a biographical, context. As a result of the vast changes Britain was experiencing — many of Henry Mayhew recorded — society itself was turning introspective, seeking a solution to its own wide-scale identity crisis. The great poetic works published in that year indicate this change; Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850) and Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) were published in the same year as David Copperfield, and, it seemed, if ever there was a time for the Carlylean Hero, that time had come.

The search for identity in David Copperfield then, is a universal search for identity and structure. Hablot Knight Browne’s illustrations on the title page of the 1850 edition further support this assertion. The lack of any image at all of the titular character draws the attention away from the individual concern of the novel, suggesting its wider relevance, whilst the image of Peggoty’s boat like the washed-up Biblical Ark implies the end of a trial, inferring the social problems of the previous decades. The fore-grounded image of a young, innocent Emily is rather more ambiguous, the image of vulnerability and innocence implies a certain hope for a society starting afresh at the beginning of a new decade, yet the knowledge of what will befall that character suggests an underlying sense of foreboding. These all hint at a wider significance of the novel — Noah’s ark, after all, provided for the rebirth of all mankind — and it seems to suggest a mixture of hope and fear for the future.

Language and the Gaze

The concern for authorship that pervades the entire novel marks the importance of the idea of self-expression as a way of confirming or creating one’s self-identity. As Garret Stewart points out, ‘it is a book deeply and variously concerned — one is tempted to say obsessed — with the ways and means of expression’ (836). Indeed, a great number of the main characters are authors in one sense or another; the obvious ones obviously being David himself, Mr Micawber and his great letters, and Mr Dick and his Memorial. The conception of authorship invoves a mastery of language that both creates a textual construct of order but also allows a control that order or, at the very least, influence over it. Self-construction plays an important part in this enterprise.. Uriah Heep, for instance, manipulates language to construct ‘an umble’ version of himself that allows him to trick his way into positions of power. From the very start we the text leads us to associate Uriah with language:

‘Though his face was towards me, I thought, for some time, the writing being between us, that he could not see me; but looking that way more attentively, it made me uncomfortable to observe that, every now and then, his sleepless eyes would come below the writing, like two red suns, and stealthily stare at me for I dare say a whole minute at a time, during which his pen went, or pretended to go, as cleverly as ever. [193]

This clearly marks some of Uriah’s key characteristics from the beginning — the idea of ‘the writing being between us’ suggests the text as an area of dispute in which battles may potentially be fought, under which lurk ‘those sleepless eyes . . . like two red suns’ that suggest a supernatural ability to observe and a strong sense of unease. There is a semantic field of vision (‘he could not see me’, ‘looking that way more attentively’, ‘uncomfortable to observe’, ‘sleepless eyes’, ‘stealthily stare’, ‘two red suns’) that implies a power present in observance. The early 19th century, as Jonathan Crary has argued, witnessed the ‘reorganization’ of human vision, and visibility became associated with power and control (Marsh, 276). The ‘Benthamite surveillance . . . where one was controlled by one’s own visibility’ meant that ‘“looking” was not to be divorced from “being looked at” and both contributed to the “disciplining” of the Victorian subject’ (Marsh, 276). In the conflict between David and Uriah, we can see the suggestion of this ‘disciplining’ through the act of looking.

The two kinds of observation differ in important ways. Using Norman Bryson’s division we can identify David’s observation of Uriah with the logic of the gaze, ‘prolonged, contemplative, yet regarding the field of vision with a certain aloofness and disengagement, across a tranquil interval’ (Bryson, 94). In contrast, Uriah exemplifies the logic of the glance: ‘a furtive, sideways look whose attention is always elsewhere, which shifts to conceal its own existence, and which is capable of carrying unofficial, sub rosa messages of hostility, collision, rebellion, and lust’ (Bryson, 94). This conflict of the gaze and glance continues throughout David and Uriah’s confrontations. Later on, for instance, Uriah again appears inextricably linked to a text with his finger making ‘great clammy tracks along the page’, David assumes a position on a stool that ‘was such a tower of observation’ providing close and continued observation whilst Uriah uses covert glances, ‘eyeing me sideways’ (202-4).

The visual struggle for power is not, however, separate from the struggle for linguistic supremacy. The textual record, such as the fictional autobiography David writes, acts as a kind of textual photograph, freezing the subject in time, removing him from his contexts (the reader is told very little, for example, of Uriah’s life away from David), preserving them and, potentially, deconstructing the self-created image (although the text inevitably constructs something else in its place to act as their signifier). Because Uriah attempts to obfuscate his motives and actions through his language (this, in terms of Crary’s argument, is an attempt to avoid or obscure visibility and so avoid and obscure its discipline and control) then the power of the observer is to undo and undermine this linguistic effect. That is, if David can see through Uriah’s construction of himself, then Uriah loses his power. The extended fear arises, given David’s authorial instincts, that Uriah might then be re-written, re-constructed, in such a way as David sees fit. Indeed, this is something to which the reader of David’s descriptions must be sensitive — that the Uriah of the text is merely a depiction coloured by David’s own personal views. An interesting implication then is that David, not just through the medium of the autobiography but also through his interaction with other characters, sense in some also constructs himself and that this is where his own discomfort at being observed lies.

Authorship and Expression: Writing Oneself

This sense of David creating himself, or at least, creating an external version of himself, is hinted at when he writes ‘I was so sensitively aware, indeed, of being younger than I could have wished’ before describing a statue of King Charles ‘looking anything but regal in a drizzling rain and a dark-brown fog’ (249). The comparison of the two suggests the fear of an obvious disparity between what the world sees and what one wishes the world to see. David, in this passage, fears being like King Charles, sculpted and constructed to appear ‘regal’ but appearing ‘anything but’. Again, we see this fear in the performative quality of David’s marriage to Dora; both David and Dora make pretences to the other. Dora attempts to appear ‘a wonderful housekeeper . . . and made quite a desperate little attempt “to be good” . . . but the figures had the old obstinacy’ (544), just as David ‘occasionally made a pretence of wanting a page or two of manuscript copied’ (547).

The theme of creating a textual construct of oneself runs through the text, appearing, for example, in Mr Micawber's ‘hiding the ravages of care with a sickly mask of mirth’ created by his elaborate vocal elocutions (228). The novel has numerous other examples. Thus, David describes Steerforth’s ‘easy, spirited good humour; his genial manner, his handsome looks, his natural gift of adapting himself to whomsoever he pleased, making direct, when he cared to do it, to the main point of interest in anybody’s heart’ (254). The fact that David acknowledges Steerforth’s ability to command this charm ‘when he pleased’ and his ‘adapting himself’ suggests a manipulation, an ability to use body language and speech as a social tool.

Interestingly, Steerforth's self-created public persona sometimes fails to convince. Agnes, for example, can penetrate his mask, warning David that ‘you have made a dangerous friend’ (313). Similarly, moments of such unease appear in David’s account, such as when Steerforth describes the Peggoty family: ‘they do not have very fine natures, and they may be thankful that, like their course rough skins, they are not easily wounded’ (252). David, who acceptss the image that Steerforth has constructed ‘believed that Steerforth had said what he had, in jest, or to draw Miss Dartle out; and I expected him to say as much when she was gone [ . . . .] but he merely asked me what I thought of her’ (253). This contrast between what David expects of Steerforth and what he actually does, marks the divide between the constructed image and the reality, a divide that is laid bare when Steerforth’s seduction of Emily is revealed.

Names Impose Identity

Names and of naming create David's identities throughout the novel as different characters each give imppose different names and labels upon him: He is called ‘Davey’ by his mother, ‘David’ by Mr Murdstone, ‘Trotwood’ by Aunt Betsy, and ‘Doady’ by Dora. These names all represent an identity externally applied to David to which other characters expect him to conform. For example, Betsy, who wishes to emphasise any feminine qualities his imagined sister might have had (or indeed which she wishes her younger self had possessed), gives him the name that best represents this, and Dora wishes him to be childish and a source of fun and so uses a name that she feels denotes this aspect of him.

David does not object to any of these names, except for the label ‘he bites’ for which he ‘suffered’ (74). Indeed, David seems to assimilate and successfully reconcile himself with these identities provided for him. The fear of the sign at Salem House was that he himself began to believe it: ‘I recollect that I positively began to have a dread of myself, as a kind of wild boy who did bite’ (74). David at least partially acquires his identity from external sources, although as he grows older such imposed identities occur less and less. ‘Doady,’ the only name he acquires in the second half of the novel, comes from Dora, and its childishness appears reflected in her name for herself: ‘It is a stupid name . . . Child-wife’ (543).

If the names others give upon David impose an external identity upon him, then other characters too have to reconcile themselves with that externality. Mr Dick, in shortening his name, has yet to achieve this reconciliation: ‘You are not to suppose that he hasn’t got a longer name, if he chose to use it . . . Mr Richard Mambley — that’s the gentleman’s true name . . . But don’t you call him by it, whatever you do. He can’t bear his name’ (176). The Memorial, ‘about his own history’, with the feverish turmoil signified by King Charles the First, abortively attempts autobiographical self-construction, similar to David’s own written history. That he fails to complete the Memorial, and that he never takes on his full name, suggests the inner turmoil that Betsy Trotwood describes: ‘He connects his illness with great disturbance and agitation . . . and that’s [Kind Charles the First] the figure . . . which he chooses to use’ (179). The act of attaching the troubling text to a kite because ‘when it flies high, it takes the facts a long way. That’s my manner of diffusing ‘em’, is particularly interesting (177). The ‘facts’ do not agree with his own findings: ‘So the books say, but I don’t know how that can be’ (177). The act of ‘diffusing’ them then is an attempt to dispel the external identities that society assign to him.

David's Agnes — The Vates?

David finds his happy conclusion in his marriage to Agnes (737). However, the imagery that David applies to Agnes throughout the novel renders a symbolic quality to this resolution that pertains to the universal relevance of David Copperfield. Agnes is described from early on using religious imagery:

I cannot call to mind where or when, in my childhood, I had seen a stained glass window in a church . . . but I know that when I saw her [Agnes] turn around . . . I thought of that window; and that I associated something of its tranquil brightness with Agnes Wickfield ever afterwards. [194]

David frequently uses such religious imagery when referring to her and his feelings for her, thereby implying that their relationship and eventual happiness have a universal moral quality. This morality began as the chaste love for a sister before developing into romantic love — ‘It was for me to guard this sister affection with religious care’ David contrasts it to destructive romances (706). For example, in Chapter XXV ‘Good and Bad angels’ then she, his ‘good angel’ provides an obvious contrast to his ‘bad angel’ Steerforth, about whom she warns him. Not just their individual characters but also the kind of love they represent provides a dramatic contrast. Agnes represents moral, practicable love while Steerforth, with his manipulative charm and affair with Emily represents the opposite, an impatient, fleeting, ultimately destructive romance. Agnes’ love ultimately creates — she bears children for David — continually contrasted with David’s unsatisfactory adolescent romantic attachments: ‘Agnes laughed . . . and told me . . . she thought she should keep a little register of my violent attachments, with the date, duration, and termination of each’ (313).

The most notable of such contrasts involves Agnes and Dora. David and Dora’s relationship turns out to be one of impracticality and dissatisfaction on both sides. Acknowledging his dissatisfaction with her, Dora wishes ‘that I could have gone down into the country for the whole year, and lived with Agnes . . . I think she might have improved me’ (544). She remonstrates too, ‘I didn’t marry to be reasoned with. If you meant to reason with such a poor little thing as I am, you ought to have told me so, you cruel boy!’ (536). David, who voices his dissatisfaction with her housekeeping, wishes she were more practical (536). The contrast between the town women David loves appears most clearly in Dora’s own comparisons of herself with Agnes, as well as in Dora’s reliance on Agnes even at the wedding: ‘of Dora’s trembling less and less, and always clasping Agnes by the hand’ (533).

The contrasts between the two women appear with particular force in the language used to describe them. The text describes Dora in terms of visions and dreams: ‘There are the names, in the sweet old visionary connexion, David Copperfield and Dora Spenlow’ (529). David states ‘I am in a dream, a flustered, happy, hurried dream’ (529). He later writes: ‘it seemed to me as if our courtship and marriage were a tender dream of mine, and the night when I first listened to her voice were not yet over’ (543). These descriptions of Dora contrast starkly with the practical, religiously felt descriptions of Agnes — from the very first she is described as a ‘little housekeeper’ (194). She is often referred to in terms of light, when, for example, David receives her letter from abroad he writes: ‘yet felt that the night was passing from my mind, and all its shadows clearing, there was no name for the love I bore her, dearer to me, henceforward, than ever until then’ (687). The final emphasis is of Agnes ‘pointing upward . . . pointing to that sky above me’ (709), and ‘shining on me like a Heavenly light by which I see all other objects, is above them and beyond them all. And that remains’ (737). The effect of this is to create a sense of salvation, of a resolution in the reconciling of the internal and external identities that conflict throughout the book.

The internal conflict is over: ‘that sky above me, where, in the mystery to come, I might yet love her with a love unknown on earth, and tell her what the strife had been within me when I loved her here’ (709). The novel ends on this hopeful note, which takes on a universal quality. Equating Agnes to an angel, to a religious redemption, implies a universal moral resolution to which society may aspire, which transcends the immediate romance which David feels for her — a romance which is more spiritual than worldly.

In 1849 Matthew Arnold in 1849 wrote that ‘“modern” society [was] defined by ambition, greed, “sick hurry,” and “divided aims” . . . “these are damned times”’ (25). In this context, the contrast becomes one between the immediate lusts and desires that writers such as Marx and Engels (The Manifesto of the Communist Party was published in London in 1848) as well as Arnold, had argued had caused much of the troubles of the 1840s, and the patient, faithful morality (represented by Agnes) along with the earnest hard work of David himself, that would, the optimism of David Copperfield suggests, redeem and reconcile these troubles.

The broader meaning of this contrast appears in Traddles's words on the closing page of the novel:

Except the Beauty . . . Yes. It was very unfortunate that she should marry such a vagabond. But there was a certain dash and glare about him that caught her. However, now we have got her safe at our house, and got rid of him, we must cheer her up again’ (737).

‘Dash and glare’ represent the same superficial charm that attracted the ‘ambition, greed, and “sick hurry”’ of Emily to Steerforth, or Annie Strong to Jack Maldon (or vice-versa), being something that must be ‘got rid of’; ‘the Beauty’, a nameless, unknown character, here perhaps represent society itself, ‘safe at home’ after a turbulent decade, and in need of ‘cheering up again’.

The novel clearly states Dickens introspective search for a way out of the problems of the 1840s: ‘What Julia calls “society,” I see; among it Mr. Jack Maldon . . . But when society is the name for such hollow gentlemen and ladies, Julia, and when its breeding is professed indifference to everything that can advance or can retard mankind, I think we must have lost ourselves in that same Desert of Sahara, and had better find the way out’ (736). David Copperfield, in this sense, makes a broad attempt to reclaim identity, both personally and socially, after the ‘sick rush’ of expansion and industrialisation of the 1840s. The novel provides a humanized sense of order in its values as an antidote to the dehumanized industrialised society in which its readers had found themselves. The line, ‘I was to discipline my heart, and do my duty to her’, provides a good example of this (706).

Stephen Connor argues that ‘there is an abundance of “life” to be found in Dickens, but it is a heaving, surging, uncontrollable kind of life, that vandalises the organic ideals of spontaneous, self-creating unity, the orderly unfolding of natural and immanent design and the alloying of inner essence and outward appearance’ (2). Yet there is a sense of the ‘unfolding of natural and immanent design’ in David’s relationship with Agnes: ‘I knew, almost as if I had known this story, that there was something inexplicably gentle and softened, surrounding you’ (709). Dickens, perhaps more than at any other time in his career, presents a work deeply concerned with ‘organic form’, emphasising self-creation, natural progression, and, most particularly, the ‘alloying’ or reconciliation of the internal with the external. David, in the resolution, has achieved the Carlylean Heroic role; he has ‘been able to comprehend the world, and in so doing to create himself as “the hero of [his] life”’ (Hornback, 56). This marks the completion, and what is revealed, what wisdom has been gleamed, the ‘Vates’, is related in his spiritual, religious love: ‘as I close my task . . . these faces fade away. But, one face . . . is above them and beyond them all. And that remains. . . . O Agnes, O my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I . . . still find thee near me, pointing upward!’ (737).


Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Bryson, Norman. Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze. London: Macmillan, 1983.

Buckley, Jerome H., ‘Preface’, in Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Norton Critical Edition, ed. by Jerome H. Buckley. London: Norton, 1990: pp. vii-xii.

Carlyle, Thomas. ‘Lecture III, The Hero as Poet. Dante; Shakespeare’ from On Heroes and Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841) quoted from A Carlyle Reader, ed. G.B. Tennyson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964, repr. 1984: pp. 388-407.

Connor, Steven. ‘Introduction’ to Charles Dickens, ed. Steven Connor. New York: Longman, 1996. pp. 1-30.

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield, Norton Critical Edition, ed. by Jerome H. Buckley. London: Norton, 1990.

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens Vol. 3: 1852-70. London: Chapman and Hall, 1874.

Goldberg, Michael. Carlyle and Dickens. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1972.

Hornback, Bert G., “The Hero of my Life”: Essays on Dickens. London: Ohio University Press, 1981.

Marsh, Joss. ‘Spectacle’, in A Companion to Victorian Literature, ed. by Herbert Tucker. London: Blackwell, 1999: pp. 276-89.

Stewart, Garrett. ‘Mr. Micawber’s novel’, in Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Norton Critical Edition, ed. by Jerome H. Buckley. London: Norton, 1990: pp. 836-43.

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Last modified 14 December 2010