David Copperfield and the Search for the Perfect Parent

(Banner Image: “The Momentous Interview,” by Phiz.)

by the Adaptation Stationmaster

Note: This piece discusses several characters from David Copperfield, including those who will not be introduced in the first week of reading, and, while I tried to avoid getting into too many specific details, I did summarize entire character arcs. The ideal reader for it is someone who has already read the book. It could have been posted at the very end of the last week, but I thought it would be interesting for the members of this club, most of whom I assume are familiar with David Copperfield, to read it this time with these thoughts in mind and see whether or not they agree with them. I’ve no wish to influence the perceptions of a first-time reader though, especially as my focus here is on the weaknesses of various characters and I don’t want to bias anyone against them.

Without further ado….

“Dead, Mr Peggotty?” by Fred Barnard. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham via Victorian Web.

Parents, both good and bad, present and absent, play big roles in much of Charles Dickens’s oeuvre, in part because parents are a big part of real life, but he seems to have been particularly preoccupied with parenthood when writing David Copperfield. He also seems to have been specifically thinking about single parents. (The only two-parent families portrayed in any detail in the book are those of the Micawbers and the Crewlers, and with the former, the dramatic emphasis falls on the relationship of the parents with each other, not on any of their individual children.) The motif throughout David Copperfield is also of a child being raised by a lone parent of the opposite gender. (Mrs. Markleham and her daughter, Annie, are the exception to this. Although Daniel Peggotty raises his nephew, Ham, as well as his niece, Emily, his subplot’s main focus is clearly on his relationship with the latter.) What really stands out about David Copperfield‘s exploration of parenthood, compared to previous books by Charles Dickens, is that rather than simply contrast good parents with bad ones, Dickens portrays a wide variety of parents, some of whom are much more sympathetic than others, but none of whom are perfect. The book could be seen as a study of all the different ways people can mess up their kids.

“Mr and Miss Murdstone and Mrs Copperfield,” by Sol Eytinge. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham via Victorian Web.

The most obviously bad parent in the book, though it’s implied he does love his biological son, is young David’s abusive stepfather, Edward Murdstone. He’s so bad in fact that it would be boring for this post to describe his flaws. A less obviously bad parent is David’s mother, Clara Copperfield. Unlike Murdstone, she loves David and is loved in return, but she’s also rather childish and selfish, using him as an emotional football when fighting with Clara Peggotty, the second most important adult in her son’s life. She does little to prepare David for having a new father in his life, leaving all that work to Peggotty, and when he reacts negatively to the news, she blames both of them. “Davy, you naughty boy! Peggotty, you savage creature! Oh dear me! What a troublesome world this is, when one has the most right to expect it to be as agreeable as possible!” For fear of losing her second husband’s love, she barely puts up a fight when he abuses her son. Given the emotional abuse Clara herself suffers at Murdstone’s hands, I imagine that last sentence will be criticized for “victim blaming.” But, rightly or wrongly, I think Charles Dickens wanted us to see David’s mother as somewhat complicit in the Murdstone regime. (When told that she’s “much too pretty and thoughtless” to have any authority in her household, David tells us his mother “blushed but laughed and seemed not to dislike this character.”) It’s not as if she’s incapable of standing up for what’s important to her. She does so to Peggotty when the latter disapproves of Mr. Murdstone. But, apparently, her son’s wellbeing isn’t important enough to her.

“I Make Myself Known to My Aunt,” by Phiz. Image scan by Philip V. Allingham via Victorian Web.

Unlike David’s mother, his great-aunt, Betsey Trotwood is willing to fight for him and does so. But she also makes no secret of the fact that she would have preferred for him to be a girl, calling him by the gender-neutral name, Trotwood, and using it to shame/inspire him. (“Come! Your sister Betsey Trotwood would have told me what she thought of anyone, directly. Be as like your sister as you can and speak out!”) David doesn’t mind this treatment; compared to Murdstone, Betsey Trotwood is a dream, but it can be seen as abusive from a realistic standpoint and, given the warts-and-all approach to characterization that David Copperfield takes, I think Dickens does want us to look at it realistically. (Keep in mind that his major novel prior to this, Dombey and Son, was all about a daughter who was made miserable by her father’s clear preference for a son.) But, of course, Betsey Trotwood mellows out considerably over the course of the book in one of the best and subtlest character arcs Dickens ever created. If there is a perfect parent in the book, it’s probably her by the end.

The indulgent Mrs. Steerforth and Daniel Peggotty are as far from the strict Mr. Murdstone as possible. But their love for their son and niece, respectively, blind them to any character flaws they might have until it’s too late to check them. (Ironically, the one time we read about Daniel Peggotty being stern with Emily, forbidding her friendship with the promiscuous Martha Endell, it proves to be a bad thing as Martha is shown to be a sympathetic character who needs a friend.) Even here though, Dickens makes a distinction. Daniel Peggotty remains devoted to Emily even after learning the truth about her and does all that he can to help shield her from the consequences of her actions. Mrs. Steerforth, on the other hand, never reconciles with her “ungrateful” son. Nor does she accept any responsibility for making him what he has become.

“Mr Wickfield and Agnes,” by Sol Eytinge. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham via Victorian Web.

Mr. Wickfield, Agnes’s father, seems to want his daughter to be an adult from the moment she’s born, raising her to take on the role of his (dead) wife. Agnes doesn’t seem to mind this and never says a word against her father, but Dickens clearly wants us to see it as unhealthy. “My love for my child was a diseased love,” Mr. Wickfield confesses toward the end of the book. Dora’s father, Mr. Spenlow, on the other hand, seems to want his daughter to remain a little girl forever. Not only does he not want her to marry David, his employee, but there’s little or no indication he wants her to marry anyone. What David says of Dora’s aunts’ treatment of her also applies to that of her father. “Dora seemed by one consent to be regarded as a pretty toy or plaything.” Certainly, nobody sees to it that she’s taught how to take on adult responsibilities. This leaves her, unlike Agnes, ill-equipped for the role of wife and housekeeper. Mrs. Crewler, Sophy’s mother, can be seen as a combination of these two dysfunctional parents, given how negatively she reacts to the idea of her adult daughter leaving her, though there the dysfunction is softened by comedy and by being seen through the tolerant eyes of Tommy Traddles.

Mrs. Markleham is quite happy for her daughter to marry, but her motivation for this is wanting a son-in-law whom she can guilt into giving her and her relatives whatever they want. She has no concern for how miserable this makes her daughter. She’s probably the most negative parental figure in the book apart from Murdstone and it’s a testament to the book’s variety that the two worst should be such opposites on the surface. “It’s very much to be wished that some mothers would leave their daughters alone after marriage,” says Betsey Trotwood of Mrs. Markleham, “and not be so violently affectionate.”

Dickens doesn’t give any simple formula for being a good parent in David Copperfield. He could clearly see that some parents hurt their children by being too affectionate, some by a lack of affection, and many by countless other ways. We get the barest glimpse of an ideal family at the end of the book with David, Agnes and their children. Perhaps it’s significant that the relationships between those parents and those children aren’t developed. But for all the problems he had with his own parents and his own children, and all the problems he observed in others, Charles Dickens never stopped believing in the ideal of the perfect family and this stubborn idealism is part of David Copperfield‘s appeal.


  1. Thanks for this wonderful essay, Stationmaster! I’m reminded of the famous Tolstoy line, “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”– and yes, Dickens sure does portray the many kinds of “bad” parents possible…the over-indulgent, the cruel, the mercenary, the controlling, etc. I do love how Miss Betsey, though we can’t help but love her curmudgeonly self from the first, really *grows*, too; she has a character arc, and, chastened perhaps by the memories of neglecting David’s father and his too-“young”-in-wisdom wife, Clara, she (while knowing that David has perhaps chosen an unsuitable partner in life) has infinite tenderness and time for Dora, calling her “little blossom,” and never trying to make her what she is not, but appreciating her for who she is. It is one of those unlikely, tender parent-child relationships in literature.

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  2. Stationmaster, this is a terrific essay giving us much to look out for as we read “Copperfield” and beyond! Thank you.

    Often times the best way to know what to do is by seeing what NOT to do, what doesn’t work. I think Dickens shows us what good parenting is or should be through his myriad examples of bad parenting. There is not one way and no right way to parent a child – each child is different and so parenting must be tailored to the child – but there certainly many wrong ways to parent. Those are easier to describe in novels because their bad effects are dramatic – just as evil characters are more interesting than good ones, bad parenting and its results are more interesting than good – and can then be followed by a statement or moral. In “Copperfield” we see this in Ch IV when David returns home from Peggotty’s to find Mr Murdstone is his new father who threatens to “conquer” him by beating him if he misbehaves. David reflects: “A word of encouragement and explanation, of pity for my childish ignorance, of welcome home, of reassurance to me that it WAS home, might have made me dutiful to him in my heart henceforth, instead of in my hypocritical outside, and might have made me respect instead of hate him.” And again, in Ch VII in reference to Mr Creakle’s teaching style: “In a school carried on by sheer cruelty, whether it is presided over by a dunce or not, there is not likely to be much learnt.”

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    1. It actually occurred to me after writing the essay, that Dickens does kind of give us “a simple formula for being a good parent” in David Copperfield. All of the worst parents in book see their children as existing to make them (the parents) happy. A good parent, by implication, wants what’s best for the child for the child’s sake. But it sounded better to say Dickens doesn’t give a simple formula, so I decided to just leave it at that. LOL.


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