David is the narrator and protagonist of the novel, which tells the story of his life. As a boy, despite his difficult upbringing, he is naive, innocent, and well-meaning. The adult David narrates his childhood experiences from the point of view of the innocent child rather than the more knowing adult. This means that the reader can often see characters’ true motives and intentions when David cannot. For example, he admires and loves Steerforth from the time when he first meets him and believes that Steerforth has his best interests at heart, whereas the reader can clearly see that Steerforth is a self-centered person who exploits David and belittles him. By the end of the novel, when David is an adult, he can see Steerforth’s selfishness and frivolity, though he still loves him and thinks of him at his best. This shows that David has grown in understanding, but retained his fundamental innocence.
Though David has a warm heart, he has weaknesses. Chief of these is his emotional immaturity or “undisciplined heart” (to quote Annie Strong’s words in Chapter XLV), which leads him to fall in love with and marry Dora, who is childish, frivolous, and unsuited to him. In doing so, he throws away the calmer love of Agnes, who is a perfect match for him, consigning her to the role of beloved sister. The death of Dora and other events in David’s life have a maturing effect on him, and he eventually realizes that he has always loved Agnes. At the novel’s end, she becomes his second wife, and they are blissfully happy together.
David’s story contains many autobiographical elements from Dickens’s own life. Dickens’s family, like David’s, traumatized him by removing him from school and sending him to work in a factory, to bring in much-needed money. They did so because Dickens’s father, like Mr. Micawber, was irresponsible with money and frequently in debt, leading to his incarceration in the debtors’ prison.
Agnes is the daughter of Mr. Wickfield and David’s second wife. She is the closest thing to a perfect person in the novel. She loves her father and David and is unfailing support to both men. Even when David marries Dora, Agnes selflessly puts her own love for him aside and never gives way to jealousy or melancholy. She remains a loyal friend to him, always willing to offer wise advice and affection, and also befriends Dora.
The handsome, charming, and wealthy Steerforth befriends David at Mr. Creakle’s school. David loves him and believes him to be a true friend; he is too innocent to see that Steerforth is self-seeking and vain, and that he exploits and belittles David. All these truths are, however, clear to the reader, thereby underscoring the gap between the naïve young David and the knowing reader.
Steerforth is a snob, as is clear from his patronizing attitude to people who are poorer and less privileged than him, such as the schoolmaster Mr. Mell, and Ham. The incident in which Steerforth scarred Rosa Dartle’s face for life by throwing a hammer at her reveals a disturbing streak of violence in his character. The incident prefigures the destruction and chaos he causes in Mr. Peggotty’s family by seducing Ham’s fiance, Little Em’ly, and vanishing with her. He is too frivolous and restless a character to love her properly and soon abandons her.
Steerforth does have the occasional glimmer of conscience, such as when, before he takes Little Em’ly away, he wishes he were as innocent as David. But he manages to ignore its promptings and continues on his immoral course. Steerforth’s death is as reckless as his life: he drowns when his boat is wrecked in a storm, clinging to the mast and waving a red cap in the air at the onlookers. Ham dies trying to rescue him.
Dora is David’s first wife. She is childish, frivolous and silly. More importantly, she is unsuited to being David’s wife, in that her mind is no match for David’s and she is utterly incapable of the most basic housekeeping tasks. On the other hand, she is a joyous, playful, and beautiful woman who adores David and inspires all who know her to love and protect her – including David. Her friend Julia Mills, while warning David that his attempts to educate her in housekeeping will almost certainly fail, calls Dora “a thing of light, and airiness, and joy.” Though David attempts to “form” Dora’s mind after they are married, he only makes her miserable and soon abandons the project.
Dora is never strong, and falls ill after becoming pregnant and losing the baby, either through miscarriage or stillbirth. On her deathbed, Dora tells David she believes that she married too young. Then, she tells Agnes that she ‘bequeaths’ David to her. David is grief-stricken by Dora’s death, but it frees him to give way to the quieter, more mature love he shares with Agnes.
Betsey is David’s aunt. She turns up at David’s mother’s house on the day David is born, but marches off in disgust when she finds out that the baby is a boy. David does not see her again until he runs away from the factory job that his stepfather, Mr. Murdstone, forced him into. He goes to Betsey, as his only known relative, and she adopts him and becomes a second mother to him. Betsey is an irascible but kindly woman who mistrusts the male sex, having been betrayed by a husband she loved. Her eccentricities include a fastidious dislike of donkeys trampling on her lawn; an absolute confidence in the remarkable qualities of the simple-minded Mr. Dick, another of her adoptees; and a concern that people should not make unwise matches, as she did. When David falls in love with Dora, she comments in exasperation, “blind, blind, blind!”/span>
Though Betsey at first expresses contempt for silly, immature and incapable women such as Clara Copperfield and Dora, she becomes very fond of Dora. This shows that in spite of Betsey’s abrupt manner and tendency not to suffer fools gladly, her heart is warm.
Peggotty is David’s nurse when he is a child. She loves David and cares for him her whole life. After Mr. Murdstone marries Clara Copperfield, Peggotty is David’s – and his mother’s – main source of motherly love and support. After Clara Copperfield’s death, Peggotty and Betsey become surrogate mothers to David. Peggotty marries Mr. Barkis.
Mr. Daniel Peggotty
Mr. Peggotty is Clara Peggotty’s brother. He is a fisherman who lives in a house made from an overturned boat on the beach in Yarmouth. Mr. Peggotty’s household is made up of orphans (Little Em’ly and Ham) and a widow (Mrs. Gummidge) whose fathers and husband were drowned at sea. He generously cares and provides for them all. After Little Em’ly runs away with Steerforth, Mr. Peggotty devotes his life to searching for her. When he finds her, he emigrates with her to Australia so that she can make a fresh start. David says of Mr. Peggotty in Chapter LI that he “thought of everybody’s claims and strivings, but his own.”
Mr. Peggoty, Ham, and Mrs. Gummidge are all simple yet virtuous people, and are contrasted with sophisticated villains like Uriah Heep and Steerforth.
Little Em’ly is Peggotty’s niece. She was taken in and brought up by Mr. Peggotty when her father drowned at sea. As a boy, David falls in love with Little Em’ly. She is vain, and has a strong desire to be a lady, which proves her downfall. Though she is engaged to Ham, she is enchanted by Steerforth’s wealth and charm, and allows him to seduce her and take her away from her family. When he abandons her, she is a disgraced woman. Eventually, she is found by Mr. Peggotty, who takes her with him to Australia to escape her ruined reputation and make a fresh start. There, she refuses all marriage proposals and devotes herself to hard work on the family farm and acts of kindness and charity to her neighbors. With Mrs. Gummidge, Little Em’ly is the character who most transforms herself through suffering.
Ham is a young fisherman who was taken in and looked after by Mr. Peggotty when his father was drowned at sea. He courts Little Em’ly and they become engaged, but then Little Em’ly runs away with Steerforth. Ham is heart-broken. He drowns while selflessly trying to save Steerforth from a shipwreck.
Mrs. Gummidge is a sailor’s widow who was taken in and looked after by Mr. Peggotty when her husband was drowned at sea. She complains constantly of being a poor “lone and lorn” creature since her husband died. After Little Em’ly runs away with Steerforth, Mrs. Gummidge, who had been devoted to the girl, undergoes a transformation. She stops complaining, supports Mr. Peggotty, and keeps his house while he is away looking for Little Em’ly. After Little Em’ly is found, Mrs. Gummidge goes with her and Mr. Peggotty to live in Australia, where she works hard on the family farm and even receives a proposal of marriage.
Uriah is a devious and hypocritical villain who stands in contrast to David. The contrast is made more visible by the fact that Uriah has a similar background to David’s, in that both came from poor families. However, they have responded to the challenges of their upbringing in opposite ways. Uriah has become bitter and manipulative, putting on a false show of being “umble” when he is really controlling others for his own ends. He feels that he is entitled to rewards to make up for the humiliations he suffered in his youth. To this end, he ensnares Mr. Wickfield, robbing him of his power and authority and embezzling his money. David, on the other hand, has responded to his difficult childhood by remaining trusting, loving, and honest. He gains his ends not by cheating others but by working hard and maintaining his integrity.
At the beginning of the novel, Uriah is an employee in the law firm of Mr. Wickfield. He rises by dishonest means to become a partner in the firm, and hopes to marry Agnes. His ambitions in law and regarding Agnes provide another similarity to David. It is perhaps because of these similarities that Uriah regards David as his deadly rival.
Dickens portrays Uriah as evil by using demonic imagery: Uriah writhes like a snake (the serpent is a Biblical symbol of the devil), and he has red hair and eyes. When Mr. Micawber exposes Uriah’s frauds against Mr. Wickfield, there is a terrifying scene in which Uriah suddenly drops his mask of humbleness and shows himself to be violent and full of hatred towards David.
Unlike Steerforth, Uriah utterly lacks a conscience. When he is imprisoned for bank fraud, he resumes his act of humbleness and convinces the prison reformers that he is a true penitent, but his hypocritical public ‘forgiveness’ of the almost entirely innocent David alerts the reader to the fact that Uriah has not changed in the least.
Clara Copperfield is David’s mother. Like Dora, she is beautiful, gentle, and loving, but also like Dora, she is childlike and impractical. Her second husband, Mr. Murdstone, and his sister, Miss Murdstone, are cruel to her, crushing her joyful spirit and eventually making her fatally ill. Betsey nicknames her “poor baby,” conveying her immaturity and helplessness in the face of the Murdstones.
Mr. Edward Murdstone and Miss Jane Murdstone
Mr. Murdstone is Clara Copperfield’s second husband, and Miss Murdstone is his sister. Mr. Murdstone is a strict and cruel man whose motive in marrying Clara appears to be to crush her spirit and control her, under the pretence of improving her mind and “firmness” of character. In this, he is aided by his sister, Miss Murdstone, who is a female version of him. The Murdstones treat David with equal brutality, and make it clear from the beginning that they want him out of the way. After Clara’s death, Mr. Murdstone takes David out of school and sends him away to work in a factory; David never returns to his household. By the end of the novel, Mr. Murdstone has married again and is reported to be destroying his new wife as surely as he did Clara. For a short period, Miss Murdstone becomes a paid companion to Dora, whom she bosses about just as she did Clara.
Dr. Strong and Annie Strong
Dr. Strong is the elderly headmaster of the school in which Betsey enrolls David to complete his broken education. A kind and generous man, Dr. Strong has married a much younger and very beautiful woman, Annie. Annie comes from a poor family and her relatives, particularly her mother, use her name to extort money from Dr. Strong. Annie is ashamed of their behavior, not least because it gives rise to a popular suspicion that she only married Dr. Strong for his money. Some of the people who believe that Annie has ulterior motives in her marriage also believe that she is having an affair with her cousin, Jack Maldon. Uriah Heep exploits both these suspicions, and tells Dr. Strong that Annie and Jack are lovers, upsetting Dr. Strong and driving a wedge between him and his wife. In fact, both suspicions are false. Annie is faithful to her husband, whom she loves deeply, and mercenary considerations played no part in her decision to marry him.
Mr. Dick encourages Annie to speak out her true feelings to Dr. Strong; this clears the air, and they are reconciled. The Strongs are an example of true compatibility in marriage. Though they are very different from each other in superficial measures like age and attractiveness, in Annie’s words, they are alike in “mind and purpose.”
Jack Maldon is Annie Strong’s cousin and childhood sweetheart. He continues to love her and tries to persuade her to leave Dr. Strong for him. Dr. Strong and Mr. Wickfield find him a job in India but he returns, ostensibly because the climate does not agree with him, but really because he cannot bear to be away from Annie.
Mr. Spenlow is the father of Dora Spenlow and David’s employer during his days as a proctor at the Doctors’ Commons. He dies suddenly, immediately after opposing David’s planned marriage to Dora.
Mr. Dick is a simple-minded man who lives in Betsey’s house. His brother wanted to have him put in a lunatic asylum, but Betsey is confident that he has a remarkable mind that only she fully recognizes. In return, Mr. Dick thinks of Betsey as “the most wonderful woman in the world.” Mr. Dick has an obsession with King Charles I, which distracts him from doing any useful work, and is trying to write his autobiography (“Memorial”). He has a gentle and loving heart; this, and his lack of intellectual rigor often enable him to know and do the right thing when more intelligent people are paralyzed by complexities. When David turns up, ragged and covered in dust, on Betsey’s doorstep, it is Mr. Dick who suggests that the next step is to give him a bath. When the Strongs are set at odds with each other by Uriah’s false accusations, it is Mr. Dick who reconciles them.
Mr. Dick loves to fly his kite, which he does with David.
Mr. Wickfield is Agnes’s father. He and Agnes are devoted to each other. As a friend, lawyer, and financial advisor to Betsey, Mr. Wickfield provides a home to David when he attends Dr. Strong’s school. Mr. Wickfield employs Uriah Heep as a clerk in his law firm. Uriah exploits Mr. Wickfield’s weakness for alcohol in order to gain power over him. There is irony in this process, in that Mr. Wickfield is so eager to see ulterior motives in others that he wrongly suspects Annie Strong of having an affair with Jack Maldon, but at the same time he is blind to Uriah’s motives, enabling Uriah to enslave him and to take over his business and his home. Uriah embezzles Mr. Wickfield’s money, but Traddles manages to restore it to him after Mr. Micawber exposes Uriah’s frauds.
Traddles is David’s schoolmate. He is a warm-hearted and loyal friend to David. Though he is poor, Traddles works hard and succeeds in scraping the money together to train as a lawyer. Against severe odds, Traddles finally enjoys success and a happy marriage to his beloved Sophy. With Mr. Micawber, Traddles plays a part in unmasking Uriah’s frauds and in restoring the money that Uriah stole from Mr. Wickfield and Betsey.
Mr. Wilkins Micawber
Mr. Micawber is a well-meaning man who is always in financial difficulties. He is unable to find reasonably paid employment and frequently receives visits from bailiffs and debt collectors, who seize his property to offset upaid debts. He spends some time in the debtors’ prison. Mr. Micawber swings between despair at his money problems and cheerful optimism that “something” will “turn up” to save him from ruin – the latter mood generally prevailing after he has eaten a lavish dinner.
The turnaround in Mr. Micawber’s life comes when Uriah Heep gives him a job as his clerk. Mr. Micawber is expected to collude in Uriah’s frauds. His conscience makes him miserable for a time and at last prompts him to gather evidence and expose Uriah. This is an act of selflessness because it involves losing his job. He is rewarded for his sacrifice when Betsey, grateful for the return of the money that Uriah stole from her, encourages him to emigrate to Australia with his family and loans him the money for his journey. He does so, and becomes successful and respected there.
The model for Mr. Micawber is widely believed to be Dickens’s father.
Mrs. Micawber is Mr. Micawber’s wife. She is from a socially superior family to her husband’s, and her relatives all disapprove of him because of his financial problems. Nevertheless, she is devoted to her husband, standing by him in his difficulties and never losing faith in his abilities. Her favorite expression is, “I never will desert Mr. Micawber.” Students of the psychoanalytical theory of the unconscious may wonder if this is because the possibility of deserting Mr. Micawber is ever-present at the back of her mind, however unacceptable it may be to her conscious awareness.
Mrs. Steerforth is James Steerforth’s wealthy mother. A proud and arrogant woman, she dotes on her son to such an extent that she has spoiled him. Mrs. Steerforth treats David contemptuously when he is not occupying his role of admirer of Steerforth. When Steerforth takes away Little Em’ly, Mrs. Steerforth blames Little Em’ly for bringing disgrace upon the Steerforth family. Mrs. Steerforth never recovers from Steerforth’s death, remaining bitter and quarreling with Rosa about who loved him best.
Rosa Dartle is a distant relative of the Steerforths, an orphan, and a ward of Mrs. Steerforth’s. She has a deep scar on her face, made by Steerforth as a boy when he threw a hammer at her because she exasperated him. The wound is symbolic of the inner hurt that she nurses as a result of years of unrequited and suppressed love for Steerforth. She has become bitter and sarcastic. She mercilessly picks apart Steerforth’s assumptions with seemingly innocent but pointed questions which she poses under the pretence of trying to educate herself. Like Mrs. Steerforth, Rosa fails to move on from Steerforth’s death, and the two continue to quarrel about which of them loved him best.
Littimer is Steerforth’s servant. He is discreet and polite, and has the impeccable manners of the well-trained English servant. Dickens calls him “respectable” so often that the word gains a heavy irony, which reaches its peak when Littimer colludes with his master in taking away Little Em’ly. After Steerforth abandons her, he suggests to Littimer that he (Littimer) marry her. When Little Em’ly reacts with horror, Littimer becomes her jailer, keeping her locked in a room until she manages to escape. Such activities, of course, are so far from respectable as to be morally depraved.
Miss Mowcher is a dwarf who is a professional hairdresser. She cuts Steerforth’s hair and then carries a letter from him to Little Em’ly which leads Little Em’ly to run away with him. Miss Mowcher is willing to carry this letter because she has been falsely led to think that it warns Little Em’ly against the predatory intentions of David. When Miss Mowcher learns of Steerforth’s betrayal, she is full of sorrow at the part she unwittingly played in Little Em’ly’s downfall. Miss Mowcher redeems herself by carrying out a citizens?’ arrest of Littimer and holding him until the police arrive to arrest him.
Miss Mowcher acts as a mouthpiece for Dickens in proclaiming the rights of people who are disabled or different to treated with respect.
Martha is a young woman whom Little Em’ly befriends when they both work at Mr. Omer’s. Martha subsequently falls into disgrace; it is implied, though not explicitly said, that she works as a prostitute. Martha is redeemed when she devotes herself to the search for Little Em’ly, finds her, and restores her to Mr. Peggotty. She is rewarded by being taken to Australia by Mr. Peggotty, where she marries.
Mr. Creakle is the brutal headmaster of the school to which Mr. Murdstone sends David. He never speaks above a whisper, gives beatings for the slightest misdemeanor, and is much feared by the boys. After David becomes famous, Mr. Creakle, who is now in charge of a prison, writes to invite him to meet some prisoners who are shining examples of Mr. Creakle’s reforming methods. The prisoners turn out to be Uriah and Littimer, who, David perceives, are not in the least reformed.
Mr. Barkis is a coach driver who subsequently marries Peggotty. He is a man of few words, and his courtship of Peggotty consists mostly of a single phrase: “Barkis is willing,” conveyed to her via David. He is a good man, though mean with money, which he keeps in a secret box under his bed.