5 inspiring life lessons from Charles Dickens’s “David Copperfield”

Charles Dickens packs the whole world into David Copperfield, his classic, autobiographical novel that presents as the autobiography of David Copperfield (meta alert), from his birth through adulthood.

We got off to a rough start, the novel and I. The first 200 pages rip your heart out, then stomp on it, then set it on fire. Sorry, but it’s true. Copperfield never knows his father, his mother marries a brutal, abusive man who beats Copperfield, then ships him off to a brutal, abusive boarding school, then Copperfield’s mother dies, then he gets shipped off to work in a factory, where he befriends the well-meaning but ever-in-debt Mr. Micawber and his family, who end up in the debtor’s prison. And it’s not just that it’s a devastatingly sad story. It’s devastatingly sad in such vivid, lurid detail. One understands that it is fiction, but it is also truth.

This is part of what makes Dickens so exceptional. David Copperfield is clearly a product of its author’s time, with references I know I’m missing because they are particular to 19th century England (and I’m still not sure exactly what “raised by hand” means*). But it also puts me so deeply inside the characters that I can experience their suffering and their triumphs and their longings, and they feel as fully human as yours or mine, which speaks to the universal across time and culture.

Perhaps, paradoxically, this universality becomes possible precisely because the world Dickens crafts is so achingly specific, the characters so exquisitely crafted. Every detail, from emotional responses to physical gestures, feels true, which is to say familiar, even with characters who appear for only two pages out of 904. Dickens takes no shortcuts to create and shape this world, and with all his excruciating detail, still, nothing feels wasted. Attending to every last bit of minutia, he breathes life into each fleeting moment and touches the core of what it means to be human.

The first 200 pages made me appreciate how hard it is to be human, actually, especially to be a human child. I had to read the book in private because I could not stop the tears rolling down my cheeks as I was turning the pages. If this sounds dreadful, then here is a good time to bring up that Dickens is brilliant at pacing. Just when the story feels unbearably sad, something beautiful happens, as when Copperfield runs away to his aunt and discovers that she is a caretaker of lost and gentle souls.

The autobiographical frame provides a handy setting for sharing life advice, and Copperfield collects quite a few gems on his journey. Here were some (but by no means all) of my favorites.

1. This from Mr. Micawber to Copperfield:

“‘My advice is, never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time. Collar him!’”

I might need to have “Procrastination is the thief of time. Collar him!” tattooed on my forearm. Or, scratch that (needles!) – maybe a microchip I wear as a bracelet that detects when I am procrastinating and provides me with a shock.

2. More words of wisdom from Mr. Micawber, who was never able to follow his own advice in this regard:

“‘My other piece of advice, Copperfield,’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure, nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.’”

3. When we first meet Miss Mowcher, who is a dwarf, she is portrayed as flighty, a comical and ridiculous character. We learn of her depth, her loyalty, her kindness later, when Copperfield very much needs the help of a friend and is skeptical that he’ll find that help through Miss Mowcher. She wisely advises him,

“‘[Y]ou know you wouldn’t mistrust me, if I was a full-sized woman!”

I felt that there was much truth in this; and I felt rather ashamed of myself.

‘You are a young man,’ she said, nodding. ‘Take a word of advice, even from three foot nothing. Try not to associate bodily defects with mental, my good friend, except for a solid reason.’”

She calls body differences “defects” because that’s how her society thought of them, but more characters in this novel beyond Mis Mowcher ask us to question what actually qualifies as a defect.

4. Early in Copperfield’s life with his whacky, wonderful aunt, Betsy Trotwood, she offers this beautiful life advice,

“‘Never,’ said my aunt, ‘be mean in anything; never be false; never be cruel. Avoid those three vices, Trot, and I can always be hopeful of you.’”

5. Again and again throughout this novel, Copperfield is taught not to abuse the kindness of gentle, generous, good-hearted people and never to underestimate the power of kindness and forgiveness to heal broken hearts. I can’t say much more and remain spoiler-free, but Copperfield learns, repeatedly and in a variety of ways, not to judge based on physical and social appearances but on individual character. What society might assume is weakness can actually be transformative strength.

While struggling to articulate what this novel is about for me, I told my dear friend Jessica Collins, “It’s like a prism. So much depends on what angle you’re looking at it from. So really, it’s about everything.” She suggested I write about what I see in the novel at this moment, so that is what I wish to leave you with:

David Copperfield is about flawed people trying to make their way through a world that can be beautiful and terrible. It is about what happens when people come together with respect, compassion, forgiveness, loyalty and what happens when they don’t. It is about finding a way to survive and thrive, in spite of whatever obstacles throw themselves in one’s path.

I needed lots a sweet treat to get through the soul-crushing first 200 pages.
I needed lots a sweet treat to get through the soul-crushing first 200 pages.

*Is it a reference to being raised without one’s mother, or is it a reference to corporal punishment?