David Copperfield

By Charles Dickens

Symbolism and Imagery

There are several very consistent images and symbols in David Copperfield. We are told immediately that David is born with a caul (a foetal membrane that covers the head and is believed to provide safety at sea], creating an instant association with the sea, an image that also threads through Dombey and Son. As the novel progresses we appreciate increasingly how appropriate this is- the sea claims Ham and Steerforth, permits Little Em'ly's elopement and the various emigrations, and is the backdrop to the vital Yarmouth passages, for example. A consistent feature of the novel's symbolism is the use of smell to evoke a sense of place. Many of David's experiences are described by smells- examples include the "mouldy air" of his home's larder, the "smell of fish" at the Peggottys', the "strange unwholesome smell" of Salem House, the "bad air" of Martha's seedy boarding house, and the "smoke from damp fuel" that fills the air as David journeys to Yarmouth for the final, cataclysmic storm, itself an overarching symbol.

Dickens's habit of animalising characters can be clearly seen in David Copperfield. Mr. Murdstone is likened to a "deep-mouthed and black-haired" dog, and in turn compares David to "an obstinate horse or dog" when he beats him. David later comments that "he ordered me like a dog, and I obeyed like a dog". The association deepens when he is forced to wear a plaque reading "Take care of him. He bites" upon arriving at Salem House. The most animalistic character is Uriah Heep, and Dickens loses no opportunity to drum this home. He is variously compared to a snail, frog, vulture, fish, baboon, fox, conga-eel and mongrel-cur, and it is implied that he has a supernatural communion with animals- David sees him "breathing into [a] pony's nostrils … as if he were putting some spell on him", for example.

Another theme worth considering is the use of objects as mirrors for reflecting the novel's action. For example, as Murdstone quashes Mrs. Copperfield's spirit, David mentions "some shrubs that were drooping their heads in the cold". When David is alone at Salem House before term begins he imagines characteristics of his future classmates from their names, carved into an old door. As Mr. Dick flies his kite David "used to fancy… that it lifted his mind out of its confusion, and bore it… into the skies. As he wound the string in… until it fluttered to the ground, and lay there like a dead thing… I pitied him with all my heart". A final example is the wreck of Steerforth's ship at the end, "a maze of sail and rigging… a wild confusion of broken cordage" that acutely reflects the ruin of the Peggottys, who themselves live in a safely beached ship.