Places: David Copperfield

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1849-1850, serial; 1850, book

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Bildungsroman

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedBlunderstone Rookery

Blunderstone David CopperfieldRookery. Suffolk birthplace and boyhood home of David Copperfield, who often associates the place in his mind with the nearby tombstone of his father. Charles Dickens himself grew up in Suffolk and always tied it to childhood innocence. David’s earliest memories of happy evenings with his mother and nurse Peggotty soon give way to the strict and cruel house presided over by his new stepfather and aunt. He retreats to his room and finds refuge in his father’s books. This same room is a prison for five days of punishment which to the boy seem a nightmare of years. Peggotty tries to send him affection and tenderness through the keyhole, but nothing can forestall Mr. Murdstone’s determination to send him away to school.


*Yarmouth. Norfolk seaport, about 110 miles northeast of London, where Dan Peggotty and his three dependents live in a boathouse. Little David first travels here on a two-week visit, little knowing that he will return to a changed rookery with Murdstone installed as his stepfather. For David, the boathouse is better than Aladdin’s palace; he even has his own special room, something that becomes increasingly important to him. In later visits to the Ark, as he calls it, David brings his school friend, Steerforth, unwittingly leading to Little Em’ly’s seduction. Her surrogate father, Peggotty, then insists on placing a candle in the window as a visible sign that he welcomes her back home.

Yarmouth’s beach is also the scene of the tempest. The foundering ship is Steerforth’s “Little Em’ly,” and Ham swims out to rescue a lone survivor on its deck. Symbolically, both men are lost as the boat sinks, and when Steerforth’s body washes ashore, it lands on the very spot where the old houseboat, now wrecked, stood with its nightly candle.

Salem House

Salem House. Dr. Creakle’s school, where Murdstone sends the recalcitrant David. Dickens powerfully projects the unhappy boy, the lonely schoolroom, the wicked giant of a schoolmaster. When Ham and Peggotty come to visit David, Steerforth suggests that he would like to visit their boathouse. However, tragedy falls, and David is told that his mother and new brother are dead; he is removed from Salem House on his tenth birthday.


*London. Great Britain’s capital city, in which several sections of the novel are set. The first is at Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse in the Blackfriars district waterfront. Here ten-year-old David pastes labels on wine bottles in much the same way the young Dickens had been sent out to work in a boot-blacking factory in London. David feels “thrown away” on a deadening job and unable to express his agony. A lighter note is provided by his stay with the Micawbers, a happy-go-lucky and improvident family. When Mr. Micawber is imprisoned for debt in the King’s Bench Prison, David visits them, much as Dickens had done with his own family.

London is also the setting for David’s job as a proctor after he graduates from Dr. Strong’s school. He takes an apartment in Buckingham Street. It is from here that he courts Dora. After the wedding, they move into their new home in Highgate. It is a sweet, loving home, marred only by Dora’s ineptitude as a housekeeper: the food is raw, the pantry is empty, and the servants are ill-managed. Dora and her dog Jip die here.

The tense and unnatural Steerforth home is located in London, which is also the location of the Blackfriars Bridge scene. Here Dickens is powerful in evoking the dismal and defiled riverside, and in linking its miseries to a suicidal Martha Endell. David’s encounter with this fallen woman ultimately leads Dan Peggotty to Em’ly, who has come to stay with Martha in a decaying old mansion in one of the worst sections of the city.


*Dover. Southeast England port that is home to Betsey Trotwood. When ten-year-old David can no longer stand the misery of his job at the warehouse in London, he decides to run away to seek out his great aunt Betsey Trotwood. He has never seen her before, but the shred of a tender memory once shared with him by his mother makes him hopeful of finding refuge with her. His six-day journey begins with the theft of his possessions, his nearly starving to death, and his frightening experiences with robbers and a malicious pawnbroker. This journey through the countryside from London to Dover is the occasion for Dickens to display his unique combination of suspense, humor, action, and pathos. In Dover at last, the child is welcomed by his aunt, bathed, and put to sleep in a snug bedroom.


*Europe. Peggotty plods his way through France, Italy, and Switzerland, determined to find and rescue his niece Em’ly. In Naples, when Steerforth tires of his seduction of Em’ly, he gives her over to his valet, Littimer. She manages to escape him and desperately makes her way back to London. David, too, wanders for three years in Europe, unhappy at his wife’s death and aimlessly searching for something that is missing in his life. In Switzerland, Agnes reaches him with a letter, and he is encouraged enough to write a novel and then return to Canterbury.


*Australia. Southern hemispheric continent to which Dan Peggotty, Em’ly, Martha, Mrs. Gummidge, and the whole Micawber family go in the hope of finding new beginnings to their lives. Dickens sends his characters there in order to wrap up the novel’s diverse narrative threads. At the time in which Dickens wrote, Australia was a collection of British colonies that were notorious as the destinations of convicted scoundrels, rogues, and adventure seekers. Mrs. Micawber suggests that “For a man who conducts himself well . . . and is industrious . . . It is evident to me that Australia is the legitimate sphere of action for Mr. Micawber!”


*Canterbury. Cathedral town in southeastern England to which David goes to attend the excellent school of Dr. Strong. David again has his own room in a house where he is loved. After he leaves here to work in London, he is troubled to hear that Uriah Heep, who is in control of the Wickfields, has taken David’s old room. Later, when David ultimately realizes that he loves Agnes, he returns from Europe and finds his old room is in readiness for his arrival. Like a little ragged boy heading to a safe harbor, David is at last home.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Bloom’s introduction considers the novel as the original portrait of the artist as young man. Eight other essays, all written after 1969, include examinations of the novel’s moral unity and mirror imagery.Collins, Philip. Charles Dickens: “David Copperfield.” London: Edward Arnold, 1977. Brief study that focuses on the work itself rather than on Dickens or his methods. Discusses the novel’s specific strengths and weaknesses and examines how the novel’s serial publication affected its structure. Most useful for the student who has read some of Dickens’ contemporaries.Dunn, Richard J., ed. Approaches to Teaching Dickens’ “David Copperfield.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1984. Intended for teachers but fascinating and helpful for students. Includes descriptions of other books and materials useful for understanding the novel and for determining discussion topics and approaches for classroom use.Storey, Graham. “David Copperfield”: Interweaving Truth and Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A very accessible study. After three chapters that discuss the novel’s autobiographical elements and critical reception, Storey presents an extended reading focusing on children and childhood. Includes a bibliography and chronology.Vogel, Jane. Allegory in Dickens. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1977. In the chapters about David Copperfield, which make up a great deal of the book, the author proposes that the novel can be read–and was written–as a Christian allegory of the spiritual journey from Creation to Heaven. Thought-provoking, though not always convincing.
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