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SEBASTIAN LEHNER
David Copperfield as an example of the Victorian socio-critical novel
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Page 8

1. Family Conflicts – The Copperfields and Murdstones


Thinking of “Social Criticism”, huge institutions in society, like workhouses, industrialized cities or even certain governmental systems might occure to one’s mind in the first place. But many people forget that the smallest “institution” in society is the family. And the first socio-critical element in “David Copperfield” to begin with shall be the family itself. Therefore one has to know that families in the 19th century, especially in higher social classes, were organized completely differently than families are today. Usually the husband was the “big boss” in the house, whereas the woman had to be the “good housewife and mother” who had to obey to her husband. And the children, above all boys,  normally were educated very strictly, and once out of the age in which they had to be cared for by their mother, they were completely under their father’s control and influence. Dickens’ now wants to criticize this more or less “old-fashioned position” in his novel, but therefore he has to set up the right situation. So when David Copperfield is born, his father is already dead and he leads a very happy and comfortable life with his mother and their housekeeper Peggotty. He himself states that they “were all excellent friends”[3]. Now Dickens draws a sharp contrast, by letting Mr Murdstone break into this happy world, and makes up a criticism, by showing how conflicts in a formerly conflict-less family can evolve. Therefore he uses the widely acknowledged image of the cruel stepfather and Mr Murdstone as a symbol for the typical behaviour of many higher-class men towards their wives and children.

[3] Dickens, Charles, David Copperfield, p.29

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