David Copperfield

Book review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
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Dickens' coming-of-age epic is a timeless treasure.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Dickens shows readers details of 19th-century English life, including diet, education and careers, and the fate of borrowers who can't pay their debts. He also shows the hard lives of seamen, and the limits of gender roles at the time the novel takes place.

Positive Messages

Children should be raised with loving kindness and treated with gentleness.

Positive Role Models & Representations

A loving and resilient child, David grows to be a man of integrity and understanding. He pities rather than judges those who make mistakes, and he forgives his friends' worst transgressions. He never turns up his nose at the less fortunate or less educated. He becomes a true and forgiving friend, a devoted nephew, and a faithful husband. 


David is beaten badly once as a child, and he bites the perpetrator. He witnesses a tinker beating a woman; she's described as bloodied, lying in the road. David later fights twice with a butcher, who leaves wounds on David's face the first time, but David wins the second fight. Boys are caned at school, and David learns that as a boy, a school friend hit a woman with a hammer. Drowning deaths are described.


David falls in love a few times in the novel and shares a couple of kisses. A couple of young women are "ruined" and "disgraced," but their mistakes are understood rather than described.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Young David gets ale from a barmaid when he's only about 11. At a housewarming dinner in his own home, David drinks so much wine that he fades in and out of consciousness; he describes the room spinning when he goes to bed. An older man is preyed upon by an employee, who gets his boss drunk repeatedly to dupe him into signing documents and agreeing to things he doesn't remember afterward. Men smoke cigars and pipes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Charles Dickens' classic novel David Copperfield is loosely based on the life of the author. It tells the story of the hardships, changes, and good fortune that David encounters on his life journey. The book was serialized (1849-50) before it was first published in book form in 1850. Dickens is beloved for his complex rags-to-riches stories; realistic, sympathetic views of class disparities and poverty; and unforgettable characters like David. Dickens is also remembered as a writer who was paid by the word for his serialized novels, so this story is long but enthralling. It includes some violence against children, drownings at sea, cigar and pipe smoking, and some troubling alcohol abuse. This book has been adapted for the screen multiple times. The 1935 version featuring W.C. Fields is especially delightful, as is a 1999 BBC special starring Bob Hoskins and a very young Daniel Radcliffe. A 2020 film with Dev Patel as the main character includes a diverse cast, and is told in a series of flashbacks. David Copperfield is available in an excellent audiobook version read by Richard Armitage.

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What's the story?

Charles' Dickens semi-autobiographical novel DAVID COPPERFIELD begins on the night of the title character's birth, when David's paternal aunt, Betsey Trottwood, pays a visit to his widowed mother. Young David is doted on by his sweet, young mother and his devoted nurse, Peggotty, who takes David to Yarmouth, where he develops strong friendships with her brother and his family. Meanwhile, Mrs. Copperfield -- who is susceptible to flattery -- has been taken in by the hard-hearted Mr. Murdstone, who soon becomes David's cruel, demanding stepfather. David's life goes from bad to worse when he is sent away to a school where students are mistreated and the richest pupils lord it over the less privileged. David's saving grace is his friendship with the Micawber family, who are always broke and looking for a break. When the Micawbers leave town, seeking greener pastures, David feels alone, and he decides to strike out on his own, to try his luck with a relative he's never met. The story follows David's path as he comes into adulthood, portraying his friendships, loves, education and career, and the ways he tries to protect his loved ones.

Is it any good?

This classic coming-of-age tale is a delightfully entertaining, important work that's well worth its thousand-plus pages. Tenderhearted David Copperfield was one of Charles Dickens' own favorite characters, and no wonder. He represents Dickens himself to some extent, and he's full of innocence and goodness -- qualities that make him lovable, and easy prey to some degree. This lengthy novel is full of wonderfully realized characters, from eccentric Betsey Trottwood and Mr. Dick to the steadfast Peggottys to the mean-spirited Murdstones and more. It has some surprisingly modern qualities, as well, despite its vintage (1850). Betsey Trottwood lives an unusual, independent life for a woman of her time. Dickens also reveals the failings of "firmness" in child rearing and education, and he emphasizes the joys of marriage when the couple are true partners in their life and work. HIs relevant point of view speaks to the timelessness of David Copperfield.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what aspects of David Copperfield seem timeless and what seems dated. Does this story resonate with you as a modern reader?

  • How does society treat women in this novel, and what does the author seem to value in terms of women's qualities and conduct?

  • Have you watched any of the film versions of this novel? What are some of the decisions filmmakers made to fit such a long story into a movie-length work?

Book details

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