The narrator and protagonist of this veiled autobiography, based in part on the author himself. David’s father, David, Sr., dies six months before he was born, and he further loses his mother when he is still a child. He is characterised in the book as having perseverance, but also emotional instability, which is an important point of the latter part of the book. After being adopted by his aunt Betsey Trotwood, he is called “Trotwood Copperfield” in deference to her wishes. Throughout the novel he goes by multiple names: the Peggotty family address him as “Davy”, James Steerforth nicknames him “Daisy”, Dora calls him “Doady”, the Micawbers mostly address him by his last name, and his aunt and her circle refer to him as “Trot”.
David’s kind mother, described as being innocently childish, who dies while David is at Salem House. She dies just after the birth of her second child (a son, Edward Murdstone junior, born to her second husband), who dies around the same time.
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David’s eccentric and temperamental yet kind-hearted great-aunt; she becomes his guardian after he runs away from Grinby and Murdstone’s warehouse in Blackfriars (London). She is present on the night of David’s birth but leaves after hearing that Clara Copperfield’s child is a boy instead of a girl, and is not seen until David is older and flees to her house in Dover from London. She is portrayed as affectionate towards David, and defends him and his late mother when Mr. Murdstone arrives to take custody of David: she confronts the man and rebukes him for his abuse of David and his mother, then threatens him and drives him off the premises. Universally believed to be a widow, she conceals the existence of her ne’er-do-well husband who constantly bleeds her for money.
Clara Peggotty (Peggotty).
Clara Peggotty is usually referred to as simply ‘Peggotty’ so as not to confuse her with David’s mother, who is also called Clara. Peggotty is the housekeeper of the family home and plays a big part in David’s upbringing. Peggotty is the sister of Yarmouth fisherman Daniel Peggotty, and the aunt of Ham Peggotty and Little Em’ly.
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Daniel Peggotty (Mr. Peggotty).
Yarmouth fisherman Daniel Peggotty is the brother of Clara, referred to as “Mr. Peggotty”. He takes his nephew Ham and niece Emily into his custody after each of them has been orphaned, and welcomes David as a child when he holidays to Yarmouth with Peggotty.
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Ham Peggotty is a fisherman and boatbuilder, the son of the late Joe Peggotty, and nephew and adopted son of Daniel Peggotty. Ham is described as “a huge, strong fellow of six feet high, broad in proportion, and round-shouldered; but with a simpering boy’s face and curly light hair that gave him quite a sheepish look”. Ham is the fiance of Little Em’ly and lives in Daniel’s house, an upturned boat on a Yarmouth beach, along with Daniel, Little Em’ly and Mrs. Gummidge.
Edward Murdstone (Mr Murdstone).
David’s cruel stepfather who beats him for falling behind in his studies. David reacts by biting Mr Murdstone, who then sends him to Salem House, the private school owned by his friend Mr. Creakle. After David’s mother dies, Mr. Murdstone sends him to work in his factory in London, where he has to clean wine bottles.
- In the 1935 MGM film adaption of David Copperfield (The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger, directed by George Cukor), the part of Murdstone was played by the South African-born English actor Basil Rathbone (1892-1967). That same year, Rathbone would play another villainous Dickens character when he took the part of Marquis St. Evrémonde in the MGM film adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, directed by Jack Conway. Rathbone is most widely recognised for his many portrayals of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.
Jane Murdstone (Miss Murdstone).
The sister of David’s cruel stepfather Edward Murdstone.
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Uriah Heep is one of the most notorious characters created by Charles Dickens in his fiction. We are introduced to him as a clerk to the lawyer Mr. Wickfield. After the tragic dearth of his wife, Wickford develops a drinking problem which Heep exploits, manipulating the financial affairs, forging documents and stealing from his employer. He manipulates his way into becoming a controlling partner of the business, before setting his sights on Wickfield’s daughter, Agnes, with the intention of marrying her and fully taking control of the family. Heep’s villainous activities are eventually exposed by Wilkins Micawber. Heep is gangly in appearance with short red hair. He continually refers to himself as ‘umble‘, the dropped ‘h’ suggesting his working-class roots.
Melodramatic, kind-hearted and foolish gentleman who befriends David as a young boy. He suffers from much financial difficulty and even has to spend time in a debtors’ prison before moving to Plymouth. As an adult, Copperfield meets him again in London and gets him a job with Wickfield and Heep. Thinking Micawber is criminally-minded, Heep forces him to be his accomplice in several of his schemes, but Micawber eventually turns the tables on his employer and is instrumental in his downfall. Micawber eventually emigrates to Australia, where he enjoys a successful career as a sheep farmer and becomes a magistrate.
- The character of Wilkins Micawber is based on Dickens’s father, John Dickens, who faced similar financial problems when Dickens was a child.