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Dickens’ portrayal of the family in David Copperfield is an interesting one; almost none of the characters has a complete family. There are countless examples of orphans, single parents, and even completely heretical perversions of the traditional family. The effect of these fragmented homes is to emphasize characters’ loneliness, the fragility of the family, and the importance of forming other bonds of friendship and responsibility. Dickens came from a large, poor family and argues that family is not to be solely relied upon; also, that a family must not necessarily be based upon blood ties.
A family can be any group of people who love and support each other, in the novel both Mr. Peggotty’s family and David’s family are such examples. On the other hand, Steerforth’s family, albeit more traditional, is a loveless one, and splinters easily.
Mr. Peggotty’s family is one of the sturdiest families in the novel. At the same time it is most certainly the least traditional.
Daniel Peggotty is the head of the family; he is the generous, manly, father figure. He not only takes in Ham and Emily as orphans, but also makes a home for Mrs. Gummidge, the widow of his partner. Mrs. Gummidge’s role in the family is an odd one. She had “rather a fretful disposition, and she whimpered more sometimes than was comfortable for other parties in so small an establishment” (35). Mrs. Gummidge would have no proper place in a traditional family, but in Peggotty’s family is a loved member who, throughout the plot, changes considerably from a simple nag to a strong support.
Ham has the role of son to Mr. Peggotty and brother to Emily. He is strong and becomes a fisherman under the guidance of Daniel. Emily is the baby of the family; she is spoiled and constantly doted on. She is also the binding agent of this family; she is beloved by all, and when she elopes, it is near disaster for the family as all members are broken hearted. It is during this time of fragility where the family could have collapsed that its true strength emerges. Mr. Peggotty and Ham, both realize that it is senseless to be angered and hope only for Emily’s return. Even Mrs. Gummidge realizes the time of need and begins to show a quiet strength. When Emily does return, the family emigrates to Australia, but remains together so as to continue to support each other. Mr. Peggotty’s family is composed of his partners Widow, two orphans, and himself a “bacheldore” (31). This type of family arrangement would have been rare in Dickens’ nineteenth century. But, nevertheless Dickens shows that when a family is one filled with support and love it does not need to be traditional in order to be safe, healthy, and reliable.
David’s family with Aunt Betsey is a peculiar one at best. Aunt Betsey is no doubt the head of this arrangement, while David and Mr. Dick are its members. Mr. Dick and Aunt Betsey have lived together ever since David’s unborn sister “disappointed her”. Betsey takes Mr. Dick (Richard Babley) into her home so as to avoid his being sent to an asylum. She is willing to accept him as a member of her family: “I am not afraid of him, I am not proud, I am ready to take care of him, and shall not ill-treat him as some people have done” (190). Later, when David arrives, he becomes the third member of this family. When Mr. Dick is made aware that he should consider [himself] guardian, jointly with [Betsey], of [David],”; he is “delighted to be the guardian of David’s son” (201). David “never thought that she had a curious couple of guardians, in [his) aunt and Mr. Dick,”; he was like one in a dream” (201). Dickens emphasizes David’s realization that his new family, although not traditional, will be a new and much happier beginning for him. This family differed greatly from the traditional family, and Dickens uses this to reinforce the idea that even in such unlikely families, individuals can come together and rely on each other if they shared concern and love for one another.
Steerforth’s family is a more traditional one in the novel; however, it is one of a single parent. Mrs. Steerforth along with her long time companion Rosa Dartle head the family whose only other member is James Steerforth. From the beginning Dickens illustrates problems within the family. There is a sense of tension both between Rosa and Steerforth. There is an unhealthy attachment between Mrs. Steerforth and her son; she can speak of nothing but him. She tells David that she sent James to Salem House so that he would find “himself the monarch of the place, and he haughtily determined to be worthy of his station. It was like himself” (276). This family arrangement was an unhealthy one and is an example of the fragility of family. Rosa’s role is perplexing; she was scarred by James with a hammer and carries this memory very bitterly. At first it is hard to understand why she remains with the family, but later on it becomes known that she is in love with James. The ties of the family are weak and superficial; its fragility is revealed when confronted with the crisis of James’ affair with Emily. The family, filled with deceit begins to collapse and continues to splinter until James is dead. Dickens’ portrayal of this shattered upper class family reinforces the idea that family is more than simple blood ties.
Dickens portrays family in a variety of lights in David Copperfield. Blood ties are not always reliable as several examples of flawed families demonstrate. Many families in the novel are joined together by other means, by several individuals’ need for each other. Dickens believed such families could grow stronger ties than blood. Families need not be traditional, for even if they are traditional that does not mean they will be happy, they need only to be loving and the members need only share bonds of responsibility and happiness.
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