Adoption in “David Copperfield”

The Longing and Need for a Home

In reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, a British literary classic widely considered to be the author’s finest, the array of characters and the narrative thread is masterful. Dickens had a wonderful talent for encapsulating a character in just a few lines of dialogue, and could create compelling conflict with just his descriptions of setting and the appearance of the fictional figures. In David Copperfield, it’s clear that among young David’s yearnings, finding a home and a loving guardian is foremost among them. Both David’s parents pass away when he is a child, leaving him in the cold custody of Mr. Murdstone and his sister, Jane. David is kept emotionally afloat by the household servant, Peggoty, and the infrequent visits he takes to visit Peggoty’s brother and kin. But all in all, David’s time under the Murdstone jurisdiction is miserable, lonely, and full of neglect and rejection.

After running away from a job in Mr. Murdstone’s company, David finds his Aunt Betsey, who both he and the reader remember from the beginning of the novel as a cold and indifferent figure, intent on wishing her deceased sister (David’s mother) to have given birth to a little girl instead of a boy. But, contrary to the reader’s expectations, David’s aunt adopts him and spurns the efforts of the Murdstones to take David back under their custody. It turns out that the apparently doting figure of Mr. Murdstone is truly a monstrous character, while the aunt we assumed was so emotionally aloof is the true embodiment of love and care to the young orphan.

Historians have reflected on the efforts of the early Christians to save unwanted children from the streets of the pagan Roman Empire. Infanticide and child abandonment were very common practices, and apart from the care and hospitality of the early church, many unknown human beings would have certainly perished. In the story of David Copperfield, we see the same kind of explicitly Christian charity at work in the soul of Aunt Betsey. Faced with either isolation or cruel treatment, the young Copperfield is deprived of a foundational spiritual need: a secure and nurturing home to grow up in. Aunt Betsey provides the care and appreciation David never fully experienced, thus setting his life on a renewed track towards maturity and wholeness.

Set in the Victorian period of a quickly industrializing Britain, David Copperfield gives only a taste of the fast paced and increasingly fatherless landscape of our modern society. With children growing up in deeply wounded family situations, they, like David Copperfield, are being deprived of the love and attention needed to maintain a healthy sense of self. Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize Award winning novelist, was once asked what made her such a great writer. Was it her daily routine and writing habits? Morrison chuckled at the question and replied, “Oh, no, that is not why I am a great writer. I am a great writer because when I was a little girl and walked into a room where my father was sitting, his eyes would light up. That is why I am a great writer. That is why. There isn’t any other reason.”[1]

This “lighting up” of the eyes, reflective of a parental kind of love, is what all of us desire at heart, although it is never perfectly modeled in human relations. Ultimately we long to be adopted by God the Father, who desires that everyone become his own son or daughter in the heavenly family.

[1] Referenced from Donald Miller’s Searching for God Knows What. Thomas Nelson, Inc. Nashville, TN. 2004, 2010. p. 128

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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