David Copperfield: Victorian Hero

by Hamby, James A., Ph.D., MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE UNIVERSITY, 2012, 235 pages; 3528680


In his autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, Charles Dickens created a hero for the nineteenth century. Dickens based Copperfield not only on his own life, but also on archetypal heroes of mythology and fairy tales. In doing so, Dickens presented to his readers a new iteration of what Joseph Campbell describes as the "monomyth," creating a heroic figure who negotiates the challenges and uncertainties of a society undergoing radical social and cultural changes. These changes, including rapid urbanization, exploitative industrial labor, and shifting class structures, created a world in which older archetypal heroes and their exploits were far removed from the realities of Victorian life, thus requiring a new hero and quest as well as new symbols through which people could understand and define their own struggles and realities.

This study examines the ways in which Dickens incorporates the characters, themes, and archetypal structures of traditional mythology and fairy tale into the modern genre of the novel. As hero, Copperfield undergoes the cycles of the monomyth described by Campbell, namely miraculous birth, departure, initiation, and return. Other characters in the novel also fulfill archetypal roles. Aunt Betsey acts as a wise counselor who helps the hero on his way. Edward Murdstone fulfills the role of the fearsome Oedipal father whose authority Copperfield must overcome. Uriah Heep functions as the monstrous villain whom the hero must overpower, while Agnes represents what Campbell calls the "divine goddess," whose union with Copperfield signals the success of the hero's quest. This study explores Dickens's and Copperfield's achievement of a middle-class lifestyle with a loving family, economic success, and fame as an author, in terms of the novel's articulation of Victorian notions about success in life, and also in terms of the psychological dynamics involved in Dickens casting his own life into modern myth. Finally, this study looks at Dickens's incorporation of traditional elements of myth and folklore into the form of the novel as a means of casting his progressive social vision in terms of familiar cultural constructs.

AdviserRebecca King
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsEnglish literature; Comparative religion
Publication Number3528680

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