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Discipline In Charles Dickens' "David Copperfield"

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In "David Copperfield", Charles Dickens reveals that discipline is like a weapon: those who misuse it are cruel, unjust, and a danger to everyone around them, while those who fail to use it at all endanger themselves and lower their defenses. Only those who use discipline properly can mature and live contentedly in this world. Extremists of any kind are unsuccessful, and never achieve fulfillment. As David embarks on his quest to maturity, he sees many different types of people, and learns through his experiences that balance is a necessary prerequisite for success. This need for balance and discipline can be observed in the names Dickens chooses for his characters, in his choice of wives for David, and also in his writing style.

In many of his novels, Dickens suggests the personal qualities of his characters using their names. The name Micawber plays on the word "macabre". True to his name, Mr. Micawber is "deathly" and "gloomy" as a consequence of his impoverished lifestyle. Mr. Micawber does not even show a glimmer of hope for success until the very end of the novel, when he decides to alter his lifestyle and move to the middle class. He no longer avoids creditors, and stops changing his name; finally, he finds happiness through self-discipline and responsibility.

Another one of Dickens' characters whose name reveals his significance is James Steerforth. James "steers forth" others to do his bidding in such a charming way that no one knows that his true motives are selfish. Steerforth is selfish and deceiving, but does not exhibit any discipline in his own life: he is always thinking of himself, and never about how others may be affected by his decisions. Due to Steerforth's undisciplined manner, his is fated to meet an early death.

Mr. Murdstone's name is also significant, because it blends together the words "murder" and "stone". Mr. Murdstone can be thought of as the cause behind Mrs. Copperfield's death, and is a perfect example of misuse of discipline; he constantly physically abuses David as a means of disciplining him. Dickens' strong disapproval of this violent manner of discipline is made evident in a number of his novels. However, "while Murdstone's severity destroys the personality, spoiling children is equally destructive in failing to discipline the mind" (Glancy, 83). Dickens shows equal distaste for lack of discipline through the character of Dora Spenlow, David's first wife, who is meant only to be "adored". Dora "is a favorite child of nature" who has never felt anything of "mental suffering [or] trial" (504). She is a mere child, one who has not experienced discipline of the mind and is therefore very immature and defenseless; like Steerforth, she is a casualty of a lack of discipline and defense.

Dickens' choice of wives for David also reveal the effects that discipline, or the lack thereof, can have on an individual. Throughout the novel, David displays the emotions of a rather "undisciplined heart". At one point, David thinks to himself:

For I knew now that my own heart was undisciplined when it first loved Dora; and that if it had been disciplined, it never could have felt, when we were married what it had in its secret experience...I had endeavored to adapt Dora to myself, and found it impracticable. It remained for me to adapt myself to Dora (647).

David recognizes that his heart is undisciplined for loving Dora, who is so childish and undisciplined herself; however, he does nothing to remedy the situation. Because he lacks discipline, he abandons his defenses and leaves himself vulnerable to disaster. "Decidedly he is not 'the hero of his own story'"(Gissing) and he is "blind, blind, blind" (467) because he does not have enough discipline to find someone to "sustain and improve him" (467); instead, he is married to Dora, who has "childlike beauty" (Needham, 47) and little else. Since David refuses to exhibit proper discipline, he cannot achieve contentment. He shows his discontent and misunderstanding of discipline when he thinks:

This is the discipline to which I [try] to bring my heart...It made my second year much happier than my first; and what was better still, made Dora's life all sunshine(647).

However, after the doomed Dora dies because of her lack of discipline, David finds a second wife in Agnes Wickfield, who has exhibited discipline throughout her entire life. Finally, "his domestic joy [is] perfect, [he has] been married for ten happy years" (810). In choosing Agnes for a wife, David has shown great discipline and discretion, and



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