A Serial Reading of David Copperfield

This Newberry Seminar is now concluded. It was held in the spring of 2018.

Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield is one of the Victorian era’s most beloved books, filled with memorable characters, entertaining plot twists, and poignant insights. This seminar invites participants to immerse themselves in the world of the novel by reading it in consecutive parts reflecting the original publication schedule. Our spoiler-free discussions will also focus on the novel’s relation to cinema and other visual arts. Eight sessions.

Materials List

  • David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens. Norton Critical Edition. ISBN 978-0-393-95828-7
    Other materials will be made available online and brought to the seminar sessions.
  • For the first session, please read only Chapter One: “I am Born.”

Seminar Description

David Copperfield originally appeared in serial installments from May 1849 to November 1850, a period that saw some of the most historic changes in the Victorian era. This seminar, like many of my earlier seminars, employs the format of serial reading in order to explore the literary, cultural, and autobiographical dimensions of Dickens’s novel.

Our literary focus will be on Dickens’s use of the “older David” as narrator, and the sophisticated interplay of memory, representation, and multiple voices in the installments. And while dozens of topics for discussion of cultural issues will emerge in the novel, we will particularly note the influence that Victorian popular culture had on Dickens at this time, as well as Dickens’s subsequent influence on popular culture, including early cinema. To that end, we will explore examples of magic lantern shows, panoramas, and other forms of the moving image prevalent in Victorian society. Finally, as many critics have pointed out, David Copperfield is also Dickens’s most autobiographical novel. In the seminar, we will be able to trace those aspects of the fictional hero’s life and work that reflect the author’s own struggles and triumphs.

Dickens divided David Copperfield into 20 monthly installments of three or four chapters each, and these installments will form the basis of the seminar readings. Our readings each week will combine three of the original installments for a total of no more than 120 pages per week. We will also pay close attention to Dickens’s strategies of creating cliffhanger endings as well as “lead-in” introductions to many of the serial installments.

Each of the weekly sessions will focus on the features, plot developments, and specific themes of the installment at hand. I will also make use of a/v equipment (as available during the library’s renovation) to show images and film clips specifically related to the features and issues of each installment.


Week 1
To be read ahead of time: Chapter 1: “I Am Born” (pages 9-18)
Theme: Overview and Serialization

Week 2
Chapters 2-6 (pages 18-81)
Theme: “The Two Davids”: Autobiographical Writing

Week 3
Chapters 7-15 (pages 82-196)
Theme: Victorian Education

Week 4
Chapters 16-24 (pages 196-310)
Theme: The Moving Image

Week 5
Chapters 25-34 (pages 311-422)
Theme: Film Adaptations

Week 6
Chapters 35-43 (pages 423-534)
Theme: Economics and Culture

Week 7
Chapters 44-53 (pages 534-648)
Theme: The Importance of Character(s)

Week 8
Chapters 54-64 (pages 638-737)
Theme: The Nature of Conclusions

Image: “David as a child and Peggotty of an evening before the fireplace in the parlour” (detail). Second illustration on half-title by Fred Barnard (engraved by the Dalziels) for the Household Edition of David Copperfield (1872). Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham, on the Victorian Web.