The Problematic Retrospect in David Copperfield with footnotes


Claire Ashworth

‘It’s in vain, Trot, to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present’

Aunt Betsey in David Copperfield[1]

David Copperfield (1849-50)[2] is presented as a fictional autobiography, constructed from the traces of remembrance. It is described by its narrator as a ‘written memory’ but the unreliable nature of this claim is often overlooked by readers and critics alike. At several stages in the novel David confesses his inability to distinguish ‘impression’ from ‘actual remembrance’ and admits to the ‘mist of fancy’ which hangs over ‘well-remembered facts’. By relying on associative memories, David is effectively able to reconstruct himself; simultaneously editing his imperfect past whilst escaping the guilt that, perhaps, ought to accompany it. David’s mind acts as a palimpsest and, because his memories are often subject to mnemonic errancy, he deceives both himself and the reader, thus creating a newly coherent, newly organised psyche. This essay argues that David Copperfield is a study into the capabilities of the mind and, especially, how memory can both faithfully represent and distort the past. 


Over the years there has been a wealth of criticism on David Copperfield, much of which focuses on its so-called ‘autobiographical’ nature which is often represented as an established interpretation. Many readers and critics have seen parallels, for example, between David’s fictional experiences and Dickens’s real life, as related in his autobiographical fragment.[3] However, it is important to bear in mind that Dickens wrote his autobiographical fragment with an adult’s perception of childhood and it is probable that his memories of the past were subject to the same ‘mist of fancy’ that David’s are. Therefore, whilst there are undoubted similarities in the histories of both Dickens and David, the two autobiographies are not the same, nor can it be ascertained that each autobiography is an accurate portrayal of the past, especially considering the influence of time. Consequently, this essay does not refer to the ‘autobiographical’ elements of the novel; instead it will focus on Dickens’s representation of memory in David’s character.     

In recent decades, there has been an increased interest in memory and trauma studies and there is a contemporary focus on disturbing memory as a potential cause of trauma. After well over a century of Freudian psychoanalysis, most people are accustomed to the idea that problematic or errant memories can be highly disruptive, especially if they are not fully assimilated within consciousness.[4] Freud’s model of memory lends itself very nicely to the present study and I intend to use his concept of the mind as palimpsest to demonstrate David Copperfield’s forgetting and subsequent rewriting of his past. The idea of memory as an untrustworthy source of information anticipates Freud’s work in several respects and, although Freud’s theories were written many years after David Copperfield, Dickens’s novel nevertheless raises several questions relating to the actual truth of a novel described as ‘written memory’. 

Freud spent his career developing his theory of memory and he offered a powerful metaphor for it in his 1925 essay ‘A Note on the Mystic Writing Pad’. In this relatively late essay, Freud wrote about the palimpsest-like structure of the mind and argued that ‘possible distortions’ can often occur in ‘actual memory’. He argued that our ‘mental apparatus […] has an unlimited receptive capacity for new perceptions and […] lays down permanent - even though not unalterable - memory traces of them’.[5] I am particularly interested in the ‘possible distortions’ and ‘new perceptions’ in this particular model of memory and I intend to show that David Copperfield displays these traits when recollecting the events of his past.  Furthermore, I will argue that David’s mind acts as a sort of palimpsest, substituting positive memories in the place of disturbing ones. 

Much has been written about the fact that David Copperfield is constructed from retrospect but there seems to be much less criticism concerning the problematic nature of this form of narrative. In recent years, however, more attention has been given to the ‘memory extirpation’ displayed by David’s character; for example, Nicholas Dames has referred to this as ‘the characteristically Dickensian cure of the obsessive rememberer’ and Rosemarie Bodenheimer has described the novel as a ‘deceiving exchange’ of new memories for old, thereby questioning its reliability.  Whilst this essay also analyses the potential unreliability of David’s narrative, it offers a closer reading of the novel and also focuses more on Dickens’s use of the novel as a study; that is, it explores how Dickens uses David’s character to represent the unreliability of memory over time and to demonstrate that memory is nothing if not problematic. 

Uncertain and Errant Memories

As the narrator of his own history David Copperfield’s is a necessarily subjective account and William T. Lankford argues that, in his attempt to realise the correlation between innocence and experience, David’s memories of childhood are told with the perception of an adult.[6] The significance of this should not be dismissed since the length of time which has elapsed between the events of David’s past and his present-day recollection spans several decades. David’s ‘written memory’ is essentially different from the actual past and, according to John P. McGowan this creates a field of reinterpretation.[7] As a result, David is able to reconstruct himself via his memories, and successfully creates ‘a newly coherent, newly organised psyche’.[8] 

Whilst relating the events of his past, David’s memories often juxtapose fact with uncertainty, thereby casting doubt over the reliability of his narrative. A particularly striking example of this can be found in the opening chapters of the novel,which are narrated as an adult’s memory of childhood. The infantile observations made by David are fragmented, leaving them open to mnemonic errancy, distortion and forgetfulness. For instance, when David writes about his earliest memories of his father’s grave, he describes ‘the shadowy remembrance’ (50) that hovers over his recollections of the churchyard, thereby creating doubt regarding the accuracy of his memory. If David’s remembrance of his father’s grave is ‘shadowy’, this leaves the memory open to the influence of imagination, which has the potential to distort the truth. Furthermore, if David cannot be certain that his ‘childish associations’ (50) are accurate, how can he be certain that he has not fabricated the memory of his father’s grave? 

This particular memory, like many of David’s recollections, is an associative memory - that is, a voluntary or involuntary association, triggered by a stimulus which, in this case, is David’s recollection of his dead father. David associates the memory of his father with ‘the shadowy remembrance’ of his father’s grave, so that the two memories become linked and are thus inseparable. There are many examples of associative memory in David Copperfield, especially regarding David’s childhood memories. The mnemonic traces on which David’s narrative relies force him to rewrite his own history to the extent that he is unable to differentiate between real memories and self-made fabrications. For example, when David describes the first distinct objects he can remember as a child, he writes about his nurse, Peggotty:

I have an impression on my mind which I cannot distinguish from actual remembrance, of the touch of Peggotty’s forefinger as she used to hold it out to me, and of its being roughened by needlework, like a pocket nutmeg-grater. This may be fancy, though I think the memory of most of us can go farther back into such times than many of us suppose; just as I believe the power of observation in numbers of very young children to be quite wonderful for its closeness and accuracy.’


There is an important contradiction here that warrants attention. In describing the roughened forefinger of Peggotty and comparing its texture to that of a nutmeg-grater, David adds authenticity to the narrative and allows the reader to share in the tactile sensation of touching a coarse object. Even if we have not experienced the exact sensation that David is describing, most of us know what the surface of a grater feels like and we can therefore appreciate the comparison. However, despite the vivid depiction of Peggotty’s forefinger, David confesses that he cannot distinguish this ‘impression’ from his ‘actual remembrance’. In admitting that his memories ‘may be fancy’ David appears to mistrust himself and yet he goes on to reassure the reader of his reliability when he describes the ‘closeness and accuracy’ of his ‘power of observation’.

This type of contradiction occurs several times during David Copperfield, which is perhaps to be expected in a novel constructed wholly from memory. In the early chapters, David narrates isolated fragments of sensation and memory but gradually he starts to remember more detailed events from his past. A striking example is his traumatic memory of being sent to work in a blacking factory when he is still a very young child:

When my thoughts go back, now, to that slow agony of my youth, I wonder how much of the histories I invented for such people hangs like a mist of fancy over well-remembered facts! When I tread the old ground, I do not wonder that I seem to see and pity, going on before me, an innocent romantic boy, making his imaginative world out of such strange experiences and sordid things! 


Here we have an instance of David describing another doubtful retrospect. The ‘mist of fancy’ that David mentions is problematic for the reliability of his narrative since it cannot be separated from ‘well-remembered facts’. As an adult, David views his blacking factory employment with disdain and likely feels compassion and sympathy for his younger self.  It is therefore probable that David relates this account with a sense of injustice and, in doing so, makes the reader sensible of the ‘slow agony’ of his youth. 

Although the memory of the blacking warehouse is clearly situated in David’s past and the reader can be in no doubt of this, the credibility of the memories themselves is debatable. One reason for this is that David’s memories are indistinct; we do not find out what the ‘sordid things’ in the blacking factory actually were. This is important. David leaves details out of his memories and the reader ought to ask why. Is it because the recollection of the blacking factory is too painful for him to relate fully? Or, do the omissions occur because David cannot remember the detail? Or could it be, perhaps, that David purposely chooses to omit the memories for the sake of narrative coherency? Whatever the reason, the missing detail forces the reader to fill in the gaps and significantly affects the process of interpretation.  

In confessing to the ‘mist of fancy’ surrounding his blacking factory days, neither David nor the reader can be sure how truthful the memories are.  Lankford considers this idea when he writes of the novel that ‘truth is double, arising from the heart and from its discipline, from the integrity of feeling in a moment and the detached understanding provided by the passage of time’.[9] The unreliability of David’s memory is partly due to the passing of time, especially the disparity between his childhood innocence and later adult experience. David omits or alters certain memories when relating his blacking factory experience because it is a memory which causes him distress. Whether David consciously omits the memories or not is unclear but what is more certain is that David’s mind acts as a sort of palimpsest, with the ability to substitute new memories for old and erase those recollections which cause him pain.

According to Robert Douglas Fairhurst, David’s ability to narrate his whole life from memory is dependent upon this palimpsest-like structure of the brain. Fairhurst argues that because human beings are able to impress experience upon memory, they can effectively reverse the direction of time and successfully erase old memories by replacing them with new ones.[10] In other words, if a person consciously recollects a memory from the past, that memory is ‘seen’ or ‘experienced’ again, as though it were happening in the present. Indeed, present time must be somewhat suspended in order for the past memory to be re-lived. However, there is no guarantee that a re-lived memory will be completely accurate or that it will be not subject to distortion or mnemonic errancy. After all, as Daniel Albright points out, ‘we remember memories, not events’.[11] The passing of time affects the reliability of mnemic traces; for example, they may be influenced by altered perception or imagination, both of which can alter the original memory. Often, this change occurs without being noticed and a false or incorrect memory therefore appears to be a true recollection. The influence of time on David’s memory is important, since this affects the trustworthiness of his account. Adult perception allows David to create clear memories in place of blurred, childhood recollections. Fairhurst writes about the ease of recreating new memories from old when he discusses the pleasure associated with memory and the ways in which memory allows past recollection to co-exist with the present, ‘as the erased lines of writing on the surface of the palimpsest work like tramlines to settle new ideas into their old grooves.[12]

By substituting new memories for old, David is allowing the present to fall in line with the past and he recognises this fact at several stages in the novel. In the chapter titled ‘Another Retrospect’, David describes the events leading up to his first marriage and says: ‘Once again, let me pause upon a memorable period of my life. Let me stand aside, to see the phantoms of those days go by me, accompanying the shadow of myself, in dim procession’ (691). David writes as though he can actually see his past self here and it seems to the reader as though he really can. However, later in the same chapter, David admits that his memory of the wedding ceremony is vague and describes it as ‘a more or less incoherent dream’ (697). David contradicts himself by claiming that the memory of his first marriage is ‘memorable’, whilst also confessing that his recollection of the event is confused.

A further example of David’s self-contradiction occurs when he recollects the death of two of his friends - Ham and Steerforth, who are both victims of a shipwreck in Yarmouth. David witnesses the death of his friends and he is convinced that the details of the tragedy have been forever preserved in his memory. Once again, David’s recollection of the event is triggered by an association:

I have an association between it and a stormy wind, or the lightest mention of a sea-shore, as strong as any of which my mind is conscious. As plainly as I behold what happened, I will try to write it down. I do not recall it, but see it done; for it happens again before me.


David claims that his memory of this event is reliable and he writes that ‘it happens again before me’, thus claiming that his past exists as a memory in the present. However, a few pages on David casts doubt over the accuracy of this memory when he writes about the confusion of his mind at the time, ‘There was that jumble in my thoughts and recollections, that I had lost the clear arrangement of time and distance’ (859). When David describes the events surrounding the deaths of Ham and Steerforth he mixes memory with perception and McGowan writes that, in doing this, David confuses narrative temporality: 

David appeals to the perceptual situation in which the object is present to the viewer. Memory can “see” so clearly that David can insist that the original event is not temporally distant, not permanently lost in the past; it exists in the present and, because present, is seen.[13] 

For David, there has been no temporal absence because the event has been present to him in both dream and memory since it happened. However, by writing about the past David is reinterpreting it and therefore he is changing it. There can be no exact repetition, in either words or memory; there can be only repetition with a difference, a condition which Derrida has referred to as ‘iterability’.[14] Derrida’s notion of iterability states that each and every time an event is repeated or remembered, it is both similar and yet different. Time is one of the many factors that can alter a repeated event/memory, so that it can never be exactly the same. The trace of the past event/memory and the anticipation of repeating this event/memory in the future renders a repeated event or memory different, even if it appears to be unaltered. David’s narrative hinges on this idea and, according to McGowan, ‘it both accepts and denies that repetition always carries a difference within it’.[15] 

Voluntary Forgetting

Although David insists that exact repetition is possible when he narrates the events of Ham and Steerforth’s deaths, he is led to question the possibility of exact repetition when narrating the failure of his first marriage. David is able to reorder his past from a present perspective when narrating the events of his brief and turbulent marriage to his self-confessed ‘child-wife’ Dora, and her subsequent death from miscarriage. David speaks of his wife in the present tense, since memory makes temporality hazy for him: ‘All else grows dim, and fades away. I am again with Dora, in our cottage. I do not know how long she has been ill. I am so used to it in feeling, that I cannot count the time’ (834). 

Effectively, whilst David remembers the death of his first wife, he has forgotten the details surrounding it, including the length of time that Dora was unwell. This is an interesting narrative device which Nicholas Dames has called ‘the characteristically Dickensian cure of the obsessive rememberer’.[16] In David Copperfield it seems that forgetting is preferable to remembering, if it can be achieved. When Dora becomes unwell her illness is forgotten at its most heightened phase; that is, just before her death. Rather than describing Dora’s illness or, indeed, the circumstances surrounding it, David reminisces about the past, choosing instead to remember Dora as he had first known her. This is significant and it is an image which recurs insistently throughout the novel: ‘Ever rising from the sea of my remembrance, is the image of the dear child as I knew her first, graced by my young love, and by her own, with every fascination wherein such love is rich’ (838). 

Dora’s name is repeatedly associated with this image of ‘love at first sight’ and, when she eventually dies, David confesses to blocking out all memory of his pain: ‘It is over.  Darkness comes before my eyes; and, for a time, all things are blotted out of my remembrance’ (839). David’s voluntary forgetting of his wife’s death simultaneously links Dora’s beginning to her end and, furthermore, it is an act of elimination, not just of Dora but of the unpleasant facts relating to David’s marriage, including debt, mutual incomprehension and regret. David substitutes the memory of the ‘young love’ he had once felt for Dora for his memory of her death and this enables him to eliminate unhappiness. By rejecting or forgetting unnecessary details such as these, David’s is able to re-write his palimpsest-like mind.

It is, of course, possible that David purposely forgets Dora’s death because he believes it to be irrelevant to the main narrative. However, by choosing to exclude this memory, its negative and potentially destructive power is revealed.  According to Greta Perletti, David, like many of Dickens’s characters, only recalls memories which are manageable because the emotionally damaging power of negative recollection is a constant threat. Perletti refers to this as ‘memory extirpation’ and she traces it back to one of Dickens’s short stories: The Haunted Man (1848) in which a man of science is offered the chance to erase his disturbing memories. The sanity of this man and of the narrative as a whole ‘relies on a programmatic exclusion of the disturbing aspects of memory’.[17] I agree with Perletti’s perspective and I also believe that the narrative of David Copperfield is a further example of the consequences of such memory extirpation.

By willfully forgetting the negative events of his past and substituting them for positive, albeit false ones, David represents himself as a better person than he really is. The consequence is that he deceives himself into believing his own falsely constructed past and this affects the way others interpret him, particularly the reader, who may be deceived by David’s false representation of his good character. It is difficult to determine whether David is always conscious of altering his past but what can be established is that his narrative is unreliable and should not be taken at face value. Often, there is evidence to suggest that David Copperfield is not a very agreeable character, even if he pretends to be ignorant of this fact. 


David’s nostalgic remembrance or ‘written memory’ is not a complete account of his life history. It is rather a diluted set of vague facts which have become uncertain over time. David’s past mistakes, disorder and bereavement are forgotten when narrated from the relative safety of the present and, by selecting agreeable memories and choosing to forget painful ones, David reconstructs himself as a better person.[18] His whole autobiography is a model of controlled recollection; every memory is relevant to the main narrative and every memory is linked to another.[19] The controlled recollection put forward suggests that David is regulating the return of painful associations by exiling them, but his self-imposed amnesia and his mnemonic errancy are essentially accurate in that they portray the act of remembering in general.


Albright, Daniel, ‘Literary and Psychological Models of the Self’ in Robyn Firush and Ulric Neisser, eds., The Remembering Self: Construction and Accuracy in the Self-Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie, Knowing Dickens (New York: Cornell University Press, 2007)

Bowen, John, Other Dickens: Pickwick to Chuzzlewit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Dames, Nicholas, Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting and British Fiction, 1810-1870 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976)

Dickens, Charles, David Copperfield (London: Penguin Classics, 1985)

Fairhurst, Robert Douglas, Victorian Afterlives: The Shaping of Influence in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Freud, Sigmund ‘A Note on the Mystic Writing Pad’ (1925) in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (1923-1925), trans. James Strachey (London: Vintage, 2001)

Gardiner, John, The Victorians: An Age in Retrospect (London: Hambleton and London, 2002)

Lankford, William, T., ‘“The Deep of Time”: Narrative Order in David Copperfield’, ELH, Vol., 46, No. 3 (1979), 452-467

Marcus, Steven, Dickens: from Pickwick to Dombey (New York: Basic Books, 1965)

McGowan, John P., 'David Copperfield: The Trial of Realism’ in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 34, No. 1 (1979), 1-19

Miller, J. Hillis, Charles Dickens: The World of his Novels (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958)

Perletti, Greta, ‘Dickens, Victorian Mental Sciences and Mnemonic Errancy’ in 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century10 (2010), <> [accessed 05 April 2014]

Schwenger, Peter, Fantasm and Fiction (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999)

Slater, Michael, Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing (Yale: Yale University Press, 2009)


[1] Charles, Dickens, David Copperfield (London: Penguin Classics, 1985), p. 407.  References to this edition will be given within the body of the article.

[2] David Copperfield was originally issued in monthly parts between 1849 and 1850.  It was published as one volume in 1850.

[3] In the autobiographical fragment, Dickens confesses to the misery he experienced when his parents sent him to work at Warren’s blacking factory when he was a young child.  For a detailed description of Dickens’s autobiographical fragment, please see: Michael Slater, Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

[4] Greta Perletti, ‘Dickens, Victorian Mental Sciences and Mnemonic Errancy’ in 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 10 (2010), <> p. 3.

[5] Please refer to Sigmund Freud’s ‘A Note on the Mystic Writing Pad’ (1925) in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (1923-1925), trans. James Strachey (London: Vintage, 2001), pp. 227-235.

[6]  William T. Lankford, ‘”The Deep of Time”: Narrative Order in David Copperfield’ in ELH, Vol., 46, No. 3 (Autumn, 1979), p. 456.

[7]  John P. McGowan, ‘David Copperfield: The Trial of Realism’ in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 34, No. 1 (1979), p. 1-19.

[8] Nicholas Dames, Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting and British Fiction, 1810-1870 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 128.

[9] Lankford, p. 456.

[10] Robert Douglas Fairhurst, Victorian Afterlives: The Shaping of Influence in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 148.

[11] Daniel Albright, ‘Literary and Psychological Models of the Self’ in Robyn Firush and Ulric Neisser, eds., The Remembering Self: Construction and Accuracy in the Self-Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 19-40.

[12] Fairhurst, p. 149.

[13] McGowan, p. 7.

[14] For a more detailed discussion of Derrida’s concept of iterability, please refer to Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

[15] McGowan, p. 12.

[16]  Dames, p. 148.

[17] Greta Perletti, ‘Dickens, Victorian Mental Sciences and Mnemonic Errancy’ in Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 10 (2010) <>

[18] J. Hillis Miller, Charles Dickens: The World of his Novels (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 159.

[19] Miller, p. 155.