“Take Care of Him. He Bites”: Dogs in David Copperfield

This post has been contributed by Molly Katz and Erin Horáková.

David Copperfield’s idyllic childhood is marked by the absence of dogs. He is brought into the world by Dr. Chillip, “the meekest of his sex, the mildest of little men…he hadn’t a word to throw at a dog. He couldn’t have thrown a word at a mad dog” (Dickens 18; ch. 1). His home explicitly has “a great dog-kennel in a corner, without any dog”, in a garden that is “a very preserve of butterflies” (Dickens 24; ch. 2). This husbandless household is safe, somewhat insulated from class (the servant Peggotty and David’s mother Clara socialise affectionately and co-rule the house), loving and female.

Everything changes when David’s new stepfather Murdstone invades the garden. “[T]he empty dog-kennel was filled up with a great dog—deep mouthed and black-haired like Him—and he was very angry at the sight of me, and sprang out to get at me” (Dickens 49; ch. 3). There is a deep sympathy between man and beast. Murdstone and his dog introduce adult masculinity, with its capacity for violence, into the text. Murdstone doesn’t say that David is now an unwelcome intruder in his own home: he doesn’t need to. David hears “the dog in the yard bark after me all the way while I climbed the stairs” (ibid).

Murdstone is twinned with his dog, but he is also its master.

 “‘David,’ he said, making his lips thin, by pressing them together, ‘if I have an obstinate horse or dog to deal with, what do you think I do?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘I beat him.’

I had answered in a kind of breathless whisper, but I felt, in my silence, that my breath was shorter now” (Dickens 51; ch. 4).

Murdstone regiments class at the Rookery, semi-exiling Peggotty. His animal-trainer “firmness” (Dickens 54; ch. 4) renders people cringing and diminished, less capable and less human. “He ordered me like a dog, and I obeyed like a dog” (Dickens 119; ch. 9). It transforms bright David (the “natural result of this treatment, continued, I suppose, for some six months or more, was to make me sullen, dull, and dogged” (Dickens 59; ch. 4)) and eventually kills his mother. When David bites his stepfather in self-defense, his action is animal, out of keeping with David’s developed and described personality.

“He had my head as in a vice, but I twined round him somehow, and stopped him for a moment, entreating him not to beat me. It was only a moment that I stopped him, for he cut me heavily an instant afterwards, and in the same instant I caught the hand with which he held me in my mouth, between my teeth, and bit it through. It sets my teeth on edge to think of it. He beat me then, as if he would have beaten me to death” (Dickens 62; ch. 4)

Both the supplication and the attack are canine,[1] and David’s punishment is akin to that of a misbehaving animal. He’s locked away with bowls of bread and water, allowed no human communication and only permitted out for half-hour walkies. (Dickens 62-63; ch. 4) The scene connects Murdstone’s savage cruelty with David’s own shame and helpless violence. The memory is so visceral that the adult David continues to feel it in his teeth even at the point of writing his memoir, when he has supposedly come fully into wise, prosperous, gentlemanly middle-age. David develops a lasting horror, freighted with shame, of being ‘dog-like’. Such a pubescent transformation would make David either servile and pathetic or a perpetrator of violence–not a ‘civilised’ adult man, but a brute. In either case, an animal.

When Murdstone ships David off to school as punishment, he gives instructions that deepen David’s canine identification:

“I came upon a pasteboard placard, beautifully written, which was lying on the desk, and bore these words: ‘TAKE CARE OF HIM. HE BITES.’

I got upon the desk immediately, apprehensive of at least a great dog underneath. But, though I looked all round with anxious eyes, I could see nothing of him. I was still engaged in peering about, when Mr. Mell came back, and asked me what I did up there?

‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ says I, ‘if you please, I’m looking for the dog.’

‘Dog?’ he says. ‘What dog?’

‘Isn’t it a dog, sir?’

‘Isn’t what a dog?’

‘That’s to be taken care of, sir; that bites.’

‘No, Copperfield,’ says he, gravely, ‘that’s not a dog. That’s a boy. My instructions are, Copperfield, to put this placard on your back” (Dickens 81; ch. 5)

There’s a nightmarish quality to the revelation that David himself is the terrible beast he’s been searching for, and that what he fears is within him. Mr Mell, himself othered by his class, kindly attempts to soften the punishment and to assert that David is a boy, not a dog. Yet David dreads the treatment he will receive at the hands of the other boys for wearing such a sign.

“[T]he greater part [of the boys] could not resist the temptation of pretending that I was a dog, and patting and soothing me, lest I should bite, and saying, ‘Lie down, sir!’ and calling me Towzer. This was naturally confusing, among so many strangers, and cost me some tears, but on the whole it was much better than I had anticipated.” (Dickens 86; ch. 6)

‘Take care of’ means both ‘beware of’ and ‘care for’. The threat of the bite impels such “patting and soothing”, but so too does desire on the part of both dog and master. The boys “cannot resist the temptation”. David finds their mocking attention confusing and overwhelming, yet even in the moment perhaps not entirely unpleasurable. David often calls kind and cruel attention out of people, who ‘cannot resist’ his reactive appeal. This blessing or curse (born with a caul, David is a child of fortune, both good and ill) calls to mind Dickens’ own ambivalent position as servile and commanding entertainer, entreater and moral director, clown and Great Man.

David’s time at Creakle’s school is characterized by a mix of misery and pleasure in his dog-like existence. David notes that “Mr. Creakle cuts a joke before he beats [another boy], and we laugh at it,—miserable little dogs, we laugh, with our visages as white as ashes, and our hearts sinking into our boots” (Dickens 92; ch. 7). The wretchedness of being made a cowering, abject and yet cruel thing,[2] and a party to collective savagery, is palpable. And yet the older pupil James Steerforth (who is himself prepared to set the pack on Mell) wins David’s adoration and delighted worship by treating him as his particular pet, just as Murdstone’s humiliating sign has commanded. “Good night, young Copperfield,” says Steerforth. “I’ll take care of you” (Dickens 89; ch. 7).

The problem of being canine is not just a matter of being subservient or aggressive, or even of the communicability of these states. Another threat arises from the dog-like wish to be cherished and the dog-like power of inspiring such an impulse. When David falls in love, he immediately begins to envy his beloved Dora’s dog, Jip.

“‘You are not very intimate with Miss Murdstone, are you?’ said Dora. —‘My pet.’

(The two last words were to the dog. Oh, if they had only been to me!)” (Dickens 368; ch. 26)

David wishes to be petted as Jip is, and from the beginning he and Jip view one another as rivals. But if Jip is David’s rival, he is also Dora’s double, and through David’s suspicion of Dora’s affinities with Jip we can understand David’s ambivalence towards his own desire to be “soothed and patted”. “It was very odd to me; but they all seemed to treat Dora, in her degree, much as Dora treated Jip in his” (Dickens 558; ch. 41). He broaches the subject with Dora, who is unconcerned:

‘I am sure they’re very kind to me,’ said Dora, ‘and I am very happy—’

‘Well! But my dearest life!’ said I, ‘you might be very happy, and yet be treated rationally.’

Dora gave me a reproachful look—the prettiest look!—and then began to sob” (Dickens 558; ch. 41).

Receiving kindness and feeling happiness are not enough for David. To be adult, perhaps even to be fully human, one must be “treated rationally”. These questions of agency and maturity are never fully or simply settled. They relentlessly occupy this bildungsroman. To become a dog, as Dora has, is to abnegate responsibility, to make yourself vulnerable and, whether or not the denial of your whims is “rational”, to look reproachfully upon anything you perceive as cruel.

Uriah Heep, an upwardly-mobile ‘pleb’ who pretends to cringe while actually advancing his own violent agenda, like a vicious lapdog, is in some respects David’s nightmare of the negative aspects of doggishness made flesh. David thinks him a “red-headed animal” (Dickens 355; ch. 25), and takes satisfaction in calling him a “hound” (Dickens 344; ch. 25).

To inquire what he might have done, if he had had any boldness, would be like inquiring what a mongrel cur might do, if it had the spirit of a tiger. He was a coward, from head to foot; and showed his dastardly nature through his sullenness and mortification, as much as at any time of his mean life. (Dickens 764; ch. 52)

This isn’t the fairest description of Uriah, who never seems to want for boldness either in his plans or in their relentless execution. Yet very little about David’s contemplation of Uriah’s class-based inadmissibility is easy. In an earlier manuscript draft, Dickens wrote:

‘“And that shambling ill-favoured cur pervades the whole house!” said I, picturing the profanation to myself, indignantly. “He has risen out of his well, down below there, and creeps, as he likes, about the good old rooms, does he!”’ (Dickens 967; note on the original MS)

He then struck this, possibly because it reflects badly on David, transforming his class anxiety into out-and-out snobbishness. David tries to tell us Uriah bites (and he does, although it is his own hand in the “Explosion” scene rather than another’s (Dickens 764; ch. 52) ) without enjoining us to “take care of him”. And yet in this climactic moment, when David is determined to repudiate Uriah completely, to find in him nothing worthy of care or understanding, we see an echo of David’s own “sullen” doggishness under Murdstone’s cruel hand.

David’s stupefying time in the wine bottling warehouse and his subsequent flight from it mark perhaps the nadir in Murdstone’s quest to render him animal. For a time David becomes a possessionless, roaming stray. “Sleep came upon me as it came on many other outcasts, against whom house-doors were locked, and house-dogs barked, that night” (Dickens 192; ch. 13). In other words, there but for the grace of Aunt Betsey goes David. When David ‘animalises’ Uriah, who instantiates the process himself by performing his own degradation in weaponised fashion, the text flirts with or risks readmission of the fact that a dog is only as bad as its masters. Dickens, who loved dogs and was an experienced pet owner, could hardly escape understanding this.

David, Uriah and Steerforth are constantly paralleled in the novel, and Steerforth and Uriah are exemplars of ways David might fail at manhood: the cringing, opportunistic scavenger and the savage beast. (Upperclass Steerforth broods on his sins, his weak will and his whimsical temptation to seduce the comparatively-defenceless Em’ly during “this mongrel time, neither day nor night.”) The novel’s dog motif offers a point of connection, of affinity, across class and even across enemy lines. It’s a significant stage on which the novel plays out its core concerns about ways of being in the world: class, masculinity, agency and more nebulous, yet perhaps still more vital, questions as to how a person ought to relate to other people. The novel at times comes off as confident on these points, but underneath the narrative through-line it’s nothing like so sure.

[1]           Joseph Litvak, though principally interested in David’s self-construction via ‘child’ and ‘servant’ figures, also remarks on David’s canine affinities: “from David’s canine perspective–don’t forget that this is the hero who bites his stepfather’s hand…” (144)

[2]           In Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm calls attention to the actual inextricability of these states.


Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Ed. Jeremy Tambling. London: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Fromm, Erich. Escape from Freedom. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941.

Litvak, Joseph. “Unctuous: Resentment in David Copperfield.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 20.2 (2012): 127-50.

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