Elisions of Cholera and Class in David Copperfield


  • Mary Kai Patterson Student




Public Health Act of 1848, cholera, social class, elisions


This study examines Charles Dickens’s novel David Copperfield (1850) in terms of cholera epidemics that dramatically shaped Victorian discourse on disease and responsibility. As a prominent public figure, Dickens participated in discussions of sanitation reform and legislation. However, he evaded specific discussion of disease within David Copperfield despite the novel’s publication amidst both the passing of the Public Health Act of 1848 and a second cholera outbreak in London. This article argues that Dickens presents disease as an “unspeakable subject” incommensurate with Victorian understandings of cleanliness, propriety, and maintaining the untouchability of the upper classes. Both Dickens and David cleanse all traces of disease to disavow a confrontation of equally uncomfortable subjects, predominately the class inequities and social determinants of health unearthed by the cholera epidemics. An analysis of two major characters demonstrate the unspoken presence of disease in the novel and a preserved prejudice against “filthy” lower-class people.