Mr Micawber the Hermit Crab

Welcome poverty!..Welcome misery, welcome houselessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary! Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end! – Mr. Micawber 

Wilkins Micawber from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1854) is known for his resourcefullness, optimism and adaptability.

“His clothes were shabby but he had an imposing shirt-collar on . . . And a quizzing-glass hung outside his coat – for ornament, I afterwards found, as he very seldom looked through it and couldn’t see anything when he did.

The noted naturalist, and populariser of the aquarium,  Philip Henry Gosse extended Micawber’s sense of reckless buoyancy to the character of the hermit crab in his domestic aquarium.

The Bernhard crab or hermit crab, much like Mr Micawber is in the habit of frequently changing his residence. As the hermit crab grows it finds a new shell to live in. they often make use of the discarded shells of other animals.

Here is Gosse’s amusing anecdote: hermit crab parasitic anemone

This Bernhard Crab in the front, so leisurely pushing away the sand before him with his broad, flat claws, quietly enjoys the meal he finds, undisturbed by fears of a failing supply. There is less of enterprise than complacency in his character, and I call him Micawber, for he is always expecting “something to turn up.” 

Twice since March has he changed his coat, and thrown off his tight boots and gloves for new ones. The disrobing seemed to give him little trouble, though he sat dozing at the door of his cell some hours after, as though fatigued by the unusual effort. 

Dickens himself makes metaphorical use of the hermit crab in Our Mutual Friend (1864) in reference to John Rokesmith, a character who sheds his old life and takes on a new identity.

‘The natural curiosity which forms the sole ornament of my professional museum,’ he resumes, ‘hereupon desires his Secretary–an individual of the hermit-crab or oyster species, and whose name, I think, is Chokesmith–but it doesn’t in the least matter–say Artichoke–to put himself in communication with Lizzie Hexam.’



See Philip Henry Gosse, The Aquarium: an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea (1854).

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