Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Dickens’s eighth novel, his favorite, has an intimate relationship to his own story: “C. D.” becomes “D. C.” Some months before he began it, he had sat down to write the story of his childhood degradation for the first and only time in his life. The experience was too painful and Dickens abandoned the autobiographical attempt. Yet the material found its way, often word for word, directly into the first-person fiction of David Copperfield, which, as Dickens puts it semijokingly in the subtitle, the hero “never meant to be published on any account.”
Fatherless David Copperfield’s idyllic relationship to his pretty and childlike mother is utterly ended by her second marriage. Austere Mr. Murdstone lives up to the fairy-tale model of the wicked stepparent, whipping the terrified boy when he stammers over impossibly long sums, sending him away to school (where he meets and worships handsome Steerforth), and finally depriving David of his inheritance when his mother dies in childbirth, consigning him instead to the hell of Murdstone and Grinby’s (that is, Warren’s) factory. Comfort, however, is provided by the feckless, wordy, self-important Mr. Micawber, a masterly comic transformation of Dickens’s own father, with whom the lonely boy takes lodgings. Micawber suffers the same fate of imprisonment in debtors’ prison but remains convinced that his luck will change.
Meanwhile, an important subplot centers on the seafaring folk...
(The entire section is 562 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
David Copperfield is born at Blunderstone, in Suffolk, six months after his father’s death. Miss Betsey Trotwood, an eccentric grandaunt, is present on the night of his birth, but she leaves the house abruptly and indignantly when she learns that the child is a boy, since only a girl can be named after her. David spends his early years with his pretty young mother and a devoted servant named Peggotty.
The youthful widow is soon courted by Mr. Murdstone. Soon after she marries him, she discovers that he is stingy and cruel. David is packed off with Peggotty to visit her relatives at Yarmouth. Her brother converted an old boat into a home by the sea, where he lives with his niece, who is called Little Em’ly, and his sturdy young nephew, Ham. Little Em’ly and Ham are David’s first real playmates, and his visit to Yarmouth remains one of the few happy memories of his lonely childhood. After Mr. Murdstone’s sister, Jane, arrives to take charge of her brother’s household, David and his mother never again feel free from the dark atmosphere of suspicion and gloom the Murdstones create about them.
One day, in a fit of childish terror, David bites his stepfather on the hand. He is immediately sent off to Salem House, a wretched school near London, where his life is more miserable than ever under a brutal headmaster named Mr. Creakle. In spite of Mr. Creakle’s harsh treatment and bullying, however, David’s life is endurable because of his friendship with two boys, the lovable Tommy Traddles and the handsome, lordly James Steerforth.
David’s school days end suddenly with the death of his mother and her newborn infant. When he returns home, he discovers that Mr. Murdstone dismissed Peggotty. Barkis, the stage driver, whose courtship was meager but earnest, took Peggotty away to become Mrs. Barkis, and David finds himself friendless in his former home. Soon he is put to work in an export warehouse in London, in which Murdstone has an interest. As a ten-year-old worker in the dilapidated establishment of the wine merchants Murdstone and Grinby, David is overworked and half-starved, and he loathes his job and the people with whom he has to associate. He does meet the Micawber family, however, in whose house David lodges. The impecunious Mr. Micawber is sent to debtor’s prison shortly afterward and decides, on his release, to move with his family to Plymouth. After he loses these good friends, David decides to run away.
The only relative he knows is his father’s aunt, Miss Betsey Trotwood, of whom he knows only that she lives in Dover and was indignant at his birth. He nevertheless sets out, full of hope; on the way he is robbed of the few things he possesses and consequently arrives at Miss Betsey’s home in a wretched state. At first, his reception is not encouraging, but Miss Betsey takes the advice of Mr. Dick, a feebleminded distant kinsman who lives with her, and lets David into the house. While she deliberates about what to do with her bedraggled nephew, she writes to inform Mr. Murdstone, who thereupon comes with his sister to Dover. Miss Betsey, disliking both Murdstones intensely at first sight, again takes Mr. Dick’s advice and keeps David.
Much to the boy’s joy, Miss Betsey almost immediately sends him to a school in Canterbury run by Mr....
(The entire section is 1358 words.)