David Copperfield is a fictional biography, describing the title character’s life. David narrates the novel himself. Some of the information in the novel is autobiographical and relates to Charles Dickens’s own life. David had a difficult life from the beginning. His father died before he was born. When David’s mother remarries, his stepfather is abusive and sends him off to a boarding school overseen by a cruel and abusive headmaster. One positive outcome of the school is that David makes two close friends. David’s mother dies when he is twelve, and his stepfather sends him off to live with the Micawber family in London and work in his stepfather’s warehouse. David is unhappy working at the warehouse and runs away to his Aunt Betsy. His aunt sends him to live with the Wickfield family and attend a school in Canterbury. Although he loves Agnes Wickfield, David ends up falling in love with Dora Spenlow, the daughter of an attorney who tutors David. The Wickfields’ law clerk, Uriah Heep, is revealed by David’s friends to be stealing from Mr. Wickfield. The Micawbers end up moving to Australia, while David becomes a writer. When Dora dies, David marries Agnes Wickfield.
Born fatherless, David is raised by his young, beautiful and loving mother Clara, and their trusted servant Peggotty. David is removed from the household for two weeks, during which time he meets Peggoty’s kind hearted brother, a Yarmouth Fisherman, and the orphaned niece and nephew (Emily and Ham) whom he has brought up as his own. On his return he finds his mother married to a tyrant, with a cruel sister-in-law thrown in to the bargain. Sent away to a harsh boarding school he finds an ally in Tommy Traddles, a bumbling kind-hearted fellow, and a hero in the brilliant figure of James Steerforth.
Following his mother’s death and Peggoty’s dismissal, David is cast out of his own home to become a child factory worker in London, where he resides with the impecunious Mr. Wilkins Micawber and his family. Despairing of his existence as a child labourer, he runs away to his only known living relative Aunt Betsey, who assumes the parental role neglected by his legal guardian.
David is schooled in nearby Canterbury, where he is housed by his aunt’s trusted man of business, Mr. Wickfield. Here David meets Mr. Wickfield’s oily employee, Uriah Heep, and his beautiful daughter Agnes, for whom he develops a great affection. After completing his schooling, David begins legal training under the auspices of Mr. Spenlow, whose daughter Dora he falls for. The father disapproves of their betrothal, but his unexpected death enables them to marry.
Meanwhile David is much distressed to hear that Emily, engaged to Ham, has run off with Steerforth, and that Mr. Peggotty has abandoned his home and job to go in pursuit of his disgraced niece. David embarks on a career as a writer in order to improve his financial situation, but following initial happiness with Dora, finds his childish wife to be an inappropriate match. Weakened by a miscarriage, she dies.
Uriah Heep is exposed as a cheat and a liar and Mr. Wickfield is released from his former employee’s invidious grasp. Mr. Micawber finds financial stability in his work as an Antipodean magistrate. A repentant Emily is found by her uncle, who determines to take her to Australia where they can begin afresh. Ham attempts to rescue Steerforth during a storm but they both perish. David moves to Europe, where it dawns on him that his heart belongs to Agnes. He returns to England to continue his work as a famous author and enter into blissful communion with his new wife.