David Copperfield’s mother is weak. After she has her second child, she marries Mr. Murdstone while David is at the house of Pegotty, David’s nurse. His mother moves in with him. Both of them relentlessly abuse David’s mother emotionally, culminating in Mr. Murdstone beating David and sending him away to school. The school is worse than home. David becomes infatuated with an older boy named Steerforth, who reappears later to "ruin" Emily, Daniel Pegotty's niece.
When his mother dies in childbirth, David is sent to work at Murdstone and Grinby at the age of ten, where he pastes labels on wine bottles. Poor David is miserable.
No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship; compared these henceforth everyday associates with those of my happier childhood—not to say with Steerforth, Traddles, and the rest of those boys; and felt my hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my bosom. (Ch. 11)
David is a boarder with Mr. Micawber, who is kind but unlucky with money. He is sent to debtor’s prison, and David goes to find his aunt, Betsy Trotwood. She is kind to him, and stands up to the Murdstones.
David is sent to a real school, where he stays with Mr. Wickfield and his daughter Agnes. David gets a job at the law firm Spenlow and Jorkins, hoping to be a lawyer. He falls in love with Mr. Spenlow’s daughter, Dora. They marry, and she dies in childbirth. David later marries Agnes.
David Copperfield is Dickens's most autobiographical book. He wrote it when he was young and successful, and still had his life ahead of him. It covers events that were important in his life thus far, including going to work at an early age while his father went to debtor's prison. However, Dickens still had a lot of living to do, and would revise his life a little in another semi-autobiographical work, Great Expectations.