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 David meets through his devoted nurse, Peggotty: her brother Daniel, whose house is an upturned boat, the stalwart fisherman Ham, and Little Em’ly, the reckless and beautiful girl who is eventually seduced and ruined by Steerforth, David’s idol. Steerforth’s treatment of Little Em’ly is only partially redeemed by his death in a storm at sea, which also kills Ham, who had hoped to marry Little Em’ly.
When Micawber departs in search of his fortune, David also leaves London in quest of love and family. Robbed even of his clothes, he walks the long miles to Dover, where his is rewarded by the half-unexpected affection of his cantankerous and eccentric Aunt Betsy. She provides the schooling proper to a gentleman at Dr. Strong’s academy and sets David on the path to becoming a successful professional writer. The text pays little attention to his work; however, his romantic life looms far larger. David enters into an unsuitable marriage to sweet, frivolous, luxurious Dora Spenlow, who calls herself his child-wife.
On her deathbed—tragic but inevitable, given her inadequacies—Dora commends David to the woman who will be her successor, Dr. Strong’s daughter, Agnes, an incarnation of the Victorian ideal of the domestic angel, and, as such, somewhat lifeless and unbelievable. Embedded in this development is a hint at Dickens’s dissatisfaction with his own marriage and his desire for escape. Yet several hurdles must be negotiated before David can be safely delivered into the haven of a proper Victorian marriage. Dr. Strong and Agnes must be rescued from the clutches of the reptilian, mock-humble Uriah Heep, largely through the agency of Micawber. Little Em’ly must be found and rescued; old Daniel Peggotty finally immigrates with her to Australia—a treatment of the taboo fallen woman theme that was radical and humane for its time, and which reflects the lessons that Dickens learned in his ten-year involvement with a home for fallen women, Urania Cottage.
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. Strong, a headmaster quite unlike Mr. Creakle. During his stay at school, David lodges with Miss Betsey’s lawyer, Mr. Wickfield, and his daughter, Agnes, with whom he is very happy. He also meets Uriah Heep, Mr. Wickfield’s cringing, hypocritical clerk with the clammy handclasp.
When David finishes school at the age of seventeen, Miss Betsey suggests that he take some time before deciding on a profession. On his way to visit his old nurse Peggotty, David meets Steerforth again and goes home with his former schoolmate. There he meets Steerforth’s mother and Rosa Dartle, a young woman who is passionately in love with Steerforth. Years before, the quick-tempered Steerforth struck Rosa, who still carries the scar.
David persuades Steerforth to come with him to see Peggotty and her family. At Yarmouth, Steerforth meets Little Em’ly, who is by this time engaged to Ham. She and Steerforth are immediately attracted to each other.
David finally decides that he wishes to study law. Accordingly, he is articled to the law firm of Spenlow and Jorkins in London. When he says good-bye to Agnes, she tells him she distrusts Steerforth’s influence over him; she also expresses uneasiness about Heep, who is on the point of entering into partnership with her father, who is showing signs of feebleness. As he leaves the house, David encounters Heep, who tells him that he wants to marry Agnes, which outrages David.
After his new life begins in London, David is invited to the home of his employer, where he meets and instantly falls in love with Mr. Spenlow’s pretty daughter, Dora. Soon they become secretly engaged. About the same time, however, David hears the distressing news that Little Em’ly ran away with Steerforth. Shortly after he becomes engaged to Dora, Miss Betsey comes to London to tell David that she lost all of her money. After failing in his attempt to recover some of the money for his articles with Spenlow and Jorkins, David takes a part-time job as secretary to Mr. Strong, his former headmaster. Because that job pays very little, David also begins to study to be a reporter of parliamentary debates.
Mr. Spenlow’s sudden death dissolves the partnership of Spenlow and Jorkins, and David learns to his dismay that his former employer died almost penniless. After studying hard, David becomes a reporter, and at the age of twenty-one he marries Dora. While these events are happening, David keeps in touch with Mr. Micawber, who now becomes Heep’s confidential secretary. Though something finally turns up for Mr. Micawber, his relations with David and even with his own family become somewhat mysterious, but Mr. Micawber’s conscience soon gets the better of him and at a meeting he arranges at Mr. Wickfield’s home, he reveals Heep’s criminal perfidy. Heep for years robbed and cheated Mr. Wickfield, and Miss Betsey discovers that it is he who is responsible for her own financial losses.
Mr. Micawber, clearing his conscience, decides to take his family to Australia, where he is sure something will turn up. By that time Emily, whom Steerforth deserts, returns to her uncle Peggotty and they, too, go to Australia. As David watches their ship put out to sea, it seems to him that the sunset is a bright promise for their new life.
The great cloud in David’s life now becomes his wife’s delicate health. Day after day she fails, and in spite of his tenderest care, he sees her grow more feeble and wan. Agnes, like the true friend she always was, is with him on the night of Dora’s death. As in his earlier troubles, he turns to Agnes in the days that follow and finds comfort in her sympathy and understanding. Upon her advice, he decides to go abroad for a while. First, however, he goes to Yarmouth to put a last letter from Emily into Ham’s hands. While he is there, a storm causes a ship to founder off the coast. Ham dies in a courageous attempt to rescue a survivor clinging to a broken mast. Later that day, the waves wash his body ashore and that of the false Steerforth.
David lives in Europe for three years. One day, soon after his return, Miss Betsey slyly suggests that Agnes might soon be married. Heavyhearted, David goes to offer her his good wishes. When she bursts into tears, he realizes that what he hopes is true—her heart is his. To the great delight of matchmaking Miss Betsey, Agnes and David are married, and David settles down to begin his career as a successful novelist.