illustration of two young men standing in 19th century garb and looking at one another

David Copperfield

by Charles Dickens

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Last Updated December 20, 2023.

David Copperfield, originally published in serial form between 1849 and 1850, is Charles Dickens’ eighth novel. Written in the first-person, it recounts the journey of its eponymous narrator from childhood to maturity. As well as being a bildungsroman, it also contains elements of autobiography since various elements of David’s childhood are based on Dickens’ experiences.

David’s father dies before his birth, and he lives happily until the age of seven with his young mother and their housekeeper, Clara Peggotty. His life changes when his mother becomes involved with a cruel and manipulative older man, Edward Murdstone.

David enjoys a brief reprieve from the increasingly tense situation at home when he is invited to stay with Peggotty’s family in their home – an old barge on the beach. Peggotty’s fisherman brother lives there with an elderly widow called Mrs. Gummidge and two orphaned children, Ham and Little Em’ly.

David returns home to learn that his mother has married Edward Murdstone. Murdstone’s sister, Jane, moves into the house shortly afterward. The Murdstones are very harsh with David and psychologically cruel to his mother. One day, when Murdstone attempts to thrash David, the boy retaliates, biting his hand. Mr. Murdstone uses this as an excuse to send David away to a boarding school called Salem House.

At Salem House, David befriends an irrepressibly cheerful and rather unfortunate contemporary, Tommy Traddles, and begins to idolize a charismatic, handsome, and wealthy older boy called Steerforth.

David returns home from school at the age of ten following the deaths of his mother and infant brother. Murdstone refuses to continue paying for his education and sends him to work in a wine bottling company in London. David grows close to his good-hearted but financially imprudent landlord, Mr. Micawber, and his family. Micawber is imprisoned for debt and moves to Plymouth upon his release.

Alone in London, David decides to seek out his only surviving relative, his great aunt Betsey Trotwood, who lives in Dover with a child-like elderly gentleman called Mr. Dick. Betsey had come to the house on the day of David’s birth, only to leave in disgust upon learning that he was not a girl (she had hoped he would be named after her). However, she now takes him in and treats him kindly, insisting on calling him Trotwood instead of David, and encourages him to behave like his unborn sister.

Betsey sends David to a much better school run by an inspirational teacher called Dr. Strong. David rents rooms from Betsey’s friend and business associate, Mr. Wickfield, who is cared for by his angelic daughter, Agnes. The house is also shared by Wickfield’s conniving clerk, Uriah Heep. Constantly fawning and declaring his own humility, Heep gradually gains complete control over the frail and alcoholic Wickfield. He confides to a horrified David that he plans to marry Agnes. Uriah Heep is eventually exposed by Micawber and banished.

As a result of Heep’s schemes, Betsey’s fortunes are significantly reduced, and David is forced to work long hours to maintain his family. During an internship as he studies to become a proctor, David falls in love with the beautiful young daughter of his employer, Mr. Spenlow. Dora Spenlow is naive and spoiled, but David adores her and works hard to support her. David learns shorthand and finds work reporting parliamentary debate for a newspaper before carving out a successful career for himself as a writer of short stories.

David meets Steerforth again while he is visiting the Peggotys in Yarmouth to celebrate the engagement of Em’ly and Ham. Steerforth seduces Em’ly, and the two abscond to...

(This entire section contains 734 words.)

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the South of France together. Steerforth abandons Em’ly, and Mr. Peggoty manages to retrieve her and bring her home. Shortly after this, Steerforth and Ham are both killed when a ship wrecks in Yarmouth. Steerforth is onboard the ship, and Ham dies trying to rescue survivors. The remaining Peggotys decide to emigrate to Australia, together with the Micawbers.

Dora dies from complications related to her first pregnancy. Heartbroken, David leaves for Switzerland, where he wanders aimlessly until he receives a letter of comfort and encouragement from Agnes. Realizing he has always loved Agnes, David returns to England to propose to her. The two start a family together and have been happily married for ten years at the time of the novel’s conclusion.