Born to a gentle, helpless woman whose husband has died, little David is given an evil stepfather straight out of fairy tales when his mother marries the cruel Mr. Murdstone. Murdstone drives David’s mother to an early grave. Orphaned, David is sent off to school, where he encounters the additional cruelty of a tyrannical headmaster, but he also makes friends with the fascinating and Byronic James Steerforth. Put to work in the Murdstones’ wine warehouse (like the blacking factory episode of Dickens’ own youth), David runs away and is taken in by his eccentric aunt, Betsey Trotwood. Circumstances improve. He is apprenticed to Mr. Wickfield, his aunt’s lawyer, and begins to practice law.
David introduces Steerforth into the fishing family of his old nurse, Peggoty. Steerforth seduces her niece, Em’ly, and they run away together, destroying the happiness of the family. Abandoned by her lover, Em’ly is finally tracked down and brought home by her father; Steerforth is drowned along with Em’ly’s fiance, who had tried to save him. David, blind to the mature affection of Agnes Wickfield, marries Dora Spenlow, who is as pretty and childish as his mother. He becomes famous as an author. Even before Dora dies, David realizes his marriage has been a mistake.
Agnes’ father has been caught up in the machinations of the villainous Uriah Heep, the apparently humble clerk who has designs on Agnes. But the plot is exposed by David and his friends, especially Mr. Micawber, and David marries Agnes.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Bloom’s introduction considers the novel as the original portrait of the artist as young man. Eight other essays, all written after 1969, include examinations of the novel’s moral unity and mirror imagery.
Collins, Philip. Charles Dickens: “David Copperfield.” London: Edward Arnold, 1977. Brief study that focuses on the work itself rather than on Dickens or his methods. Discusses the novel’s specific strengths and weaknesses and examines how the novel’s serial publication affected its structure. Most useful for the student who has read some of Dickens’ contemporaries.
Dunn, Richard J., ed. Approaches to Teaching Dickens’ “David Copperfield.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1984. Intended for teachers but fascinating and helpful for students. Includes descriptions of other books and materials useful for understanding the novel and for determining discussion topics and approaches for classroom use.
Storey, Graham. “David Copperfield”: Interweaving Truth and Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A very accessible study. After three chapters that discuss the novel’s autobiographical elements and critical reception, Storey presents an extended reading focusing on children and childhood. Includes a bibliography and chronology.
Vogel, Jane. Allegory in Dickens. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1977. In the chapters about David Copperfield, which make up a great deal of the book, the author proposes that the novel can be read—and was written—as a Christian allegory of the spiritual journey from Creation to Heaven. Thought-provoking, though not always convincing.