When it was published in installments during the mid-nineteenth century, David Copperfield
excited a literary furor that has exceeded any seen before or since. For its realistic portrayal of the social milieu of England and for its stunning commingling of pathos and humor, the novel stands as one of the true timeless masterpieces of Western civilization. Like David Copperfield, Dickens was no stranger to poverty. As a youth, he worked for years in a leather-blacking factory because his father, like the character Micawber, had been thrown into debtor’s prison. "Of all my works," said Dickens toward the end of his life, "I like this the best." G. K. Chesterton once said that the characters in the novel are "creatures whom we could not forget if we would...creatures more actual than the man who made them."
The novel begins at David’s birth, six months after the death of his father, with a visit by the eccentric and gruff Betsey Trotwood, his daft grandaunt, who departs immediately upon learning that the baby is a boy and cannot bear her name. In a few years, Clara Copperfield, David’s mother, marries the boorish Edward Murdstone for his money, sending David and her servant, Clara Peggotty (known as Peggotty), on an extended visit to Yarmouth, where they stay with Peggotty’s brother Dan, his niece Emily, and nephew Ham on an ancient fishing boat that has been fixed up to make a cozy home.
The first meeting of David and his new stepfather is marked by mutual disgust. Murdstone shuffles David off to a boarding school after the child bites him. David suffers further ill treatment at the hands of a martinet of a headmaster named Creakle, whose greatest joy is inflicting whatever pain he can upon his powerless charges. David also forms a long-term friendship with J. Steerforth, another student.
Clara Copperfield dies while David is away, crushed by the aggregate weight of her husband’s petty tyrannies and foul, querulous turns. Murdstone dismisses Peggotty forthwith, and she marries a coachman named Barkis, who had been proposing to her for years with the solitary message, "Barkis is willin"’ relayed by a friend—in the final case, David. The Barkises settle in Yarmouth not far from her brother’s houseboat.
Churlishly, Murdstone dispatches David to work at the counting house of the firm of Murdstone and Grinby, London wine merchants. While there, David lodges with Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins Micawber and their four children. Micawber is perpetually beset by money troubles and harassed by creditors. He and David get on well, and just as David is beginning to trust the man—significant, because David finds it almost impossible to trust anyone now—he is sent off to debtor’s prison. Micawber is soon released but the family must move from London, without David. David leaves London in frustration and is promptly robbed on the road. Desperate, he presents himself to his grandaunt Betsey in Dover, who reluctantly takes him in. To their mutual astonishment, she and David like each other—so much so that when Murdstone tries to reclaim David for the free labor he might obtain, she manages to have herself appointed sole guardian of David.
Aunt Betsey sends David to school in Canterbury, where he boards with his aunt’s lawyer, Wickfield, and his daughter Agnes, who is about David’s age and for whom David feels a modest affection. At school, David meets Uriah Heep—a quintessentially Dickensian character. Heep is a villain of a man whose groveling manipulations and clammy grasp fill David with contempt.
David hears that Barkis the coachman is ill and, for his wife Peggotty’s sake, sets off to care for them in Yarmouth accompanied by his schoolboy chum Steerforth.
While in Yarmouth, David and Steerforth visit Peggotty’s brother Dan and his family. Steerforth and Emily are attracted to each other, despite Emily’s engagement to her cousin Ham.
After graduating with honors, David chooses the profession of proctor (a kind of lawyer’s agent) and isemployed at the legal firm of Spenlow and Jorkins. A talk with Agnes reveals that Uriah Heep’s machinations have garnered for him a partnership with Mr. Wickfield. At work, David meets Dora, Spenlow’s daughter—a bewitching beauty whom David marries shortly thereafter.
David and Steerforth again visit Peggotty, whose husband Barkis finally dies of his lingering illness. After calling on Peggotty’s brother’s family, David learns that Emily and Steerforth have run away together, devastating Emily’s fiance Ham.
Returning to London, David learns that Uriah Heep and his obsequious intrigues have gained for Heep full control of the modest Wickfield law firm and that Heep has hired Micawber as a clerk at a salary so low as to compel him to join Heep in skulduggery to keep his family alive. Micawber has little choice in employment, having just been released from prison. David learns that Heep’s canny chicanery has resulted in Aunt Betsey’s loss of the small fortune she had gathered; to help her, David takes an extra job at night.
David’s wife Dora, who had always been frail, suffers an implied miscarriage and slowly begins to waste away. After her death, David’s grief is interrupted by a confrontation between Betsey, Micawber, and himself and Uriah Heep in which Micawber exposes all that he knows of Heep’s misdealings and swindles. Despite overwhelming proof, Heep fights the charges against him, but by the end of the story Micawber is freed from his past obligations to Heep, Betsey’s fortune is recovered, and Heep is in jail. David also learns of the deaths of Ham and Steerforth in a squall at sea. Ironically, Ham dies trying to save the life of Steerforth, his successful rival for Emily. As at other times of crisis, Agnes comforts David and makes life bearable for him. Despairing still, David sets forth from England for points abroad unknown.
Three years later, David returns yearning for Agnes, whom he realizes he has spurned by creating an emotional, as well as literal, distance between them. To prompt David to action, Aunt Betsey pretends that Agnes is getting married sometime soon. Believing her, David is profoundly disappointed in himself for having lost Agnes, but he summons the courage to feign good cheer at the happiness Agnes may find. When he asks Agnes about this supposed engagement, she cries and he confesses his love for her. Agnes also confesses that there is no one else—she has loved David all along. At this, the inexorable bond between them is finally acknowledged. Agnes and David marry, David becomes a successful author, and as she had comforted him in grief, so she inspires him in joy.