David Copperfield Summary

Charles Dickens

David Copperfield

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David Copperfield Summary

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David Copperfield was originally written in serial form by Charles Dickens between 1849 and 1850, and published as a full novel in 1850. The novel closely mimics Dickens’ own life, and is often considered autobiographical. It was Dickens’ favorite of his own work, and is often included in lists of the greatest novels ever written. Like most of Dickens’ subject matter, the novel focuses on predominant issues of 1800s England, including society, class, and poverty.

David Copperfield is a coming of age novel, following the protagonist from childhood to adulthood. David is born in Suffolk, England, six months after his father has died. He describes his loving mother and their housekeeper, Peggotty. For a time he is happy, until he is seven and his mother remarries. When he objects, David is sent away for a time to live with Peggotty’s family. Her family lives in an upside-down boat on the beach and cares for several orphans. Here, Little Em’ly, a pretty and kind child, catches David’s eye, and he decides he loves her. When he returns, David’s stepfather, Edward Murdstone, brings his sister Jane to live with them. Both are angry and unpleasant people to David and his mother. Mr. Murdstone beats David and frightens his mother into submission. One day, David does poorly in school, and the beating is terrible. David panics and bites his stepfather’s hand, who uses this as an excuse to send David away to boarding school.

David is sent to Salem House. The headmaster is named Mr. Creakle, who also beats David and all of the other boys whenever he can. David does, however, manage to make two friends, James and Tommy. He deeply admires James, an older boy, and thinks of him as quite noble. But news from home tears David’s life apart; his mother and baby brother have both died. David had only met his brother once, over the holidays, but is distraught with grief over his mother. He returns to Suffolk right away.

Murdstone decides not to send David back to school, but into the workforce at only ten years old. David works for a wine merchant in London, a company in which Murdstone has part ownership. David finds companionship in his landlord, Mr. Micawber, and his wife. They share stories and also financial troubles, and soon Mr. Micawber is taken away to debtor’s prison. David is left to fend for himself, so he decides to run away.

David remembers Peggotty talking about his great-aunt Betsey, who lives in Dover. He walks the entire way from London. Betsey pities him, and agrees to raise him. Betsey turns out to be stern but charitable. She also cares for Mr. Dick, a mentally ill older man who was abused by his brother before Betsey took him. Murdstone tries to regain custody of David, but Betsey waves him away without much trouble. Betsey calls David “Trot”, after her own last name, Trotwood.

Betsey sends David to a much better school in Canterbury, run by a Dr. Strong. David lives in Canterbury with Betsey’s colleague, Mr. Wickfield, and his daughter Agnes, a girl about David’s age whom he befriends. Wickfield also has a secretary, a suspicious looking young man named Uriah Heep.

When he finishes school, David visits Peggotty in Yarmouth and runs into his old friend James, who is doing quite well for himself. James’ wealth is contrasted starkly with Peggotty’s family’s poverty, but both sides are fond of one another. The Peggottys’ foster children, Emily, and Ham, have gotten engaged, and there is celebration all around.

David discovers his intuition about Uriah was correct. He has been deviously encouraging Wickfield’s destructive alcoholism, usurping seniority and power. Uriah also hopes to marry Agnes. Because of Uriah’s actions, Betsey, previously the owner of a sizeable fortune, will be broke. David must quickly find a way to work.

David becomes a proctor in London and also comes across Tommy, now a lawyer, who is struggling financially. David rents from Micawber, out of prison at last. David works as a secretary under Dr. Strong, and learns shorthand. He also works in parliamentary debate reporting for the newspaper. With a lot of hard work and even more help from Agnes, David finally succeeds as a fiction author. He also meets Dora Splendow, the naïve, impractical and childlike daughter of his boss. David is in love.

Without David’s knowledge, James convinces Emily to run away with him. Her fiancé, Ham, is heartbroken, and unfortunately, James dishonors and deserts her. Mr. Peggotty, after much searching, finds Emily in one piece. Tragically, though, Ham and James both die during a single storm: James is onboard a ship that sinks, and Ham drowns trying to save the boat from sinking. Mr. Peggotty takes Emily to Australia, where, with several other characters including the Micawbers, they search for a new life of security and happiness.

Dora becomes pregnant and has a miscarriage, and soon after passes away. David moves away to Switzerland for several years to clear his head of all the tragedy. Finally, he realises he should never have married Dora, though she was sweet and pretty. He should have married Agnes, whom he respects and enjoys spending time with, and has loved his entire life. When he returns to England, David professes his love, and is amazed to find that she loves him back. They are married and have many children.