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David Copperfield is Charles Dickens’ eighth novel. The book was originally produced in serial form between 1849 and 1850, and then published in full in 1850. Written from the first-person perspective of its eponymous narrator, the novel recounts his experiences from boyhood to manhood. Because many of these experiences closely mirror the life of Charles Dickens, David Copperfield is widely considered both a bildungsroman and an autobiographical novel. In addition to being Dickens’ favorite among his own works, the novel has been praised for its sensitive consideration of Victorian social issues, including poverty, class hierarchy, immigration, and the treatment of “fallen women.”
David is born in Suffolk, England, six months after his father’s death. Until the age of seven, he lives a happy life with his young mother, Clara Copperfield, and loyal housekeeper, Clara Peggotty. His life is complicated, however, when his mother meets an older man named Edward Murdstone. While Mr. Murdstone courts David’s mother, Peggotty takes him to spend time with her family in an odd houseboat on the beach of Yarmouth. Peggotty’s family is composed of her brother, the widow of her brother’s former co-worker—Mrs. Gummidge—and several orphaned children, including a boy called Ham and a pretty girl called Little Em’ly. David spends much of his time playing by the sea with Little Em’ly, and grows to love her.
David returns to find that his mother has remarried Mr. Murdstone. Mr. Murdstone’s sister has also moved into their house. Mr. Murdstone and his sister are domineering and abusive toward David and his mother. One day, David retaliates against a beating from his stepfather by biting Mr. Murdstone’s hand. Mr. Murdstone responds by sending David to a boarding school called Salem House.
Salem House is run by a headmaster named Mr. Creakle, who is known for harshly beating students. Despite this hostile environment, David becomes close with Tommy Traddles, a boy who is fat and awkward, but kind. David is far more entranced, however, by an older student named James Steerforth. Steerforth is handsome, wealthy, and manipulative, and David allows himself to be used with the hope of earning Steerforth’s favor.
When David is ten, he receives the news that his mother and baby brother have died. He returns home to grieve for their loss, and briefly lives with the Murdstones, who attempt to see him as little as possible. Mr. Murdstone sends David to work for a wine bottling company in London. There, David forms a close bond with his landlord, Mr. Micawber, and his wife. Mr. Micawber experiences financial struggles, and confides these struggles to David. Unable to pay his bills, Mr. Micawber ends up in debtor’s prison, and David must find a new home.
David walks from London to his Aunt Betsey, who charitably agrees to raise David. They bond quickly, and she affectionately nicknames him “Trot” (after her own last name, Trotwood). Miss Betsey also cares for an elderly man named Mr. Dick, who enjoys flying a large kite and working on a memoir called Memorial.
Miss Betsey sends David to an elite Canterbury school run by a man named Dr. Strong. David moves in with Betsey’s friend and business associate, Mr. Wickfield, and his daughter, Agnes. Because Agnes’s mother died when she was very young, she devotes herself to caring for her father. David greatly admires her kindness and loyal dedication, and they become close friends. Mr. Wickfield has a conniving, skeletal-looking secretary named Uriah Heep, who constantly fawns over his employer and claims to be “humble” and lowly.
David graduates and goes to visit Peggotty in Yarmouth. At a local inn, he reunites with Steerforth. David goes to meet Steerforth’s family, which consists of his doting widowed mother and his spinster cousin, Rosa Dartle. David then takes Steerforth to visit Peggotty’s family to celebrate the engagement Little Em’ly and Ham. Though Steerforth gets along well with Peggotty’s family, he is very critical of Ham. David later learns that Steerforth dislikes Ham because Steerforth himself lusts after Little Em’ly.
Uriah Heep gains power over Mr. Wickfield’s business, slyly encouraging Mr. Wickfield’s alcoholism. In his weakened condition, Mr. Wickfield reluctantly promotes Uriah to partner. Uriah quickly begins to defraud his employer. As a result, Miss Betsey’s fortunes diminish, and David must find work to provide for her.
David interns to become a proctor in London, working for partners Spenlow and Jorkins. Through this internship, he meets Mr. Spenlow’s beautiful young daughter Dora, and falls in love. David marries Dora, and finds that she is naive, spoiled, and unskilled in the art of housekeeping. To provide for Dora and Miss Betsey, David takes secretarial work with Dr. Strong. He also begins to write short stories for money, slowly developing his reputation.
In London, David reunites with Tommy Traddles, who is now a struggling lawyer, attempting to save enough to marry his girlfriend Sophy. David also reunites with Mr. Micawber, who continues to battle his debts.
Conflict erupts when Little Em’ly disappears. David learns that Steerforth has convinced her to run away with him, abandoning her fiancé, Ham. Steerforth and Little Em’ly move to the south of France. Soon after, Steerforth leaves her, and she wanders in a state of confusion and heartbreak. Mr. Peggotty searches determinedly for Little Em’ly. With the help of Little Em’ly’s friend Martha, Mr. Peggotty manages to find and rescue her.
Soon after, Ham and Steerforth tragically die in the same storm (Steerforth is aboard a ship that wrecks, while Ham drowns trying to save another man from the same ship). Hoping for a fresh start, Mr. Peggotty, Little Em’ly, Martha, and the Micawbers all immigrate to Australia.
Dora becomes pregnant and dies from related complications. To process his grief, David travels through Switzerland. There, he receives an encouraging letter from Agnes, and realizes that he has been in love with her all along. David returns to England and professes his love for Agnes. By the end of the novel, David has had three children with Agnes, and they have been happily married for ten years.
By Charles Dickens