(By the way, we're doing our best to make this summary brief – which, with a 900-page novel, isn't easy – so we can't include every single subplot here; if you want to know more about Miss Rosa Dartle, Mrs. Annie Strong, Martha Endell, Julia Mills, or Sophy Crewler, check out our character analyses or read our chapter-by-chapter summary.)
David Copperfield's life starts where all of our lives start: birth. He's born on a Friday, at 12:00 am, in Blunderstone, Suffolk. David comes into the world soon after his mother loses her husband, David's father. As a widow with basically no money, Mrs. Copperfield has some hope that David's great aunt, Miss Betsey Trotwood, will step in and look after David financially. Unfortunately, Miss Betsey (who is about as stubborn and opinionated a character as you'll find anywhere in literature) is so disappointed that David is a boy and not a girl that she refuses to have anything to do with the family. Mrs. Copperfield is left on her own, with no one but her housekeeper, Peggotty, to help her raise David.
When David is around six, Mrs. Copperfield begins seeing Mr. Murdstone. Mr. Murdstone is a stern, cruel man who flatters the sweet, young Mrs. Copperfield until she agrees to marry him. Once Mrs. Copperfield finally marries Mr. Murdstone, he and his sister Jane both move into Mrs. Copperfield's house (which used to belong to David's father). Together, the two of them bully Mrs. Copperfield until she becomes too afraid to say anything to protest the Murdstones' verbal and physical abuse of David. One night, Mr. Murdstone whips David with a switch. In a blind panic, David bites Mr. Murdstone's hand. Mr. Murdstone uses this bite as an excuse to send David away to a boarding school called Salem House, run by Mr. Creakle.
Before David goes away to school, he is allowed to visit the hometown of his mother's housekeeper, Peggotty. Peggotty is from the coastal village of Yarmouth. Her brother is still a fisherman there. He owns a boat that he has converted to a house on shore. Mr. Peggotty's boat house shelters three needy people: two orphans, Ham and Emily, and Mrs. Gummidge, the widow of his former business partner. Mr. Peggotty is a generous man, and David loves the two weeks he spends at Yarmouth. He also gets a giant crush on little Emily, who is a pretty and kind-hearted child.
Once David arrives at his new school, Salem House, he finds that the headmaster, Mr. Creakle, has been warned that David is a bad kid. Mr. Creakle makes it his personal duty in life to beat David (and all of the other boys at Salem House) as often as possible. The only good thing about David's life at school is David's new hero, James Steerforth, a handsome and accomplished boy who manages to charm everyone, including Mr. Creakle.
David spends two terms at Salem House learning what he can and trying to avoid being beaten by Mr. Creakle. He makes friends not only with Steerforth, but also with Tommy Traddles, a good-natured boy who likes to draw skeletons whenever he gets upset. But one day, David hears terrible news from home: his mother and his baby brother have both died. David is completely torn apart, and rushes back to Suffolk for the funeral.
Mr. Murdstone is experiencing financial troubles and no longer wants to bother with his unloved stepson. Mr. Murdstone decides to send David into London to work at his wine bottling factory (when David is only ten years old!). David goes to work in London without any family to protect him.
Fortunately, David winds up making true friends out of his new landlords, the Micawbers. Mr. Micawber and his wife are both on the edge of financial ruin, but they don't let it get their spirits down too much. The Micawbers keep looking for new jobs or ventures for Mr. Micawber, but nothing ever turns up – so they get deeper and deeper into debt. They each tell David all about their marital and money troubles, which makes David think they have forgotten exactly how old he is. He enjoys their company very much. He's really disappointed when Mr. Micawber is finally arrested and sent to debtors' prison (which is a Victorian thing – for more on debtors' prison, check out our detailed summary of Chapter 11).
Now that David's best friends in London are in prison (which they're actually kind of enjoying), he decides that the time has come to make a change. David remembers the stories Peggotty used to tell him about his great aunt, Miss Betsey Trotwood, so he resolves to run away to find her and ask for help. David walks all the way from London to Dover (which is about seventy miles away) and turns up one morning at Miss Betsey's doorstep, totally bedraggled, sunburned, exhausted, and broke. Miss Betsey takes David in.
Even though Miss Betsey is intimidating and stern, she is also quite charitable: in addition to David, she has also adopted an older man named Mr. Dick. Mr. Dick is a decent guy who happens to be mentally ill; he was quite mistreated by his brother before Miss Betsey took him in.
David settles in happily with Miss Betsey and Mr. Dick. Eventually, Mr. Murdstone tracks David down, but Miss Betsey sends him and his awful sister away without too much trouble. Miss Betsey makes David her ward and sends him to a much better school in the nearby town of Canterbury.
In Canterbury, David rents a room with Miss Betsey's business manager, Mr. Wickfield. Mr. Wickfield has a lovely daughter named Agnes, who is about David's age. Agnes keeps house for Mr. Wickfield and David. Mr. Wickfield also has an extremely creepy clerk, Uriah Heep, who comes to work for him during the day and then goes home at night to his mother. Uriah Heep keeps telling everyone that he's very humble, but David suspects that he's an evil hypocrite.
Eventually, David finishes his studies with Doctor Strong and has to figure out what to do next. Before deciding on a career, he goes to visit his old nurse, Peggotty, in Yarmouth. On his way to Yarmouth, David stops at an inn in London, where he happens to run into his Salem House school friend, Steerforth. Steerforth is studying at Oxford and is currently on vacation.
David and Steerforth decide to visit Yarmouth together. Steerforth seems charmed by the picturesque boat house and its rustic inhabitants (even though, in private, he gets a bit condescending about the Peggotty family's poverty). During their stay, David is glad to see Ham Peggotty and Emily announce their engagement; Mr. Peggotty could not be more proud of these two orphans he has brought into his home. Steerforth is so delighted by Yarmouth and its inhabitants that he decides to buy a boat and hang out there from time to time.
David returns to his aunt's house in Dover. He and Miss Betsey decide that David should become an apprentice in a proctor's office. (A proctor is a specific kind of lawyer in the British legal system, who deals with stuff like contracts, wills, and marriage licenses.) So, David moves to London, finds an apartment, and starts working at the law office of Spenlow and Jorkins.
David continues his friendship with Steerforth and also meets up with another familiar face from Salem House, Tommy Traddles, who is a lawyer struggling to make ends meet. Oddly enough, Tommy Traddles happens to be renting his rooms from another familiar face: Mr. Micawber! The Micawbers are just the same, always going from the heights of happiness to the depths of despair, always worrying about money, always running up debts, and always living well in spite of their troubles.
David has now hit the ripe age of 17 and has fallen in love. The lady's name is Dora Spenlow, and she is the daughter of his boss. Dora is a childlike, naive girl who loves to be flattered by David, but cannot bear to think of serious matters like housekeeping or household accounts. David is so charmed by her innocence that he doesn't mind that Dora hasn't got a practical bone in her body.
Ham Peggotty and Emily have been engaged for some time now. Ham Peggotty clearly dotes over Emily. But Emily was very impressed with Steerforth when he came to visit Yarmouth with David. It turns out that, while David has been in London, Steerforth and his servant, Littimer, have been hanging around Yarmouth trying to convince Emily to run away with them. Finally, Emily agrees. She deserts her fiancé and run away – unmarried, which is a hugely big deal in 1850 England – with Steerforth. Ham Peggotty is heartbroken.
Mr. Peggotty hears that Emily has disappeared and resolves to roam the earth for as long as it takes to find his beloved little girl. David goes back to the Steerforth house to tell Mrs. Steerforth what her son has done, and that Steerforth has ruined the reputation of a good woman. Mrs. Steerforth is furious at Emily for seducing her son, and David leaves her house unsatisfied and angry.
Speaking of ruined lives, there are two major earthquakes in David's London life at this point. They both revolve around Mr. Wickfield, Miss Betsey's business manager and David's old landlord from his school days in Canterbury. First, David happens to bump in to Uriah Heep, Mr. Wickfield's clerk, when he, Mr. Wickfield, and Agnes are all visiting London. David discovers that Uriah has come up in the world: he has become Mr. Wickfield's partner in the business. But this partnership is not a just reward for hard work, oh no. Uriah Heep has gotten it thanks to extortion and blackmail.
Second, one day, David comes home from work to find Miss Betsey, Mr. Dick, and Peggotty sitting in his apartment, surrounded by boxes. Yes, Miss Betsey has been ruined thanks to unfortunate stock market investments. And even though Miss Betsey says that these investments were all her fault, she is actually covering the misdeeds of Mr. Wickfield, whom she pities because she knows that Uriah Heep is encouraging Mr. Wickfield's drinking problem and ruining his life. So, the long and short of it is that Miss Betsey is totally out of luck, and she's come to ask David to rise to the occasion and support her.
David willingly throws himself into further work: at the advice of Tommy Traddles, he learns shorthand and gets a job reporting government debates for the newspapers. He does this in his spare time as he continues his contracts work. David also gets another job working for his former headmaster, Doctor Strong, who has retired from teaching and now lives in Highgate, London. Doctor Strong hires David as a secretary.
Throughout all of these troubles, David continues to pursue Dora Spenlow, who really seems to love him. Sadly, her father does not approve, and firmly refuses to allow Dora to marry David. Luckily (depending on whose perspective we're talking about here), Mr. Spenlow dies suddenly, leaving Dora an orphan in the care of her two aunts. Once Mr. Spenlow dies, everyone realizes that he had much less money than everyone thought; Dora is left pretty much without a dime. Her two aunts meet with Miss Betsey, decide that David is an honest man, and eventually agree to allow their niece to marry David.
Miss Betsey sends David to check on her property in Dover; David uses this visit as an opportunity to check in with the Wickfields. Now that Uriah Heep has become Mr. Wickfield's full partner, he has hired a new clerk of his own – Mr. Micawber! Mr. Micawber refuses to say anything bad about his new employer, Uriah Heep.
David also visits with Agnes, who comforts him about his new poverty. To cap off this horrible visit, after dinner, Mr. Wickfield has a mild breakdown about having ruined his daughter's life with his own weakness: Mr. Wickfield knows that Uriah Heep wants to marry Agnes, and that Agnes is worth a thousand Uriah Heeps.
At this point, David is 21. He and Dora get hitched and set up house together. Miss Betsey and Mr. Dick find their own place to live in Highgate, London, near Doctor Strong. David continues to work incredibly hard to support his new wife. Things at the law office have really slowed down after Mr. Spenlow's death, so David has started to write fiction pieces for magazines. David is finding some success, but even though the new couple has some money coming in, Dora is such a hopeless housekeeper that their servants often cheat them. Dora begs David to remember that she is his "child-wife" (44.101). Even though she is sort of trying to be adult about their lives together, she isn't good at acting like a grown-up.
David slowly comes to realize that he and Dora have different outlooks on life, but he continues to love her devotedly. She gets pregnant and miscarries. This miscarriage leaves Dora unable to walk, so David carries her up and down the stairs everyday so that she can sit in the parlor. David worries about how light Dora is getting in his arms. Miss Betsey loves Dora, and comes to stay in David's house to nurse her.
Meanwhile, Mr. Peggotty has been searching for signs of his lost Emily all of this time. David has kept in touch with Mr. Peggotty whenever Mr. Peggotty has come back to London in his travels throughout Europe. Finally, one evening, an acquaintance of Emily and David's, Martha Endell, seeks David out and leads him to a poor attic room where Emily is staying in London.
David overhears a friend of Steerforth's, Miss Rosa Dartle, cursing and mocking Emily for staying alive after ruining the Steerforth household. Mr. Peggotty comes up the stairs just as Miss Dartle leaves, embraces Emily, and carries her downstairs. Later on, Mr. Peggotty comes to David's house to thank him for his help. Mr. Peggotty explains that Emily had been held prisoner in Italy by Steerforth's rascally servant, Littimer. Eventually, she managed to escape, but she fell ill and had to rely on the charity of the local people to nurse her back to health. Eventually, she made her way back to London. Now that Mr. Peggotty has found Emily, he plans to take her to Australia, where she can start again.
At Mr. Micawber's sudden request, David, Traddles, and Miss Betsey all meet Mr. Micawber in Canterbury. He asks them to join him at the Wickfields' house. Once there, Mr. Micawber calls out Uriah Heep and accuses him of blackmail, exploitation, and falsification of documents, with Mr. Wickfield as the main victim. Mr. Micawber has been lucky enough to collect proof of wrongdoing, so Uriah Heep knows the jig is up. Mr. Micawber is so happy to be free of Uriah Heep that he runs straight home and hugs his wife. Sure, he's back in debt and he's gotten involved in some shady dealings, but Mr. Micawber has done the right thing in the end. He, Mrs. Micawber, and their many children agree to immigrate to Australia with Mr. Peggotty and Emily.
Still struggling with her health after miscarrying, Dora gets sicker and sicker. David starts to realize that she may die. Agnes comes to nurse Dora. Dora loves Agnes and, just before she finally passes away, Dora sends David out of the room so that she can say something in secret to Agnes. Then, Dora dies.
David starts making plans to go to Europe to get away from it all. As David is making these plans, he stays in touch with Mr. Peggotty. Mr. Peggotty brings David a letter. The letter is from Emily to Ham, which David should only give to Ham if he thinks Ham can take it. In the letter, Emily thanks Ham for being so kind to her and hopes they shall meet again in a world where she can be forgiven. David promises Mr. Peggotty that he will bring the letter to Yarmouth.
David is worried that Ham will do something reckless if he doesn't have some kind of closure to his relationship with Emily. So, even though Dora has just passed away recently, David decides to go to Yarmouth. At Yarmouth, an immensely strong wind blows up. News comes of a wrecked boat off the shore. Ham Peggotty goes out to attempt to salvage the boat, but the tide is so strong that he drowns. And who should be on the boat but James Steerforth, who also drowns.
David decides not to bring the news of Ham's death to Mr. Peggotty and Emily; he doesn't want to break their hearts. David does go to Mrs. Steerforth's house to tell her of James Steerforth's death and to bring her the body of her son. Mrs. Steerforth cannot seem to understand what David is telling her; she faints. David leaves her in the care of her doctors and her resentful caretaker, Miss Rosa Dartle.
David goes to the London dock to watch the ship bound for Australia carry away the Micawbers, Mr. Peggotty, and Emily. He also sees that Mr. Peggotty has generously allowed Mrs. Gummidge and Martha Endell to accompany him to the new world. David waves goodbye.
David heads to Europe for three years to get away from familiar sights. While he is abroad, he realizes what everyone else has known for, like, years: he should never have married Dora, sweet and beautiful though she was. He should have married Agnes, who is he actually respects and likes to talk to. But David thinks it's too late, and that he can't expect Agnes to marry him after keeping her on the hook all of this time. David returns to England.
After about two months back in England, David has taken to visiting Agnes in Canterbury at least once a week. Finally, David asks Agnes point blank if she has feelings for anyone. David realizes that Agnes has feelings for him. David declares his love to Agnes, and the two get engaged. Agnes tells David Dora's last words: Dora made Agnes promise not to let anyone marry David unless it was Agnes herself. Miss Betsey is so excited at the news that she goes into hysterics.
David and Agnes marry and have many children. Mr. Peggotty, Emily, and the Micawbers all flourish in Australia. Traddles settles down with his beautiful Sophy. Mrs. Steerforth has fallen into senility, but she continues to be cared for by Miss Rosa Dartle – who also never loses an opportunity to scold Mrs. Steerforth for allowing James to grow up into such an arrogant jerk. Miss Betsey and Peggotty are still going strong. Peggotty and Mr. Dick frequently play with David's children. Still, looking back on his life, the one face that shines out the brightest to David is that of his beloved wife, Agnes, who continues to make David a better man.