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David Copperfield | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Course Hero. "David Copperfield Study Guide." December 12, 2016. Accessed May 30, 2023.


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Plot Summary

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the plot summary of Charles Dickens's novel David Copperfield.

David Copperfield | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


David Copperfield begins with the title character recounting the events surrounding his birth. He is born at the beginning of the 19th century at Blunderstone Rookery, his family's genteel—though not aristocratic—home in Suffolk, England. David's mother, Clara, is a pretty, naive young widow when David is born. Alone in the world, Clara relies on her loyal servant, Peggotty, to help her raise her son. David's happy early childhood takes a sudden turn when Clara marries Mr. Murdstone. Murdstone beats David and sends him away to boarding school. He barely allows Clara to speak to her son, but Peggotty manages to assure David of her continued love and loyalty. David has a warm relationship with Peggotty, having spent time with her in Yarmouth enjoying the company of Mr. Peggotty, her fisherman brother. Mr. Peggotty lives with Emily, his adopted niece, and Ham, his adopted nephew.

At David Copperfield's grim boarding school, Salem House, the students are regularly beaten. Kind-hearted Tommy Traddles befriends David, and James Steerforth, an older boy, becomes a kind of hero and mentor to him. David's talent for telling adventure stories, acquired from his extensive reading of adventure novels back at Blunderstone, earns him a place of respect among the boys.

When David's mother dies, he is sent home from school. Peggotty moves to Yarmouth after Mr. Murdstone fires her, and David visits her, regaling the Peggottys with praise of Steerforth. Peggotty marries Mr. Barkis, the horse cart driver.

Instead of sending David Copperfield back to school, Mr. Murdstone sends him to London to work in a rat-infested bottle warehouse. At age 10, David is on his own in London, staying in a room rented from Mr. and Mrs. Micawber. He earns barely enough to pay for his meals. David is crushed by the realization that without education his future will be bleak. He becomes friendly with the quirky Micawbers, who have genteel manners and aspirations. However, they're constantly in debt, and Mr. Micawber is always trying to find suitable work. When the Micawbers move to Plymouth, David decides to run away to Miss Betsey, his eccentric great-aunt, who had cut herself off from David's parents. David decides to take a chance on gaining her protection, and he walks from London to Dover to find her.

Miss Betsey adopts David and gets him into Dr. Strong's school in Canterbury—a much better school than Salem House. She also finds lodging for him in the home of Mr. Wickfield, her solicitor. Agnes, Mr. Wickfield's daughter, quickly becomes a dear friend. The devious Uriah Heep, Mr. Wickfield's "humble" assistant, is the only negative aspect of David's new situation.

After finishing school at the top of his class, David Copperfield visits London and runs into Steerforth. They go to Yarmouth to visit the Peggottys for a few weeks. When they arrive, Emily has just become engaged to Ham. During their visit, Steerforth charms the Peggottys and tells David he purchased a boat and gave it the name "The Little Emily."

In London, Miss Betsey arranges for David to apprentice as a proctor at the firm of Spenlow and Jorkins. David's relationship with Agnes remains close. He values her judgment and thinks of her as a dear sister. At a dinner party with Agnes, David runs into his old schoolmate Tommy Traddles, and they rekindle their friendship. Traddles, it turns out, is renting a room from the Micawbers, and David has a pleasant reunion with his old friends.

David Copperfield is in Yarmouth after the death of Barkis when, practically on the eve of her marriage to Ham, Emily runs away with Steerforth. Mr. Peggotty vows to search for her to forgive her and bring her back. David goes back to his apprenticeship in London and falls in love with Dora Spenlow, his boss's daughter. But Miss Betsey loses her fortune and David must come up with a way to earn enough money to support his aunt and marry Dora. Agnes helps him find part-time work with Dr. Strong, and Traddles helps him study to become a court reporter. After much hard work, David is finally able to marry Dora. However, her childish ways—so charming during their courtship—cause difficulty in their marriage. David finally realizes Dora can't be the equal partner he'd hoped for, but he loves her all the same. After bearing a child who dies soon after birth, Dora becomes ill and grows weaker and weaker. Meanwhile, in Canterbury, Uriah Heep has been busy. He's taken charge of Mr. Wickfield's business, is scheming to marry Agnes, and has hired Mr. Micawber as his clerk.

After a long and difficult search, Mr. Peggotty finds Emily, who has left Steerforth. Mr. Peggotty decides to take her to Australia to start a new life. Mr. Micawber dramatically exposes how Uriah Heep used fraud, forgery, and embezzlement to gain control over Mr. Wickfield. Micawber reveals it was Heep who caused Miss Betsey to lose her fortune. With Traddles's legal help, Heep is brought to justice and Miss Betsey's fortune is restored. The Micawbers decide to emigrate to Australia with Mr. Peggotty and Emily. Dora's illness worsens and she dies, but not before she tells David she knows she was too young and silly to be a wife. David postpones dealing with his grief and goes to Yarmouth to give Ham a farewell message from Emily. A terrible storm is raging and David witnesses Ham's attempt to rescue a man from a sinking boat. Both Ham and the man on the boat, who turns out to be Steerforth, are drowned.

David Copperfield goes abroad to cope with his grief and finally realizes how much he has always loved Agnes. He returns to England and reveals his feelings to her. David and Agnes marry and have a family. David becomes a famous author, and years later, he's gratified to learn that all of his emigrant friends have found happiness in their new lives.

David Copperfield Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 David Copperfield's mother marries Mr. Murdstone.

Rising Action

2 Mr. Murdstone sends David to school; he meets Steerforth.

3 David's mother dies; he begins work in a London warehouse.

4 David is adopted by Miss Betsey; he attends a good school.

5 David visits the Peggottys with Steerforth.

6 Steerforth betrays David and runs away with Emily.

7 David falls in love and becomes engaged to Dora.

8 David changes career goals; Miss Betsey loses her fortune.

9 David succeeds in his new career and marries Dora.

10 David and Dora have marital problems; Dora is ill and dies.


11 Steerforth and Ham die in a violent storm.

Falling Action

12 David's friends emigrate to Australia to start new lives.

13 David travels in Europe and copes with his grief.

14 David returns to England and marries Agnes.


15 David's family and friends have happy, fulfilled lives.

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