David Copperfield is a heavily autobiographical bildungsroman, which Dickens called his favorite child and claimed he liked the best of all his works. It is a sprawling novel with many different plot threads that intersect and a large cast of character, which makes it difficult to summarize.
The story begins with David’s birth after the death of his father. An aunt named Betsey Trotwood arrives to assist the widowed Mrs. Copperfield with her pregnancy, promising to take care of her and the baby financially with the expectation it will be a girl. The expectation proves wrong and the temperamental aunt leaves in anger that David is not a girl. David has some good years growing up with his mom and his childhood servant, Pegotty, until his mother decides to remarry to Mr. Murdstone. Mr Murdstone brings along his sister who together try to crush the mother’s spirit and are outright abusive to David. They send him off to a detestable school where he recieves regular beatings and punishments from the headmaster, Mr. Creakle. There he meets James Steerforth, a haughty young man with a vibrant spirit, and Traddles, who both befriend the young Copperfield. He leaves school and on returning home the Murdstones have crushed his mother’s spirit to the point where she no longer wants to live and dies. They send him to founder in London, fending for himself where he takes residence as a renter with Mr Micawber and his family whose out of control spending and inability to secure work put them into debt.
After experiencing poverty and abuse, and knowing he won’t survive long living such a harsh life, David leaves London and seeks aid from his aunt. She decides to raise him, sends him off to school, and fosters him with Mr Wickfield and his daughter, Agnes. He also meets obsequious clerk named Uriah Heep. He grows to view Agnes as a sister.
In his later life he meets Steerforth again from his younger days. They rekindle their friendship. The two go to visit the home of David’s old nurse home where Steerforth begins courting Emily, the niece of Mr. Pegotty, in secret even though she has recently become engaged. Emily runs off with Steerforth, abandoning her fiancé and family, leaving them in a state of grief and disappointment, while ruining her reputation. David sees Steerforth in his true nature and repudiates the friendship. Mr Pegotty leaves home and wanders the world to recover his niece, eventually finding her, after Steerforth abandons her out of boredom.
Copperfield decides to become a Proctor (a type of ecclesiastic lawyer), which leads him to meet his first wife, Dora, who is the daughter of his mentor in the field. She is a silly spoiled empty-headed doll, but in his naive youth David falls for her beauty. He eventually abandons the law to become a successful and famous writer, and marries Dora. He also meets up with Traddles again, another friend from his former school, who is also becoming a lawyer.
Eventually the former clerk of Mr Wickfield, Uriah Heep, rises through his treacherous machinations to become a partner of the business and secretly desires to marry Agnes. Mr. Micawber, a friend from Copperfield’s early days, takes employment as the new clerk of Wickfield and Heep, due to his massive debt. While employed, he learns about Uriah’s malevolent plans and with the help of David, Traddles, and others manages to thwart them.
Many of the characters move to Australia to start new lives such as Emily and Mr Pegotty, Mr Micawber and his family, while David leaves the country to explore Europe after the death of his wife, Dora. On this trip, while dealing with his grief, he comes to an epiphany that he loves Agnes. When he returns the two meet up and after many struggles admit their love for each other, ending in a happy marriage of equal minds.
A common theme of coming-of-age novels is a lack of self-knowledge. In growing up David hits many bumps and makes many mistakes not just in his judgements about the character of other people, with the most conspicuous example being Steerforth, but he even misjudges his own desires. David thinks of Agnes as a sister, never realizing his true feelings for her until the end of the book, even though the reader sees it right away. Dora is the beautiful doll most of us think we want to marry in our youth (“the first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart”), while Agnes is David’s intellectual and moral equal whose the type of wife that a mature heart desires. When David falls for Agnes he looks beyond only physical beauty and searches for compatibility of character and ideas. Copperfield grows into self-knowledge and awareness as the book progresses. This is in contrast to the wicked characters of the book who seem to be unaware of their moral failings and therefore never attempt to change themselves for the better.
It is hard to tell what to make of Uriah Heep’s false humility. When all his scheming is uncovered the other characters observing him claim it is a mask, a defense mechanism to get people to put down their guards. Part of me wonders, though, if he truly believes himself humble, that he has convinced himself that he is in fact humble. Even more interesting is when David finally confronts the Murdstones as an adult, outright telling them he misused his mother and himself. We find two people not only unrepentant of the past, but who truly believe their actions were morally justified, despite their obviously cruel and abusive behavior. Likewise, for all his worldliness, Steerforth lacks self-control, and by extension, self-knowledge. This lack of self-control allows him to jump from one desire to another, which jeopardizes his friendship with David and even the relationship he has with his mother. One gets the sense that he just wanders, unsure of his purpose, following his whims. He attends college, but never stays their long, and isn’t clear what he is studying or that he cares for it much. Steerforth moves through life without a plan, destroying anything that gets in his way.
After his fame, David and Traddles find themselves invited by their cruel schoolmaster from their youth, now a prison magistrate, to come survey the facility in his charge:
“Traddles and I repaired to the prison where Mr Creakle was powerful. It was an immense and solid building, erected at a vast expense. I could not help thinking, as we approached the gate, what an uproar would have been made in the country, if any deluded man had proposed to spend one half the money it had cost, on the erection of an industrial school for the young, or a house of refuge for the deserving old.”
It is depressing to see in a book written in 1849 – 1850 that our political priorities on where to spend tax money hasn’t changed much. At the prison, Copperfield and Traddles discovers an incarcerated Uriah Heep and Mr. Littimer who are praised by their caretakers as model prisoners due their false humility and their deceitful repentance. Indeed, Uriah Heep’s false modesty thrives in the particular reform system in place in this prison, damning the system as a waste of taxpayers dollars and not producing genuine reform.
Like in most Dickens’ novels, the virtuous triumph by making good decisions and acquiring faithful friends to aid them in their conflicts, while the unethical succumb to their own twisted machinations. Dickens shows us the moral difference of those who practice their ambition at the expense of others (Heep and Murdstone) versus those willing to sacrifice for the happiness of others (Copperfield, Mrs. Trotwood, Traddles, Agnes). Uriah Heep, James Steerforth, and Littimer all get their appropriate punishments, while the heroes all get their just rewards and live happily ever after. Throughout almost all his novels Dickens communicates that virtuous behavior will be rewarded over time, while greed and backhanded scheming against your fellow man will be punished.