David Copperfield was born on Friday at 12 AM in Blunderstone, Suffolk. When his mother was still pregnant, her husband and David’s father died, leaving her a widow with a little baby and no income. Mrs. Copperfield can only hope for help of her single and eccentric aunt, Miss Betsey Trotwood. But the elderly and rich woman is a bit too eccentric and stubborn, doesn’t want to help a baby boy, thinking that only girls and women deserve help. She even refuses to talk to Mrs. Copperfield anymore for such a crime as giving birth to a boy. The only faithful ally of Mrs. Copperfield left with her is her housekeeper named Peggotty. Together they manage to raise David.
Mrs. Copperfield is still young, naive and attractive, so when David is almost six, she gets a new suitor at the door: Mr. Murdstone. He is a harsh, cynical and cruel man, but he knows how to pretend to be romantic. He floods the young widow with compliments until she accepts his proposal to marry. However, right after the wedding Mr. Murdstone changes completely. He moves to her house and invites his sister Jane to live with them. They both start to threaten and oppress Mrs. Copperfield until she is too afraid and apathetic to resist. The broken and depressed woman doesn’t have strength to defend either herself or David, who also becomes a victim of verbal and physical abuse. The abuse becomes more and more severe and once, after a particularly cruel whipping, little David bites the hand of his offender. The boy is beaten half dead after that as “aggressive and ungrateful” and, despite the protests of his mother, sent away to the boarding school called Salem House and run by Mr. Creakle.
Before leaving David is allowed to say farewell to Peggotty, who raised him. He goes to the coastal village of Yarmouth, where Peggotty is from and meets Mr. Peggotty, her brother, who is a fisherman there. Mr. Peggotty lives in a house made from a boat, together with people who need a temporary shelter. He is the owner, but decides to help those in need: two orphans named Ham and Emily and Mrs. Gummidge, another widow who was left without a penny when Mr. Peggoty’s business partner passed away. Despite Mr. Peggotty isn’t rich, he is kind and generous and the two weeks spent in Yarmouth are one of the best memories in David’s life. He even falls in love with Emily, for the first time in his life, charmed by her appearance and kind heart.
But David has to go to school, and when he is there, we see that his stepfather deliberately chose the worst school possible. Also, he gave David the worst recommendations, telling that his stepson is egotistic, delinquent and aggressive. Mr. Creakle feels like beating the schoolboys is his personal duty and he does it as often as possible for the slightest mistakes, to “make them proper men”. David gets the most of it. The only boy who manages to almost avoid it is James Steerforth. He is kind, handsome and clever. David quickly befriends him and admires him as his hero and ideal. During the two terms in Salem’s house, the most useful knowledge for David is how to avoid being beaten. Still, he tries to learn and make friends with other boys: the aforementioned James Steerforth and also Tommy Traddles, a shy and kind boy, who easily gets upset and sits alone drawing skeletons at such moments. Everything seems to get better, but suddenly David gets news from home: his mother and her baby - David’s half-brother - have died. Devastated, David runs from school to the funeral. There he meets his stepfather, Mr. Murdstone. But he is now deeply in debts and isn’t interested in caring about his unwanted stepson. To fulfill his parental duty he sends David, who is only ten years old, to work at his wine bottling factory. That very day David is sent to London alone, without any protection and any person to care about him.
Luckily, David manages to befriend the family of his new landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Micawber. They are a sweet couple, but they barely have money to survive. Still, they don’t lose their spirit: Mr. Micawber tries himself in the new and new fields as an entrepreneur, but no plan works out and the family ends up even in deeper debt. They treat David very well except discussing with him all their problems in financial and personal marital life. This makes the boy wonder if they ever talked to children before him. But despite this they are clearly enjoying the company of each other. David is very upset when another try of Mr. Micawber fails and he is arrested and sent into the debtor’s prison to work for his debt.
David sees it as a sign to change his life to not end up like his best friend. He remembers that his mother told him about his wealthy relative, Miss Betsey Trotwood, his great aunt who lives near London, in Dover. David decides to run away from his work and find her. He walks all the seventy miles to Dover by foot and knocks at the door of Miss Trotwood being completely exhausted, hungry, sunburned and barely alive. This time the woman takes him in. At first, she seems very strict and unfriendly, but Miss Trotwood has a kind heart. David isn’t the only lost soul whom she gives shelter. Another her “guest” is an old man named Mr. Dick. He has mental issues and was seriously mistreated in his own family, so Miss Trotwood allowed him to live in her house.
But Mr. Murdstone isn’t satisfied that one of his workers left the factory. He goes to London himself and tracks David down, demanding to return his delinquent stepson to him to be punished and put back to the factory. However, Miss Trotwood isn’t the one who can be easily intimidated: she sends both him and his sister away not even bothering to worry. Miss Trotwood promises David that they won’t hurt him anymore and she will raise him. She finds a school - this time a good one - in Canterbury and sends the boy there.
There David shares his new room with another employee of Miss Betsey: her business manager Mr. Wickfield and his daughter Agnes, who works as a houskeeper. Agnes is about David’s age, she is kind-hearted and determined. Another frequent guest in the house is Uriah Heep, the clerk of Mr. Wickfield. David finds him creepy for almost no reason. He hypocritically tells everyone about his good qualities, especially emphasizing being humble. Uriah Heep comes to work for the whole day and then returns to his home, where he lives with his mother.
The time passes, and David finishes his studies with his favourite teacher, Doctor Strong. Now he has to think over his future after the school. But before making such an important decision, David decides to visit his happy place - Yarmouth and the house of Peggotty. David travels there, briefly stopping in London, where he is lucky to meet his old school friend, Steerforth. Now Steerforth is an Oxford student and came home for vacation. David tells him about Yarmouth with such an excitement, that Steerforth decides to go with his friend and see such a beautiful place. He is indeed charmed by the boat house, coast, nature and house inhabitants. The poverty of Peggotty family bothers him a bit, but he is polite enough not to say it to anyone except David. The young men are greeted warmly and sincerely. David is happy to learn that the two orphans adopted by Mr. Peggotty, Ham and Emily are now engaged. Mr. Peggotty is happy and proud by it. Steerforth is in love with Yarmouth and even thinks about purchasing a boat to visit this place sometimes.
Spending some happy days in Yarmouth, David returns back to his aunt to discuss his future career. They choose the profession of the proctor (a special kind of lawyer) and David returns to London to rent a new apartment and start his work as a lawyer assistant in the office of Spenlow and Jorkins. He often visit Steerforth and also finds his other friend, Tommy Traddles - who is also a lawyer, but not quite successful. Miraculously, Traddles rents a house with David’s another friend, Mr. Micawber. Mr. Micawber is already out of prison, but he didn’t change his lifestyle, still trying new opportunities, getting into debts and not losing his cheerful attitude to life.
When David is 17 he falls in love with daughter of Mr. Spenlow, his employer. Her name is Dora and she is like a being from a fairy world. Dora is naive, childlike and loves to be loved and cared for, but never acts like a grown-up woman. David is charmed by her and is fine with the fact that she is unable to do housekeeping or take any other responsibility.
In the meantime, there is a drama happening in Yarmouth. Ham is madly in love with Emily, but the girl gradually falls for Steerforth - rich, handsome and educated - who visits the place not to see its beauty but to see Emily. David learns that during his last visit Steerforth and his servant named Littimer, convinced Emily to run away with them. Finally, Emily does - breaking the engagement and not marrying Steerforth also, which is a very bad thing for a woman in the nineteenth century. Ham Peggotty is devastated by the loss of his fiancée. Mr. Peggotty is equally devastated and promises to find his stepdaughter no matter what. Enraged, David rushes to Steerforth house to tell his mother about what her son has done and how he devastated the reputation of the innocent woman. But Mrs. Steerforth doesn’t want to believe that her son is guilty and blames Emily for seducing her boy. Angry and sad David leaves the house.
This is not the first horrible thing in David’s adult life. Mr. Wickfield is in serious trouble, Uriah Heep cheated him into becoming his business partner via blackmail and threats. Moreover, now Uriah Heep wants more - he wants Agnes for himself, threatening to bankrupt Mr. Wickfield otherwise. The wishes of Agnes herself don’t bother him at all. Another trouble David has to endure is that Miss Betsey invested into the wrong ventures and now she has to move away from her big and beautiful house. In despair, Miss Betsey confesses David that the investments were all her fault, because she decided by herself where put the money to. Mr. Wickfield, who already had drinking issues, was encouraged by Uriah Heep to drink more and was unable to manage finances of Miss Betsey anymore. But the kind-hearted woman couldn’t just fire her devoted friend, so she pretended that everything is fine while doing his job by herself (awfully). Now Miss Betsey is completely ruined, and she asks David to help her survive and support her.
David starts working with even greater devotion - now he has his elderly relative to support. Tommy Traddles gives him some practical advice and David soon finds a good job of reporting government debates in a daily newspaper, in addition to his work in the lawyer’s office. Still, he feels that he can work more and earn more, so David contacts his former, now retired, teacher, Doctor Strong, who employs the young man as his secretary.
When David’s finances become stable, he finally makes the proposal to Dora Spenlow. Dora is eager to marry him, but her father has other plans and firmly refuses to give his blessing to this marriage. Both lovers are deeply upset, but soon Mr. Spenlow dies and now Dora (as helpless and indecisive as before) lives under the care of her two aunts. Dora’s aunts meet with Miss Betsey and the aunts’ council finally gives the couple the permission to marry.
David is sent to care about what is left of her property in Dover. When the young man is there, he meets the Wickfields again. Now he sees that Uriah Heep has a clerk of his own and it is Mr. Micawber. David tries to learn about the real state of affairs in the family from him, but Mr. Micawber, despite all their friendship, refuses to give away the personal information about his new employer. Agnes is more than glad to see him and even tries to comfort him after hearing of all the misfortunes with his marriage and Miss Betsey’s bankruptcy. But during the dinner with the Wickfields David learns that it is Agnes who has to be comforted: Uriah Heep continues his advances and, while Mr. Wickfield still considers that his daughter is worth a thousand Uriah Heeps, he is almost ready to surrender. He laments his lack of willpower and ill fate that ruined not only his life, but is going to ruin the life of his daughter.
David is twenty-one now and he marries Dora and rents a house for their new family. He also helps Miss Betsey and Mr. Dick to find a new apartment in London, near Doctor Strong, so they have someone familiar in neighborhood. After Mr. Spenlow’s death, the law business isn’t going as well as before, so David has to work even harder to support his family. He even starts to write fiction novels for London magazines and gets some additional income from them, but Dora’s incompetence with housekeeping doesn’t help to keep family budget afloat at all. The servants often cheat them, the money just disappear or are spent to buy pretty little useless things. Dora tearfully asks David to keep in mind that she is his “child-wife”, his pretty little girl, unable to do adult things and take any responsibility.
Gradually, David understands that something isn’t right in his married life, but he still loves Dora so much that he is ready to forgive her anything, even more after they discover that Dora is pregnant. Unfortunately, she has a miscarriage that also leaves her unable to walk at all. Now David has not only to work full-time, but to support his disabled wife. Every morning he carries her down the stairs, so the woman can enjoy the fresh air. Now he cares for her as for a real child, but soon David notices that Dora becomes lighter and lighter in his arms. He asks Miss Betsey, who loves Dora, to move into their house and help him nurse her.
Meanwhile, Mr. Peggotty, faithful to his promise, searches for Emily everywhere. He stays in London, almost in despair. But one day, Martha Endell, the common friend of both David and Emily, comes to David and says that she has found Emily. She guides him to a small and dirty room in the attic of a poor building. Emily is there, devastated and depressed. She has no money to rent something better and has to rely on charity to barely survive. When David and Mr. Peggotty come upstairs, they hear another familiar voice. It is Miss Rosa Dartle, the friend of Steerforth. She came to mock Emily and curse her for ruining Steerforth’s life. Hearing the conversation, David understands that Emily survived through something horrible and everyone now enjoys victimblaming her. When Miss Dartle leaves, Mr. Peggotty comes to his stepdaughter, embraces her and carries her downstairs like a little girl, not blaming her for anything. Later, when she is able to tell the truth, Mr. Peggotty comes to David, telling that Emily was abducted to Italy and kept there as a sex slave by Littimer. She managed to run away, but, unable to survive on her own, she fell ill and would have died if not the kindness of the local people. Miraculously the girl found the strength to make her way back to London. Mr. Peggotty thinks that they can move to Australia, where no one will know this story and Emily will have a chance to start her life anew.
Suddenly, David, Traddles and Miss Betsey all get an urgent request from Mr. Micawber. He asks them to come to Mr. Wickfield’s house immediately. He finally tells everyone what he learned about Uriah Heep, his blackmailing, cheating, forging the documents and dirty advances to Agnes. Mr. Micawber openly accuses Uriah Heep, showing everyone the evidence of his wrong deeds. Uriah Heep, frightened, disappears. Mr. Micawber is so happy to do the right things, he is in debts again and was involved into some shady business, but finally he did what his heart told him to do. Understanding that he can be arrested for assisting Uriah Heep, Mr. and Mrs. Micawber agree to go to Australia with Mr. Peggotty and his daughter.
In the meantime, Dora gets worse and worse. David worries about her health and asks Agnes to help nurse her. But it doesn’t help. Dora befriends Agnes and comes to love her. Just before passing away, she asks Agnes to speak to her privately and dies. Devastated by the loss, David decides to go to Europe to move on. Mr. Peggotty and his family still stay in touch with him and one of the letter David receives is from Emily. Emily asks him to read it and give the letter to Ham, but only if he is ready to accept it. In this letter Emily asks him to forgive her if he can and hopes that once they will meet in a better world where all the human sins can be forgiven. David gives his promise to do so.
Before leaving to Europe he returns to Yarmouth to give the letter. Even despite his grief he feels obliged to help them both to resolve their relationship. But when he arrives to Yarmouth, he learns that an incredibly strong storm caused a shipwreck and Ham Peggotty, who went to the rescue, drowned while trying to help. Every passenger of the boat also died, including James Steerforth. David takes the responsibility not to tell Mr. Peggotty and his daughter about Ham’s death not to break their hearts once again. But he has to bring the body of his former friend to his mother, Mrs. Steerforth. When he tells her about James’ death, she faints, and David leaves her in the care of Miss Rosa Dartle. Now he feels that all his debts are paid.
David says his farewell to the Micawbers and Mr. Peggotty and Emily. He sees that the company now includes Mrs. Gummidge and Martha Endell, who also seek the new possibilities in life. Now it’s his time to go and, waving to their ship, David also goes away, to Europe. He lives there for three years to cope with his loss and think over his life. During these years he understands that he should never have married Dora, though she was sweet and faithful. He realizes that it was Agnes who always loved him and supported him, and he respects her still and loves to talk to her. But David supposes that it is too late to make a proposal to Agnes, after the years of keeping her within the friendzone and asking her to care for his wife. With a heavy heart David returns to England.
He lives there for two months, visiting Agnes in her home more and more often and falling in love. Finally, he finds the courage to ask her if she has any suitors. Agnes blatantly answers that the only man she has feelings for is he, David. She tells to David the last words of Dora: seeing their mutual feelings, Dora asked Agnes to give her a promise. Agnes shouldn’t allow David marry anyone but her. David confesses his love to Agnes and they announce about the engagement to the great joy of Miss Betsey.
They marry and live a happy family life with many children. Mr. Peggotty and company also have the opportunity to start anew and use it to prosper and flourish. Traddles is also happily married to his beloved Sophy and stays David’s faithful friend. Mrs. Steerforth never coped with her loss and was driven mad by grief, but she is still under care of Miss Rosa Dartle, who now uses Mrs. Steerforth as an object for her mocking. Miss Betsey and Peggotty live together with Mr. Dick and are glad to babysit David’s children from time to time. Closing the story, David thanks to his beloved wife Agnes, who still supports him and helps him grow and become a better man.