The story is told in the first person, by David Copperfield, though he is not born until the end of the first chapter. He has a remarkable memory, however, and remembers exactly how everyone looked and what everyone said during the argument between his mother, his aunt, and the doctor just before the delivery.
When David was born, he tells us, "The clock began to strike, and I began to cry simultaneously." This probably does not mean that David was struck by the clock. However, it sets the tone of the book, in which somebody is always getting beaten and crying, although people frequently cry without being hit.
David's father died six months before David was born. This is the way he puts it: "My father's eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months when mine opened on it." Not only is this.more delicate but it is recommended to any author who is being paid by the word. David's mother is a beautiful, baby-faced creature who married her late husband when she was half his age, which is probably why he called her his better half. Whenever anyone says a harsh word, her eyes fill with tears, which may mean that they are small, and fill rapidly.
David has a loyal friend in Peggotty, a plump nursemaid who is always hugging him and bursting the buttons off her dress. She is kept busy around the house, cooking, cleaning, and sewing on buttons.
Time passes. Once Peggotty takes David for a fortnight's visit to her brother's home, a fishing barge drawn up on dry land. It is almost as peculiar as people in it.
Returning home from the visit, David learns that his mother has married to a Mr. Murdstone. As Peggotty tells him, with characteristic delicacy, "You have got a pa!" Mr. Murdstone is tall, dark, handsome, and mean, and David takes an instant dislike to him. One senses the emergence of an Oedipus complex, but no reference is made to it, probably because Freud was born six years after the publication of David Copperfield. Equally obnoxious is Murdstone's sister, Miss Murdstone, an uninvited guest who sits around stringing steel beads and urging her brother to be firm with David, which he has every intention of being.
Time passes (and it has to, because the novel covers about thirty years). One day David is summoned home from Salem House school because of the death of his mother, which makes him a full-fledged orphan, like Oliver Twist and many other Dickens youngster who goes on to better things. Mr. Murdstone puts an end to his idling by sending the lad to London to wash bottles for the firm of Murdstone and Grinby. It is not David's idea of a promising career, and he is so unhappy that, as he says, "I mingled my tears with the water in which I was washing the bottles." Whether the solution was about fifty-fifty, or nearer sixty-forty, he fails to say. His Aunt Betsy comes to his rescue and suggests that he become a proctor, a profession which he is immediately enthusiastic about, though neither he nor the reader knows precisely what it is.
While time passes, disclosures and deaths come thick and fast. The wretched and 'umble Uriah Heep forges Mr. Wickfield's name and 'makes off with Miss Trotwood's, i.e., Aunt Betsy's, money. When confronted with his crimes, Uriah ceases being 'umble and, as David remarks "throws off his mask." Without the mask, he looks worse than ever. Dear Dora dies, Ham loses his life in attempting to rescue a man from a shipwreck, whose corpse is washed up on the shore, turns out to be David's old friend Steerforth.
David goes abroad for three years, mailing back to England articles and books his course in shorthand has enabled him to write. All of them are gratefully accepted by publishers, probably because they are eager to get the foreign stamps for their collection. Returning home, rich and famous, David discovers to his amazement that he loves Agnes. He is even more amazed to find that Agnes loves him, too. It is the most amazing chapter in the book.
Happiness comes at last to David Copperfield. There would seem to be no more need for tears. But Dickens is not ready to throw in the towel, damp though it is. "Agnes," says David, "laid her head upon my breast and wept; and I wept with her, though we were so happy."
Although two chapters remain, let us leave them crying happily together and tiptoe away.