Whilst heavily pregnant with him, David Copperfields widowed mother receives an unexpected visit at her home in Norfolk from her late husbands aunt, Betsey Trotwood. Trotwood, however, departs in disgust when the baby turns out to be male. Davids early childhood is idyllic, and he is the apple of the eyes of his weak-willed, silly, pretty mother and the familys devoted servant Clara Peggotty. Their happiness is shattered when Mrs. Copperfield starts to accept the attentions of the grim Edward Murdstone. David is packed off for a holiday at Yarmouth with Peggottys relations, who live on the beach in an upturned ship that fascinates him. Her family consists of Daniel, a kindly fisherman, his niece Emily (known as Little Emly), her cousin Ham and the comically pessimistic Mrs. Gummidge. David develops a childish love for Little Emly.
Upon returning home David is dismayed to learn that his mother is now Mrs. Murdstone. Murdstone is extremely strict and terrifies David. His sister Jane Murdstone becomes housekeeper and is similarly stern and forbidding. When young David fails to fulfil his stepfathers demands in maths lessons, he bites his hand and is imprisoned in his room for five days before being packed off to Salem House school in London. Barkis, the coachman who drives him there, is smitten by Peggotty and asks David to convey to her the cryptic message "Barkis is willin'". David is miserable at Salem House, which is run by the sadistic Mr. Creakle, who relies largely upon the rod for disciplining his charges. David quickly falls under the spell of an arrogant, charismatic older boy called James Steerforth and also befriends the hapless and victimised Tommy Traddles, a target for Steerforths bullying. During his second term David learns that his mother has died in childbirth, and that Peggotty has been sacked. She accepts Barkiss proposals of marriage. David, meanwhile, is promptly removed from Salem House and put to work in Murdstones warehouse.
At this time of loneliness and humiliation his only comfort comes from the shabby family with whom he lodges, the Micawbers. Wilkins Micawber is incapable of financial responsibility, buoyed only by a constant conviction that "something will turn up". Mrs. Micawber supports him unreservedly and constantly vows never to leave him. When the Micawbers leave London, Davids unhappiness becomes such that he runs away in the hope of finding his great-aunt in Dover. En route he is beset with bad luck, and is reduced to selling his clothes to buy food. Eventually he tramps exhaustedly up to Trotwoods front door. She is astounded to see him and, despite an initially frosty manner, soon shows herself to be soft-hearted. Taking into consideration the advice of her simple-minded lodger Mr. Dick, she decides to fight Davids stepfather for custody of him. Following a triumphant interview with the Murdstones, this is achieved.
David is now sent to a school in Canterbury, under the headmastership of the kindly Dr. Strong. Here he lodges with Mr. Wickfield (a solicitor) and his beautiful daughter Agnes. He also meets the repulsively self-effacing clerk Uriah Heep, whose mantra-like professions of humility conceal ruthless calculation. Heep steadily asserts himself over the mildly bibulous Wickfield, and is deeply disliked upon first sight by David. Leaving the school, David meets and befriends Steerforth again, and visits Mrs. Steerforths home in Highgate, where he encounters the oddly spiteful and bitter Rosa Dartle, her paid companion. David and Steerforth visit Yarmouth at the formers instigation, and find Ham and Little Emly celebrating their engagement. Steerforth is universally liked there, concealing his contempt for such simple, uneducated folk under a slick veneer of charm. He is attracted to Little Emly, who has grown up to be beautiful. David resists Agnes Wickfields advice to steer well clear of Steerforth.
Back in London David again encounters Traddles, who is now reading for the bar and lodging with the Micawbers. Opting to become a solicitor, David is articled to the firm of Spenlow and Jorkins in the city at Trotwoods expense. He falls in love at first sight with Mr. Spenlows flighty daughter Dora, whose chaperone is none other than Miss Murdstone. Hearing that Barkis has fallen seriously ill, David returns to Yarmouth. Barkis dies, and then Steerforth elopes with Little Emly. Vowing not to rest until he succeeds, Daniel Peggotty sets off to travel the world in search of her. Visiting the steely Mrs. Steerforth together, Daniel and David are told flatly that a marriage between Emly and Steerforth will never receive her sanction. During the visit Dartle demonstrates her violent and still unexplained temper. Meanwhile Betsey Trotwood reveals to David that she has suddenly lost all of her money, which was invested with Wickfield. As