In the preface written to accompany the first single-volume publication of David Copperfield, Dickens tells us that the completion of the novel is, for him, both a regret and a pleasure. He rejoices in the completion of the novel because the novel was a long time in coming, and he is satisfied that it is finished after two years of hard work. He mourns its completion, however, because it marks the end of his association with a cast of characters to whom he has become intensely attached. Dickens remarks that David Copperfield is his favorite of all his novels and that, of all the characters he has invented over the years, David Copperfield is dearest to him.
An older David Copperfield narrates the story of his life. He begins by saying that only the writing that follows can tell who the hero of his story is. He tells of his simple birth, which occurred at the stroke of midnight on a Friday night. An old woman in the neighborhood has told him that the time of his birth indicates he will be unlucky and will be able to see ghosts and spirits.
David’s father is already dead when David is born. David’s aunt, Miss Betsey Trotwood, appears on the day of David’s birth and speaks with David’s mother, Clara. Miss Betsey informs Clara that she intends to take custody of the girl Clara is about to bear. Miss Betsey wishes to raise the girl so that men never take advantage of her the way Miss Betsey has been taken advantage of in her own life.
When David is born and Mr. Chillip, the doctor, informs Miss Betsey that Clara has had a boy, Miss Betsey storms out of the house and never returns.
David’s earliest memories are of his mother’s hair and his nurse, Clara Peggotty, who has very dark eyes. He remembers the kitchen and the backyard, with the roosters that frightened him and the churchyard behind the house, where his father is buried. Both David and his mother submit themselves to Peggotty’s kind direction. In particular, David recalls one occasion when he sits up late reading a book about crocodiles to Peggotty while waiting for his mother to return home from an evening out. David’s beautiful mother returns with Mr. Murdstone, a large man with black whiskers and a deep voice. David and Peggotty both dislike Mr. Murdstone, and Peggotty warns David’s mother not to marry someone her dead husband would not have liked.
Mr. Murdstone returns later and takes David on a short trip to meet two business acquaintances, one of whom is named Mr. Quinion. Mr. Murdstone and Mr. Quinion joke about David’s dislike of Mr. Murdstone and Mr. Murdstone’s intention to marry David’s mother. When they get home, Peggotty proposes that she and David go to visit her brother and his family in Yarmouth.
Peggotty takes David to Yarmouth, where her family lives in a boat they have converted into a home. Peggotty’s brother, Mr. Daniel Peggotty, adopted his nephew, Ham, and his niece, Little Em’ly, who are not siblings, when their fathers drowned. Mrs. Gummidge, the widowed wife of Mr. Peggotty’s brother, lives with them too.
Mr. Peggotty and Ham fish during the day, while David and Little Em’ly roam the beaches, collect shells, and fall in love. In retrospect, David muses that he has at times wished that the sea had closed over Little Em’ly then so that she would not have suffered all that she has suffered since.
When David returns home, he observes that he has hardly thought of his mother or his home since he left. When he arrives, Peggotty tells him that his mother married Mr. Murdstone while they were away. David is reunited with his mother. Mr. Murdstone orders David’s mother to control herself in her behavior toward her son. David sees Mr. Murdstone again, for the first time as his mother’s husband. David thinks that Mr. Murdsone, with his great black beard, looks like an enormous and threatening dog.
Dickens uses foreshadowing and cultivates an atmosphere of mystery in order to make his story dramatic and capture our interest from the start. The surreal circumstances under which David is born, including the appearance of Miss Betsey, mark the first example of mystery in the novel. Although Miss Betsey is absent for much of the story, she returns when David is in his hour of most dire need. The darkness and abruptness established around Miss Betsey in the opening chapter characterize her throughout the novel. Likewise, David’s comment that Little Em’ly might have been better off in the long run if the sea had swallowed her up as a child foreshadows painful events that come later. By alluding to these future difficult circumstances early in the novel, Dickens keeps us wondering what will happen to the various characters as the novel unfolds. Throughout David Copperfield, Dickens uses such foreshadowing not only to create suspense about future events but also to establish an ominous tone.
Dickens portrays David as a gentle, naïve child in order to limit the novel’s perspective and set up the dramatic irony of many of the story’s episodes. We see many signs of David’s youth: his memory of Mr. Murdstone as doglike, his failure to understand that Mr. Quinion and Mr. Murdstone make jokes at his own expense, his memory of his mother’s hair and form, and so on. We also see David’s innocence in his narrative voice, which focuses on other characters’ best aspects and never hints at infidelity or betrayal. Additionally, as a child, David often fears and dreads aspects of characters that an adult would not. We might expect the adult David to rewrite the story using his adult perspective to make sense of the things that baffled him as a child. But David does not recast his childhood through an adult perspective. As a result, we see the characters and the story as the young David did at the time. David’s naïve voice preserves an element of surprise in the novel, as David repeatedly fails to notice parts of the story that, if shown, would reveal upcoming events.
By matching his characters’ physical traits to their emotional traits, Dickens helps us categorize the many people we meet in the novel. Mr. Murdstone, for example, sports a large black beard and evil-looking face that make him appear like a beast—and indeed, he turns out to be a less than savory character. In this way, David Copperfield is generally straightforward in its depiction of good and evil characters. In most cases, characters are more or less what they appear, which makes it easy for us to remember both their outward appearances and internal traits. Also, because Dickens tends to associate good with light and beauty and evil with dark and ugliness, the images in the novel come into sharp contrast. Thus, when David’s mother and Mr. Murdstone are together, the image is as physically and aesthetically repugnant as it is morally unappealing. Though there are exceptions to this general rule, the alliance of good with beauty and evil with ugliness persists fairly regularly throughout David Copperfield.