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.