Now a grown man, David Copperfield tells the story of his youth. As a young boy, he lives happily with his mother and his nurse, Peggotty. His father died before he was born. During David’s early childhood, his mother marries the violent Mr. Murdstone, who brings his strict sister, Miss Murdstone, into the house. The Murdstones treat David cruelly, and David bites Mr. Murdstone’s hand during one beating. The Murdstones send David away to school.
Peggotty takes David to visit her family in Yarmouth, where David meets Peggotty’s brother, Mr. Peggotty, and his two adopted children, Ham and Little Em’ly. Mr. Peggotty’s family lives in a boat turned upside down—a space they share with Mrs. Gummidge, the widowed wife of Mr. Peggotty’s brother. After this visit, David attends school at Salem House, which is run by a man named Mr. Creakle. David befriends and idolizes an egotistical young man named James Steerforth. David also befriends Tommy Traddles, an unfortunate, fat young boy who is beaten more than the others.
David’s mother dies, and David returns home, where the Murdstones neglect him. He works at Mr. Murdstone’s wine-bottling business and moves in with Mr. Micawber, who mismanages his finances. When Mr. Micawber leaves London to escape his creditors, David decides to search for his father’s sister, Miss Betsey Trotwood—his only living relative. He walks a long distance to Miss Betsey’s home, and she takes him in on the advice of her mentally unstable friend, Mr. Dick.
Miss Betsey sends David to a school run by a man named Doctor Strong. David moves in with Mr. Wickfield and his daughter, Agnes, while he attends school. Agnes and David become best friends. Among Wickfield’s boarders is Uriah Heep, a snakelike young man who often involves himself in matters that are none of his business. David graduates and goes to Yarmouth to visit Peggotty, who is now married to Mr. Barkis, the carrier. David reflects on what profession he should pursue.
On his way to Yarmouth, David encounters James Steerforth, and they take a detour to visit Steerforth’s mother. They arrive in Yarmouth, where Steerforth and the Peggottys become fond of one another. When they return from Yarmouth, Miss Betsey persuades David to pursue a career as a proctor, a kind of lawyer. David apprentices himself at the London firm of Spenlow and Jorkins and takes up lodgings with a woman named Mrs. Crupp. Mr. Spenlow invites David to his house for a weekend. There, David meets Spenlow’s daughter, Dora, and quickly falls in love with her.
In London, David is reunited with Tommy Traddles and Mr. Micawber. Word reaches David, through Steerforth, that Mr. Barkis is terminally ill. David journeys to Yarmouth to visit Peggotty in her hour of need. Little Em’ly and Ham, now engaged, are to be married upon Mr. Barkis’s death. David, however, finds Little Em’ly upset over her impending marriage. When Mr. Barkis dies, Little Em’ly runs off with Steerforth, who she believes will make her a lady. Mr. Peggotty is devastated but vows to find Little Em’ly and bring her home.
Miss Betsey visits London to inform David that her financial security has been ruined because Mr. Wickfield has joined into a partnership with Uriah Heep. David, who has become increasingly infatuated with Dora, vows to work as hard as he can to make their life together possible. Mr. Spenlow, however, forbids Dora from marrying David. Mr. Spenlow dies in a carriage accident that night, and Dora goes to live with her two aunts. Meanwhile, Uriah Heep informs Doctor Strong that he suspects Doctor Strong’s wife, Annie, of having an affair with her young cousin, Jack Maldon.
Dora and David marry, and Dora proves a terrible housewife, incompetent in her chores. David loves her anyway and is generally happy. Mr. Dick facilitates a reconciliation between Doctor Strong and Annie, who was not, in fact, cheating on her husband. Miss Dartle, Mrs. Steerforth’s ward, summons David and informs him that Steerforth has left Little Em’ly. Miss Dartle adds that Steerforth’s servant, Littimer, has proposed to her and that Little Em’ly has run away. David and Mr. Peggotty enlist the help of Little Em’ly’s childhood friend Martha, who locates Little Em’ly and brings Mr. Peggotty to her. Little Em’ly and Mr. Peggotty decide to move to Australia, as do the Micawbers, who first save the day for Agnes and Miss Betsey by exposing Uriah Heep’s fraud against Mr. Wickfield.
A powerful storm hits Yarmouth and kills Ham while he attempts to rescue a shipwrecked sailor. The sailor turns out to be Steerforth. Meanwhile, Dora falls ill and dies. David leaves the country to travel abroad. His love for Agnes grows. When David returns, he and Agnes, who has long harbored a secret love for him, get married and have several children. David pursues his writing career with increasing commercial success.