David Copperfield, serially published between 1849–50, is probably Charles Dickens’s most acclaimed and most iconic novel. It was certainly beloved by Dickens himself, who once referred to the book as his “favorite child” out of all the works that he had written. Dickens’s affinity for the novel could be largely attributed to its semi-autobiographical nature; Dickens pulled from many of his childhood and young-adult experiences when crafting David’s eventful life. For instance, like Dickens, David worked as a child in a wine bottling factory. David also becomes first a law clerk, then a reporter, and finally a successful novelist, much like Dickens himself. Many of the novel’s secondary characters were also inspired by Dickens’s experiences as a young man and it’s likely one character, Mr. Micawber, was even based on Dickens’s own father. As a result, many devoted fans of Dickens have celebrated David Copperfield, not only as a towering work of masterful storytelling, but as a means to glimpse the man behind the pen. 

The novel, whose full title is The Personal History and Experience of David Copperfield, tells David’s entire life story beginning at his birth and ending with David as a married, middle-aged man with children. The novel’s major conflict or overarching narrative is David's struggle to become a man in a cruel world, with little money and few people to guide him. As a result, David Copperfield can be classified as a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age text that follows the protagonist on their intellectual and moral journey from childhood to adulthood. The novel perfectly adheres to the conventions of the bildungsroman genre because every character that David meets and every obstacle that David overcomes aids him on his road to maturity. 

The text’s inciting incident occurs when David’s mother marries Mr. Murdstone, a stern man whose propensity for cruelty is symbolized by his cold, unfeeling eyes. The novel’s first phase of rising action consists of David’s tragic childhood. Mr. Murdstone abuses both David and his mother, sends David away to a school called Salem House where he instructs the headmaster to be severe to him, and pulls David out of school and forces him to work in a wine bottling factory the moment that David’s mother dies. Mr. Murdstone’s villainy is the first of many obstacles that David will have to overcome over the course of his life. However, young David’s plight and his repeated abuse is a particularly disturbing way to begin the novel because it is unsettling to see a little boy subjected to so much cruelty. Through this introductory section of the novel, Dickens argues that children often bear the brunt of the world’s maliciousness because they are too weak to defend themselves. This was a personal issue for Dickens because he, too, was forced to grow up too quickly in a cold world that did not care if he prevailed or not. 

However, Dickens extends some sympathy to his young hero in the next phase of rising action. David runs away from his difficult life in London, with the poverty-stricken Micawbers and his job at the factory, and is adopted by his great aunt Betsey Trotwood and the eccentric Mr. Dick. He then experiences a happier childhood and grows into a young man under the guiding influence of his new guardian when he is at home, and Agnes Wickfield when he is at his new school. This section of the novel is filled with anecdotes from David’s adolescence. Some of these instances show his growing maturity, such as his devotion to Agnes and his family, his interest in impressing girls at parties, and his distrust of the calculating and sycophantic Uriah Heep. However, Dickens is quick to demonstrate that David’s path to maturity is not complete. Most notably, he is still enamored with Steerforth, a wealthy older classmate he idolized at Salem House, and is unable to see through his thinly-veiled villainy. In fact, David will not discover Steerforth’s potential for cruelty until a distressed Mr. Peggotty informs David that Steerforth has seduced Little Em’ly and convinced her to run away with him. All of these moments, both the good and the bad, are important because they allow David to learn and develop through his life experiences. 

The final phase of rising action is marked by David’s foray into the adult world. Predictably, it is filled with both ups and downs. For example, he falls in love with Dora Spenlow and renews a friendship with Tommy Traddles but he is also thrust into poverty once again after his aunt loses her money. He is also constantly worried that Uriah Heep, Mr. Wickfield’s villainous law clerk, is going to use his power over Mr. Wickfield to both assume control of his legal practice and marry Agnes against her will. Just like in his adolescence, David’s wide array of experiences help him on his journey to becoming a man. Dickens illustrates to the reader that David is learning and maturing as he goes through life, having managed to solve many of his problems such as procuring Dora’s hand in marriage, helping Mr. Peggotty track down Martha, taking care of his aunt, and finding a suitable job for Mr. Dick. 

Additionally instrumental in David’s development is his triumph over Uriah when he helps to prove that Annie Strong has not been cheating on her beloved husband, despite Uriah’s insinuations to the contrary; he realizes in this moment that marriages, and relationships in general, cannot work unless both parties are equals. This revelation forces David to contemplate his marriage to Dora in a new light and reconsider most of the values he has held up to this point. He never stops loving her, but this reassessment paves the way for David’s love for Agnes after Dora’s death. Concurrently, Uriah Heep’s villainy is further exposed when David, Traddles, Miss Betsey, Agnes, and Mr. Micawber confront him together, revealing his fraudulent behavior has been the cause of not just Mr. Micawber’s financial troubles but Miss Betsey’s as well.

The climax of the novel comes in the form of a terrible storm and subsequent shipwreck; it resolves two intertwined plotlines with the deaths of both Steerforth and Ham, and serves as a culmination of the sea’s symbolic associations with uncontrollable power and death. The falling action comprises several characters, including Mr. Peggotty, Little Em’ly, Martha, and the Micawbers, moving to Australia. David  leaves England for a few years to work through his grief and to write. While he is away, he realizes that he is in love with Agnes, setting the stage for the resolution; the two eventually marry after David returns to England and reunites with his friends and family. The novel concludes with a middle-aged David providing an overview of all of the various people who have impacted his life and praising Agnes for her benevolent and guiding presence. It may seem strange, initially, for David to end such a lengthy exposition of his own life with an account of other people. However, Dickens ends the novel in such a way to subtly illustrate that David’s entire bildungsroman was formed by the experiences that he had and the characters, both the good and the bad, that he met along the way. As a result, Dickens reminds us all that we do not exist in a vacuum and are, instead, the product of all the people that have left a lasting impact on our lives.