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The novel features the character David Copperfield, and is written in the first person, as a description of his life until middle age, with his own adventures and the numerous friends and enemies he meets along his way. It is his journey from being an impoverished, neglected child to a successful author.
Like some of his other novels, it contains a description of young children working in factories for long hours.
The story follows the life of David Copperfield from childhood to maturity. David was born in Blunderstone, Suffolk, England, six months after the death of his father. David spends his early years in relative happiness with his loving, childish mother and their kindly housekeeper, Clara Peggotty. When he is seven years old his mother marries Edward Murdstone. Partly to get him out of the way and partly because he strongly objects to the whole proceeding, David is sent to lodge with Peggotty's family in Yarmouth. Her brother, fisherman Mr Peggotty, lives in a house built in an upturned boat on the beach, with his adopted relatives Emily and Ham, and an elderly widow, Mrs Gummidge. "Little Em'ly" is somewhat spoiled by her fond foster father, and David is in love with her.
On his return, David is given good reason to dislike his stepfather and has similar feelings for Murdstone's sister Jane, who moves into the house soon afterwards. Between them they tyrannize his poor mother, making her and David's lives miserable, and when, in consequence, David falls behind in his studies, Murdstone attempts to thrash him – partly to further pain his mother. David bites him and soon afterwards is sent away to Salem House, a boarding school, under a ruthless headmaster named Mr Creakle. There he befriends an older boy, James Steerforth, and Tommy Traddles. He develops an impassioned admiration for Steerforth, perceiving him as someone noble, who could do great things if he would.
David goes home for the holidays to learn that his mother has given birth to a baby boy. Shortly after David returns to Salem House, his mother and her baby die, and David returns home immediately. Peggotty marries the local carrier, Mr Barkis. Murdstone sends David to work for a wine merchant in London – a business of which Murdstone is a joint owner. David's landlord, Wilkins Micawber, is arrested for debt and sent to the King's Bench Prison, where he remains for several months, before being released and moving to Plymouth. No one remains to care for David in London, so he decides to run away.
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