This first person narrative traces the journey of its protagonist from an unhappy childhood through to a successful adulthood. The novel draws many details from Dickens’ own life.
Birth and Early Childhood
Born fatherless, David is raised by his young, beautiful and loving mother Clara, and their trusted servant Peggotty. David is removed from the household for two weeks, during which time he meets Peggoty’s kind hearted brother, a Yarmouth Fisherman, and the orphaned niece and nephew (Emily and Ham) whom he has brought up as his own. On his return he finds his mother married to a tyrant, with a cruel sister-in-law thrown in to the bargain. Sent away to a harsh boarding school he finds an ally in Tommy Traddles, a bumbling kind-hearted fellow, and a hero in the brilliant figure of James Steerforth.
Following his mother’s death and Peggoty’s dismissal, David is cast out of his own home to become a child factory worker in London, where he resides with the impecunious Mr. Wilkins Micawber and his family. Despairing of his existence as a child labourer, he runs away to his only known living relative Aunt Betsey, who assumes the parental role neglected by his legal guardian.
Youth and Marriage
David is schooled in nearby Canterbury, where he is housed by his aunt’s trusted man of business, Mr. Wickfield. Here David meets Mr. Wickfield’s oily employee, Uriah Heep, and his beautiful daughter Agnes, for whom he develops a great affection. After completing his schooling, David begins legal training under the auspices of Mr. Spenlow, whose daughter Dora he falls for. The father disapproves of their betrothal, but his unexpected death enables them to marry.
Meanwhile David is much distressed to hear that Emily, engaged to Ham, has run off with Steerforth, and that Mr. Peggotty has abandoned his home and job to go in pursuit of his disgraced niece. David embarks on a career as a writer in order to improve his financial situation, but following initial happiness with Dora, finds his childish wife to be an inappropriate match. Weakened by a miscarriage, she dies.
Love, Lies and Success
Uriah Heep is exposed as a cheat and a liar and Mr. Wickfield is released from his former employee’s invidious grasp. Mr. Micawber finds financial stability in his work as an Antipodean magistrate. A repentant Emily is found by her uncle, who determines to take her to Australia where they can begin afresh. Ham attempts to rescue Steerforth during a storm but they both perish. David moves to Europe, where it dawns on him that his heart belongs to Agnes. He returns to England to continue his work as a famous author and enter into blissful communion with his new wife.