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The story traces the life of David Copperfield from childhood to maturity. David is born in England in 1820. David's father had died six months before he was born, and seven years later, his mother marries Mr. Edward Murdstone, who is born in 1775. David is given good reason to dislike his stepfather and has similar feelings for Mr Murdstone's sister Jane (born in 1780), who moves into the house soon afterwards. Mr Murdstone thrashes David for falling behind with his studies. Following one of these thrashings, David bites him and is sent away to a boarding school, Salem House, with a ruthless headmaster, Mr. Creakle. Here he befriends James Steerforth and Tommy Traddles, both of whom he meets again later on.
David returns home for the holidays to find out that his mother has had a baby boy. Soon after David goes back to Salem House, his mother and her baby die and David has to return home immediately. Mr Murdstone sends him to work in a factory in London, of which Murdstone is a joint owner. The grim reality of hand-to-mouth factory existence echoes Dickens' own travails in a blacking factory. Copperfield's landlord, Mr Wilkins Micawber, is sent to a debtor's prison (the King's Bench Prison) after going bankrupt and remains there 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.
He walks all the way from London to Dover, where he finds his only relative, his aunt Miss Betsey Trotwood. This eccentric aunt agrees to raise him, despite Mr Murdstone's attempt to regain David's custody. David's aunt renames him 'Trotwood Copperfield', shortened to "Trot", and for the rest of the novel David is called by either name, depending on whether he is communicating with someone he has known for a long time or someone he has only recently met.
The story follows David as he grows to adulthood and is enlivened by the many now well-known characters who enter, leave, and re-enter his life. These include Peggotty--his mother's faithful former housekeeper--and Peggotty's family, including her orphaned niece "Little Em'ly", who moves in with them and charms the young David. David's romantic but self-serving school friend, Steerforth, seduces and dishonors Little Em'ly, precipitating the novel's greatest tragedy, and his landlord's daughter and "angel in the house," Agnes Wickfield, becomes his confidante. The novel's two most familiar characters are David's sometime-mentor, the debt-ridden Micawber, and the devious and fraudulent clerk, Uriah Heep, whose misdeeds are eventually revealed with Micawber's assistance. Micawber is painted sympathetically even as the narrator deplores his financial ineptitude. Micawber, like Dickens's own father, is briefly imprisoned for insolvency.
In typical Dickens fashion, the major characters eventually get some measure of what they deserve, and few narrative threads are left hanging. Dan Peggotty safely transports Little Em'ly to a new life in Australia; accompanied by Mrs. Gummidge and the Micawbers. All eventually find security and happiness in their adopted country. First, David marries the beautiful but naïve Dora Spenlow, who dies after failing to recover from a miscarriage early in their marriage. David then searches his soul and marries the sensible Agnes, who had always loved him and with whom he finds true happiness. David and Agnes then have several children, including a daughter named for Betsey Trotwood.

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