The author expresses both pleasure and sorrow at finishing his novel - pleasure at having successfully completed this lengthy project, and sorrow at parting from the work, which has become a part of him.
Chapter I: I am born
The adult David Copperfield narrates the story of his life, beginning with his birth.
The women of David's neighborhood believe, based on the time of his birth, that he is destined to be unlucky and that he would possess the gift of seeing ghosts and spirits. On the first prediction, he comments that the story he will tell will reveal its truth or otherwise, and on the second prediction, he comments that he is not aware of having any such gift.
David's father is already dead when he is born. An aunt of his father's, Miss Betsey Trotwood, turns up on the day of his birth. Betsey was once married to a man who beat her and tried to kill her, and she ended up paying him to stay away from her. Though Betsey was fond of David's father, she was contemptuous of his mother, Clara Copperfield, calling her "a wax doll.?/p>
This is the first time that Betsey has met Clara, and she gives her the nickname of Baby because of her youthful appearance. Betsey informs Clara that she is certain that she will give birth to a girl. She intends to be a friend to the girl, and to ensure that she does not place her trust in the type of man who will take advantage of her, as she herself did.
Later, Mr. Chillip, the doctor, emerges from the birthing room with the news that Clara has had a boy. Without a word, Betsey walks out of the house, never to return.
Chapter II: I observe
David describes some of his earliest memories. He remembers his pretty mother, and the kindly nurse, Clara Peggotty, who runs the household. One evening, David is reading to Peggotty from a book about crocodiles. He asks Peggotty if a person whose spouse dies can marry again. Peggotty says that they can if they choose, though she sounds unenthusiastic.
Clara comes in with Mr. Murdstone, a handsome man with black hair, eyes and whiskers, who is courting her. David takes an instant dislike to him. David falls asleep. When he wakes, he hears that both women are in tears. Peggotty is telling Clara that her former husband, David's father, would not have liked Mr. Murdstone.
Mr. Murdstone returns one day and takes David on a trip to Lowestoft, a nearby town, to meet some of his business acquaintances. One of the men, Mr. Quinion, jokes with Mr. Murdstone about his courtship of Clara and David's dislike of him. David observes that the men seem to share his wariness of Mr. Murdstone, and that Mr. Murdstone never laughs with them.
One evening, Peggotty asks David to accompany her on a two-week visit to her brother's at Yarmouth. He excitedly agrees. As he says goodbye to his mother, Mr. Murdstone appears at her side and tells her to control her emotions.
Chapter III: I have a change
Peggotty and David travel by carrier's cart to Yarmouth, where they are met at an inn by Peggotty's nephew, Ham. Ham takes them to his family's home, which is a boat converted into a house. Inside there is a smell of fish. Peggotty's brother, Daniel Peggotty, who owns the house, deals in seafood, which he stores in an outhouse. Mr. Peggotty lives in the house with his nephew, Ham, and his niece, Little Em'ly, whom he adopted when their fathers drowned at sea. Also living with Mr. Peggotty is Mrs. Gummidge, the widow of Mr. Peggotty's partner in a boat. Mr. Peggotty is an easy-going man who only becomes angry if his generosity in adopting destitute people is mentioned.
Next morning, David goes out onto the beach with Little Em'ly, where they collect pebbles and fall in love with each other. Little Em'ly says that she is afraid of the sea, which has destroyed so many local men and boats. She also reveals that she wants to be a lady. The adult David reflects that perhaps it would have been better if the sea had swallowed Little Em'ly that morning, so that she would not have to suffer everything that she suffered since.
Mrs. Gummidge turns out to be a depressed sort of woman, given to complaining that "I am a lone lorn creetur...and everythink goes contrairy with me.?She claims that while others may share the adverse conditions that cause her grief, "I feel it more." Mr. Peggotty remarks that "She's been thinking of the old 'un," meaning her dead husband.
At the end of their vacation, Peggotty and David set out for home. David is excited to see his mother again, but Peggotty tries to restrain his enthusiasm. When they reach home, David is baffled that his mother has not come out to the gate to meet him. He fears that she is dead. Peggotty reveals that Clara has married Mr. Murdstone.
David finds his mother sitting with Mr. Murdstone by the fire. Clara rises to meet David, but Mr. Murdstone tells her again to control her emotions. David finds that his bedroom has been moved to a more distant room. There is a fierce black dog in the kennel in the yard, which springs out to attack him.
Analysis of Chapters I-III
The narrator, David Copperfield, looks back on his childhood and tells his story. Though he very occasionally interjects a comment from the perspective of the older and wiser adult, for the most part, he describes events as they appeared to him as a child without adult reflection. This has the effect of reinforcing the naivet� and innocence of David as a character. For example, when David accompanies Mr. Murdstone to Lowestoft, Mr. Quinion jokes with the others about David's dislike of Mr. Murdstone. David, being a very young child, has no idea that "Brooks of Sheffield" is an invented name to hide the fact that the men are talking about him. In fact, David joins in their laughter at his own expense. It would have been easy for Dickens to add an adult comment to explain that Brooks of Sheffield is really David, but the fact that he does not enables the reader to reach this conclusion independently. The reader is thereby cast in the role of the knowing adult observer, and David retains his childish helplessness and innocence, engaging the reader's sympathy and pity. This authorial technique, in which the reader knows more of the truth than the protagonist does about the other characters' true motives, is called dramatic irony.
Occasionally, Dickens breaks his practice of giving purely the child's view of David's life, as when the adult David comments that he sometimes feels it would have been better if Little Em'ly had drowned on the day they met, rather than suffer as she has done since. This is an example of foreshadowing, a technique that Dickens frequently uses in this novel to create an ominous feeling. The reader is given a sense of Em'ly's future difficulties, setting up an expectation that makes him want to read on and find out what happens to the character.
Betsey Trotwood's question to Clara Copperfield about whether she and her husband, David's father, were happily married, introduces one of the major themes of the novel: the importance of equality within marriage. Clara's response prompts Betsey to comment disapprovingly that Clara and her first husband were "not equally matched." This is a situation with which Betsey is all too familiar, as she herself has been dominated by a cruel husband. The scene with Betsey and Clara is also an example of foreshadowing. Here, Betsey's history warns the reader of the looming disaster of Clara's second marriage, in which she will also be dominated by a cruel husband (Mr. Murdstone). This warning is reinforced by David and Peggotty's instinctive dislike of Mr. Murdstone and by Peggotty's warning that Clara's first husband would not like Mr. Murdstone. The fact that David is removed to Yarmouth in order to allow the marriage to go ahead smoothly is also a foreshadowing of how David's family life will change: he will be excluded from the compact between his mother and her new husband.
Another foreshadowing technique that Dickens frequently uses in this novel is his use of a character's appearance to describe their soul. David's good-hearted and innocent mother is beautiful and childlike in appearance; Mr. Murdstone is as dark of soul as he is of hair; and Peggotty is as warm and honest as her ruddy face and work-roughened hands.
As well as being defined by their appearance, many characters in the novel are defined by a catchphrase - just as, in a cartoon, a character is defined by one or two distinguishing characteristics, like a big nose or prominent ears. Mrs. Gummidge can be summed up by her catchphrase, "I am a lone lorn creetur...and everythink goes contrairy with me." She remains loyal to her catchphrase until late in the novel, where she surprises everyone by turning into its opposite - but the catchphrase still rules supreme, even as she defies it.
The characters do not change in their essence throughout the novel; their motivations are established at their first introduction, and remain constant. Little Em'ly retains her desire to be a lady, and it proves her undoing. Clara retains her babyish innocence, and Mr. Murdstone his desire to control her. Betsey's chief motivation is to ensure that no other girl should suffer at the hands of unscrupulous men, as she has. She is bitterly disappointed that Clara does not provide her with a girl child to fulfill her ambition, but in time, she will transfer her protective instinct to David.