The novel is narrated in the voice of David Copperfield, Jr., who begins by describing the circumstances of his birth. He was born in Blunderstone Rookery, the name of his house, in Suffolk on a Friday, and he let out his first cry just as the clock struck midnight. A nurse present at his birth claimed that, because of these circumstances, David was destined to be unlucky in life and to have the gift of seeing ghosts (the latter prophecy has yet to come true). Furthermore, he was born with a caul, which his mother, Clara Copperfield, tried unsuccessfully to sell and was later auctioned off for a low five shillings.
On the day that he was born, David's mother was surprised by a visit from David's aunt, Betsey Trotwood, known as either Miss Betsey or Miss Trotwood. She is a strong, eccentric woman who has had troubles with marriage. Miss Trotwood had been completely against the marriage of David's father to his mother because of the enormous age difference between the two. However, she supports Clara because she wants a chance to help raise a girl, even asking if she could name her future niece Betsey Trotwood Copperfield. Miss Trotwood storms out in a huff as soon as the doctor tells her that the baby is a boy, and she disappears from David's life for quite a while.
David now discusses his earliest memories. These are the youthful shape and beauty of his mother and the stronger, larger figure of Peggotty, technically the family's maid but more like a member of their family. He turns to the happy memories of his youth: one of the three of them sitting in front of the fire in the parlor, and one of Peggotty intently listening as David reads to her from a book about crocodiles.
These happy memories are interrupted by the appearance of a tall, dark, handsome man to whom David takes an immediate disliking. Although young David does not appear to understand immediately what is going on, it is clear that Clara has become romantically interested in this new stranger. Peggotty and Clara have several arguments that end in tears all around. Peggotty obviously doubts the intentions of the man. A trip that David takes with this man, Mr. Murdstone, proves that her doubts certainly have a foundation. During the trip, Mr. Murdstone and his companions speak of his "bewitching the pretty widow," and they even laugh at David's naivete. David repeats what he has heard to his mother, but she refuses to believe him,. The relationship between Clara and Mr. Murdstone grows stronger.
One day, Peggotty suggests to David that they go visit her family for a week in Yarmouth, and he eagerly agrees, although he is concerned about what his mother will do in the meantime. He quickly accepts Peggotty's obviously fake excuse that she will be staying with their neighbor, Mrs. Grayper, and the two leave. After a long, slow carriage ride, directed by a slouched-over, passive carrier, the pair are met in Yarmouth by Ham, Peggotty's nephew, who had been present as a young boy at David's funeral. He has now grown into a strong young man with a youthful face, and he takes them to the house of Peggotty's brother, who is called Mr. Peggotty. The house is actually a beached black boat that has been refurnished to serve as a home. Also living in the home are Mrs. Gummidge, Mr. Peggotty's sister-in-law, who tends to experience bouts of depression, and little Em'ly, Mr. Peggotty's beautiful niece, who is around David's age. Although she is shy at first, she and David very quickly fall in love with one another and spend many afternoons taking long walks on the beach and collecting shells. David learns that the fathers of both Ham and little Em'ly drowned at sea, as did Mrs. Grummidge's husband, and Mr. Peggotty generously took them in, although he hates to admit the generosity of his actions. David enjoys his stay immensely and has trouble parting with everyone, especially little Em'ly. Still, the closer he gets to Blunderstone Rookery, the more excited he is to go back home.
Unfortunately, David returns to a home that has completely changed. He finds that, while he was gone, Clara and Mr. Murdstone were married. This completely changed the atmosphere of the house. Mr. Murdstone is a controlling, emotionally and mentally abusive husband. He stresses to Clara the idea of firmness, and he makes it clear to David that if he does not act the way Mr. Murdstone expects, he will be beaten. He takes away most of Clara's authority, and any authority she has left disappears when Mr. Murdstone's sister, Jane, comes to live with them. Jane takes the house keys away from Clara, and when she tries to fight against this action, the Murdstones team up to make her look rude and ungrateful and thus reduce her to tears. After this, Clara does not fight anymore. She is no longer the fun, affectionate mother David once knew. She sneaks in hugs and loving comments only when she knows the Murdstones are not around.
The Murdstones also put David through strenuous lessons, giving him massive amounts of information to memorize. His mother is his apparent tutor, but both of the Murdstones are always present during his recitations. This puts much pressure on David, leading to poor performance. One day after a particularly bad lesson, Mr. Murdstone takes David up to his room to beat him. Out of instinct, David bites him, leading to a beating more terrible than he has ever experienced. After a month of seclusion as punishment, it is decided that David should be sent to boarding school in London.
David goes by coach to Yarmouth, where he will be met by another coach to take him to London. After tasting one of Peggotty's cakes, which she sneaked to David after he had gone about half a mile from the house, the carrier, Mr. Barkis, asks David to send Peggotty the message, "Barkis is willin'." David does so. David starts the uncomfortable coach ride to London. When he arrives, he is picked up by a master of Salem House, Mr. Mell. When they arrive at the school, David finds out that he has arrived during a break and the other boys are gone. David also learns that he must wear a sign on his back that says, "Take Care of Him. He Bites." He spends the week of vacation studying with Mr. Mell, being yelled at by the gate guard (a man with a wooden leg), and wondering what the other boys will do when they see his sign when they get back.
The start of the first chapter foreshadows the morose tone of the rest of the novel. According to narrative convention, it is obvious that David’s life will be full of sadness and misfortune because a nurse has predicted it. At the same time, being born with a caul is a symbol of good fortune. One relevant belief is that babies born with a caul are safe from drowning, a very prevalent form of death in this novel. Cauls are also said to indicate psychic ability, although, as David mentions, he has yet to see any such thing.
In the beginning chapters, David is setting a standard of true happiness. He finds his childhood to be the time of his fondest memories, as can be seen by the beautiful scenes with him, his mother, and Peggotty sitting and laughing by the fire. David Copperfield is often read as a narrative on the pursuit of happiness; in this reading, these childhood memories can be seen as constituting the kind of true happiness David seeks to recover throughout the novel after he loses it to his mother's marriage to the dark, controlling Mr. Murdstone. This happiness is characterized by love, family, freedom from care, comfortable leisure, and wonder (reading the book about crocodiles).
It is also clear from these beginning chapters that Dickens does not think very highly of fathers, or he at least shows resentment about his own father. He portrays the family in a bright, happy way when there is no father figure present. As soon as Mr. Murdstone steps in as a stepfather, however, things become awful in Blunderstone Rookery.
Mr. Murdstone does not represent fathers or males in general, however; Mr. Murdstone is uncharacteristically distasteful and controlling in the family. With Jane, he usurps power in the household and leaves David’s own mother with practically no power or rights in the house. Murdstone’s name suggests his muddy, crappy (merde) personality and his stone-cold treatment of Clara, unlike a father and husband in a truly happy family. It is no wonder that he causes stress and anxiety in David’s life, and when he goes too far, no wonder that David fights back. David’s severe and prolonged punishment, seclusion and then banishment to a boarding school, is another example of Mudstone’s personal failures as a father figure.
Even so, Dickens suggests that there is something wrong with a society in which children who are deemed to be problems can be swept away into a boarding school and forced to wear signs warning others to beware. The warning that David “bites” is a stigma much like that of the “A” worn by the adulteress in The Scarlet Letter.
Another interesting instance of foreshadowing can be found in David and Peggotty's visit to Yarmouth. It is there that readers first see the ocean and, through the stories of Ham, Little Em'ly, and Mrs. Grummidge, are introduced to drowning, a mode of death that will become prominent throughout the rest of the novel.
Finally, it is important to look at how David handles the anticipation of the arrival of the other boys to Salem House. He is particularly concerned about his sign; he will need allies against teasing. David will immediately pick out Steerforth as one of the strong ones, foreshadowing the control and respect that Steerforth will command throughout the novel. David has been thrust into an unfamiliar world, and his anticipation shows that the way his first extended stay away from home develops will either give him hope or push him to a point of despair from which he may not recover.