David Copperfield's life starts where all of our lives start: birth. He's born on a Friday, at 12:00 am, in Blunderstone, Suffolk. David comes into the world soon after his mother loses her husband, David's father. As a widow with basically no money, Mrs. Copperfield has some hope that David's great aunt, Miss Betsey Trotwood, will step in and look after David financially. Unfortunately, Miss Betsey (who is about as stubborn and opinionated a character as you'll find anywhere in literature) is so disappointed that David is a boy and not a girl that she refuses to have anything to do with the family. Mrs. Copperfield is left on her own, with no one but her housekeeper, Peggotty, to help her raise David.

When David is around six, Mrs. Copperfield begins seeing Mr. Murdstone. Mr. Murdstone is a stern, cruel man who flatters the sweet, young Mrs. Copperfield until she agrees to marry him. Once Mrs. Copperfield finally marries Mr. Murdstone, he and his sister Jane both move into Mrs. Copperfield's house (which used to belong to David's father). Together, the two of them bully Mrs. Copperfield until she becomes too afraid to say anything to protest the Murdstones' verbal and physical abuse of David. One night, Mr. Murdstone whips David with a switch. In a blind panic, David bites Mr. Murdstone's hand. Mr. Murdstone uses this bite as an excuse to send David away to a boarding school called Salem House, run by Mr. Creakle.