David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, is a classic example of the bildungsroman, or coming of age story. As such, David Copperfield the character must be seen not only as a literary character, but as a literary model for any young man growing up. Not only character development, but character growth and change are the hallmark of this type of novel. This means that any character analysis must take into account the drastic change in the character over the course of the book, and indeed, must almost treat him as separate characters: child, young man, and mature adult. Also important to the description of David Copperfield's character is the fact that the book is narrated in the first person. Not only are any impressions the reader gets of Copperfield's character filtered through Copperfield's own views on himself, the facts he provides are verifiable only through his possibly faulty memory. In other words, the reader has only his word as to what happened. Both the changeable quality of the title character and the intense eventfulness of his life give the novel a touch of the picaresque: the meaningful characteristics of David Copperfield are dictated at least in part less by who he is than by what happens to him.
David Copperfield as a child
As a child, Copperfield gives an impression of charm, originality, and comic naivete; in short, while not the model of a well-behaved Victorian youth, he is inclined in every way to appeal to the reader. In this character of reader's darling, he goes through a number of experiences that were both traditional literary tropes for child characters and common experiences for children in England around the time of the novel's publication (1850). He suffers the indignity of partial, then complete orphanhood; is abused by a stepfather and his sister (a masculinized take on the Cinderella story), goes to boarding school for a time, and then becomes part of an impoverished but picturesque country household in Dover. Throughout all of these varied adventures, he maintains his simplicity of character and affections. It isn't until he gets a little older that he begins to display the 'foolishness of youth' that will (marginally) separate him from readers' affections.
David Copperfield as a young man
During adolescence and early adulthood, Copperfield's motivations change. Ambition and romance become his driving motivations, though unlike characters in many other coming-of-age novels (Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' comes to mind), he doesn't entirely lose his head. Realizing that money is necessary for achieving his goals, Copperfield shows a laudable diligence and dedication to his work, though it is not through his law career that he expects to ultimately gain satisfaction. The driving force in his life is his love for Dora Spenlow. She is a conventionally attractive young lady who has all of the characteristics a young Victorian gentleman is 'supposed' to like; accordingly, Copperfield falls head-over-heels in love with her. The originality of his character, it seems, has given away before the most irresistible of human drives. Copperfield also falls prey to this same conventionalism in choosing his friends; Steerforth, for example, appears to be everything a gentleman should be. His ultimate betrayal of a woman very close to Copperfield's heart provides the greater part of the disillusionment that carries him into true adulthood.
David Copperfield as an adult
It is on Copperfield's reaching full maturity and finally marrying the 'right' woman that the book ends. His ambition and romance are both resolved by the end of the book. He marries Agnes, a genuinely sensible, worthwhile woman, thus proving his discernment, and changes from his unsatisfying law career to a career he likes much better: writing. In the end, Copperfield has grown from a naively endearing child, through a naively irritating young man, to a mature, wise older gentleman, capable of looking back on his long and eventful life with humor and insight.