David Copperfield is one of the novels of Charles Dickens, set in the classic "rags to riches" mode.
In the Jack Pulman screen adaptation, young David's mother dies three years after marrying a man who forces her to give over the management of the household to his sister. When David's stepfather beats him with a cane and is bitten in return, he sends him off to boarding school, where David's schoolmasters (portrayed by Laurence Olivier and Richard Attenborough) force him to wear a sign saying: "Beware: this dog bites". The school's head boy, Steerforth, destroys the sign and stands up to the headmaster.
David is removed from school and put to work cleaning and polishing bottles when he is sent to board with Mr. Micawber, a pleasantly pompous fellow whose cupboard seems always bare and who manages to stay one step ahead of his creditors. He advises David to seek out his aunt, and he walks over 40 miles to her house in Dover. When David grows older, she pays to make him an apprentice clerk.
David unwisely but innocently introduces his profligate schoolmate Steerforth to the inmates of the houseboat: The Pegottys, Barkis, the adopted daughter and her simple fiancé. Steerforth seduces and later abandons the girl, and Pegotty begins a do-or-die search, finally finding her in a room off a stairway where ladies of the night peer from their doorways.
David falls in love with a pretty but irresponsible girl with a spoiled little dog. It only stops nipping his leg when he kisses her. She can't manage her household, her child is stillborn, and she dies young.
David's aunt loses all her money due to the machinations of Uriah Heep, who is always full of (insincere) expressions of respect for "Master David". Somehow, Mr. Micawber is hired as Heep's confidential secretary and eventually, in a triumphant scene, exposes Heep's villainy, whereupon the aunt's fortune is restored, and David can marry Agnes.
The film ends with David's reflection that none of the three main characters in his life had what it takes. Neither his mother's love, Steerforth's talent, nor his first wife's beauty, were sufficient; all lacked a certain aspect of will.