David Copperfield | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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David Copperfield | Chapters 16–18 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 16

David Copperfield meets Doctor Strong, head of his new school, and his pretty, young wife, Annie Strong. In addition to running his school, Doctor Strong is immersed in writing a dictionary. David sees Doctor Strong's generosity in helping Annie's relatives, often at the behest of Annie's manipulative mother, Mrs. Markleham. Dr. Strong and Mr. Wickfield discuss the problem of finding a position "at home or abroad" for Annie's cousin and childhood companion, Jack Maldon. Mr. Wickfield seems to dislike and distrust Jack Maldon, but he promises to find a situation for him.

The level of scholarship at Doctor Strong's is very different from that of Salem House, and David realizes he must work hard to catch up to where he should be. Because of his rough lifestyle while working in the warehouse, David feels self-conscious around the other boys and finds it difficult, at first, to relate to them. Living at the Wickfield home soon bolsters his hope of achieving academic success. He enjoys spending time with Agnes, whose calm presence impresses him. On the night of Doctor Strong's birthday party, Jack Maldon leaves for his post in India, and David notices that Jack is holding a red ribbon from Annie's dress as Jack's carriage drives away.

Chapter 17

David Copperfield writes to Peggotty about Miss Betsey and his new school. Peggotty writes back that the Murdstones have left Blunderstone and the house is now for sale or rent. Mr. Dick comes to Canterbury once a week to visit David and he becomes good friends with Doctor Strong and with Annie Strong. Mr. Dick mentions to David that every so often a strange man appears outside the cottage, and Miss Betsey seems frightened of him and gives him money. David suspects this might be a misunderstanding on Mr. Dick's part.

Uriah Heep invites David home to have tea with him and his mother, who feigns humility as much as her son does. The Heeps skillfully manage the conversation so that David ends up telling them much more about himself, his family, and the Wickfields than he should. As they dine, David notices Mr. Micawber walking past the open street door. Micawber recognizes David, who is forced to introduce Micawber to the Heeps. The Micawbers are about to leave town, and they invite David for a lavish dinner. Micawber says he has had drinks with Uriah Heep and is very impressed with the young man. The next morning, David receives a despairing letter from Mr. Micawber in which he says he's about to be thrown into debtor's prison again. David rushes to their lodging to offer comfort, and he sees the Micawbers leaving on the London coach, smiling, relaxed, and enjoying good food and drink. David decides he's glad to have seen the Micawbers, but he's also glad they're gone.

Chapter 18

David Copperfield looks back on memories of his school days. He sees himself giving little gifts and kisses to Miss Shepherd, his partner at dancing school. But she rejects his attention and he focuses on his school work. He challenges a young butcher who bullies Doctor Strong's boys. He loses the fight but is nursed and consoled by Agnes Wickfield. Time passes and David becomes the head boy at school, barely recognizing the boy he was when he first arrived there. Agnes, too, has changed and is now a young woman. David thinks of her as his "sweet sister" and "better angel." At age 17, David falls in love again, with Miss Larkins, a woman of 30. He dances with her twice and flirts with her at a ball. He thinks his fantasies about her are about to come true, but his hopes are dashed when he learns she's going to marry an elderly hop-grower. After spending some time moping, David challenges the butcher to another fight, and this time he wins.

Analysis

In Chapter 16, there seems to be a suspicion of an improper relationship between Jack Maldon and Annie Strong, and this suspicion will cast a shadow over Annie for some time before it is resolved.

In Chapter 17 when David Copperfield notes, in describing Mrs. Heep, "she still wore weeds," he's referring to the black clothing worn by a widow for a year after the death of her husband. Because Mr. Heep has been dead for many years, there's a suggestion here she's being misleading in presenting herself as grief-stricken and humble; by extension, Uriah's humility is also suspect. Later, David is "uncomfortable" when Mr. Micawber mentions he's met with Uriah Heep and is impressed by his competence. David's discomfort may have more to do with his instinctive distrust of Heep than with his fear Micawber will say too much about David's past. The surprise reappearance of Mr. Micawber and his introduction to Uriah Heep will lead to interesting developments for several people in David's circle. Heep continues to become more repulsive and sly, always lurking in the background, gathering information, and barely concealing his jealousy of David. His interest in Mr. Wickfield's financial situation, in David's past, and in David's future plans makes David, even in all his naïveté, uncomfortably aware that there is something to be mistrusted here. David is even more uneasy when he learns about Heep and Micawber having drinks together.

In Chapter 18, the narrator uses present tense to indicate that the older David is looking back and recalling some of the milestones of his school days: his unlucky choices of love interests, his attempt to play the hero in challenging the butcher, and his academic success. Charles Dickens moves through these memories as a series of vignettes, almost like a slide show, in which David views himself at different stages of his growth.

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