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David Copperfield | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Chapters 19–21

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapters 19–21 of Charles Dickens's novel David Copperfield.

David Copperfield | Chapters 19–21 | Summary



Chapter 19

David Copperfield finishes school and is having trouble deciding on a profession, so Miss Betsey suggests he might take some time before he makes a decision. He goes to Canterbury to move out of his room at Mr. Wickfield's house and to see Agnes Wickfield and Doctor Strong. David and Agnes worry Mr. Wickfield's habit of drinking too much wine is becoming detrimental to his health and to his work. They all go to Doctor Strong's for tea, where talk turns to Jack Maldon, who wants to return from India. The subject of Jack Maldon makes both Annie and Mr. Wickfield uncomfortable, and David wonders if there may have been something improper in the relationship between Annie Strong and Jack.

David takes the coach to London, determined to assert himself as a young man about town. However, his youth soon betrays him and he's persuaded to give up his prized place in the coach to "a shabby man with a squint." In London, David is given a musty little room at his hotel. After returning from a play at Covent Garden Theatre, he encounters his old friend James Steerforth in the hotel bar. Steerforth has just seen the same play, and calls David "a very Daisy" for praising the play. He orders the waiter to change David's room to a better one, next to his. They plan to meet at breakfast in the morning.

Chapter 20

David Copperfield is acutely embarrassed by his youth, especially in contrast to Steerforth's confident, commanding manner with the hotel staff. Steerforth plays up the contrast by continuing to call David "Daisy." Steerforth is studying at Oxford but isn't very serious about his studies, and David is surprised to learn he doesn't plan to earn a degree. David goes to Steerforth's home to meet his mother, a genteel, elderly woman. He also meets a younger woman, Miss Rosa Dartle, Mrs. Steerforth's companion, who has a habit of making cutting remarks, and bears a scar on her lip as a result of Steerforth throwing a hammer at her when he was young. At dinner, David invites Steerforth to come with him to Dover, describing the Peggottys to Mrs. Steerforth and Miss Dartle. Miss Dartle wonders if the Peggottys are "that sort of people" who are "animals and clods, and beings of another order." Steerforth says they're different in that they don't have sensitive natures, and "like their coarse rough skins, they are not easily wounded." David assumes Steerforth is joking when he says this.

Chapter 21

Steerforth's servant, Littimer, is so respectable and self-contained that he makes David feel more self-conscious than usual about his youth and inexperience. David hints Littimer will play an important role in later events. For a week, Steerforth gives David lessons in riding, boxing, and fencing, treating David "like a plaything," and David revels in Steerforth's attention. Leaving Littimer behind, they go to Yarmouth. After their arrival, David visits Mr. Omer on his way to visit Peggotty. He discovers that Mr. Omer employs Emily as a seamstress and is surprised to learn the local women dislike Emily, partly out of jealousy because she's so beautiful, and partly because they think she aspires to be a lady. David dismisses this, recalling how she had always talked about the fine things she'd buy for her uncle if she were a lady. It's been seven years since David has seen Peggotty, and they have a joyful reunion. Steerforth joins them for dinner, charms Peggotty, and then they visit Mr. Peggotty. They arrive to the news that Emily has just become engaged to Ham Peggotty. Steerforth enters into the festivities and impresses everyone with his charm and talent. Later, when Steerforth makes a derogatory comment to David about Ham, David tells Steerforth he knows he's just joking. Steerforth says he wishes everyone were as earnest and good as David is.


David Copperfield's foray into adulthood starts with a blow to his self-esteem when he loses his place on the Canterbury coach to the "shabby man with a squint." As the youngest student at Salem House, and then the youngest worker at the London warehouse, he has long aspired to be taken more seriously and to command the kind of respect his role model, James Steerforth, commands. David's youth and naïveté trip him up again at the hotel, where he's given an undesirable room and is intimidated by the staff. When he encounters Steerforth in the hotel, he quickly slips back into his old role. He accepts the condescending nickname "Daisy" without a quibble and is grateful when Steerforth orders the staff to give him a better room. David has always admired Steerforth's leadership and his potential for achieving great things in life, so he's surprised and disappointed to learn his friend has no intention to seek fame or success. David is so blinded by his preconceptions about Steerforth, it doesn't occur to him that Steerforth could be serious when he makes his snobbish comment about the Peggottys to Rosa Dartle. When Steerforth visits the Peggottys with him, David admires the way he charms them and seems to enjoy himself. Later, after Steerforth makes a negative comment about Ham Peggotty, and David says he knows he's joking and is actually sympathetic to the poor, Steerforth is taken aback. This is yet another clue that should show David his friend is not what he seems.

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