David Copperfield | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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David Copperfield | Chapters 32–34 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 32

David Copperfield admits he had never loved James Steerforth more than when the ties between them were broken. He thinks of Steerforth as "a cherished friend" who has died. The news about Emily spreads around the town, and while many condemn her, all are sympathetic toward the Peggottys. The next morning, David finds Mr. Peggotty and Ham walking on the beach. David thinks the expression on Ham Peggotty's face suggests, "if ever he encountered Steerforth, he would kill him." Mr. Peggotty says he'll go to London with David to begin his search for Emily. Mrs. Gummidge will stay in his home, in case Emily decides to come back. Every night, she'll light a candle in the window for Emily, just as he's always done. Ham, distracted and staring out to sea, says he seems to see "the end of it" there. Back at Mr. Peggotty's home, Mrs. Gummidge is a changed person. No longer whiny and despondent, she's helpful and supportive, assuring Mr. Peggotty that she won't be lonely and is happy to keep up the home for him. In the evening, David stops at Mr. Omer's shop. His daughter, Minnie Omer, at first condemns Emily, but she soon reveals her sadness and disappointment.

Back at Peggotty's house where he's staying, David has an unexpected late-night visitor—Miss Mowcher. She's very upset because she unwittingly played a part in Steerforth's plan. On the night when David first met Miss Mowcher, Littimer had told her David had designs on Emily, and Steerforth and Littimer were trying to protect her from ruin. They asked her to give a letter to Emily, which she now thinks may have been the beginning of Emily's involvement with Steerforth. David feels ashamed of himself for having thought Miss Mowcher was a shallow, untrustworthy person, and she advises him to "Try not to associate bodily defects with mental [defects]." Miss Mowcher assures David she'll let him know if, in her travels, she learns anything about Emily.

The next morning, Mr. Peggotty, Peggotty, and David board the coach to London. Ham sees them off, telling David there will never be anyone else for him, and he'll focus on his work and on supporting Mr. Peggotty's search. In London, Mr. Peggotty and David go to see Mrs. Steerforth, who already knows what her son has done. Mr. Peggotty wants to know if Steerforth will marry Emily as he'd promised, but Mrs. Steerforth says it would be impossible because "she is far below him." Mrs. Steerforth is angry and blames Emily for causing her son to act against his duty to his mother. She'll never take him back, she says, unless he puts Emily aside. As they're leaving, Rosa Dartle pulls David aside and vents her rage against them and against Emily for disrupting the bond between mother and son. She says she'd like to hunt Emily "to her grave" to punish her. That evening, Mr. Peggotty sets off on his search for his niece, asking Peggotty and David to tell Emily, if they see her first, that he forgives her and his love for her is unchanged.

Chapter 33

In the course of finishing up the work on Barkis's will, David Copperfield takes Peggotty to the offices of Spenlow and Jorkins. They're surprised when Mr. Spenlow returns from an appointment accompanied by Mr. Murdstone, who is picking up a marriage license. Murdstone privately tells David he hopes David might yet correct himself, and Peggotty barely contains her anger against him. After he leaves, Mr. Spenlow says Murdstone's new wife is very young, pretty, and wealthy. Later that day, Mr. Spenlow invites David to Dora Spenlow's upcoming birthday party, and David's hopes rise. At the party he meets Dora's friend, Julia Mills. Julia encourages Dora and David to spend time together, and invites David to visit Dora at the Mills home, where Dora will be staying for a while. At his first visit, David declares his love for Dora and they become engaged, deciding to keep the engagement secret until the time is right to ask Mr. Spenlow's permission. With the help of Miss Mills, they spend time together, quarrel, make up, and write to each other every day. David describes it as a "happy, foolish time" that he remembers tenderly.

Chapter 34

David Copperfield writes to Agnes Wickfield about his engagement, assuring her it isn't one of his "boyish fancies." He tells her sad events have taken place at Yarmouth, and he feels some responsibility for them, but he doesn't mention James Steerforth. Tommy Traddles tells David that Micawber has changed his name to Mortimer and wears a disguise to avoid his creditors. He says he helped the Micawbers settle their debt to the landlord, but the following week they were confronted by more creditors and Traddles had to move out. David and Peggotty go on a little expedition to a pawnbroker with Traddles to recover some property that had been confiscated by Mr. Micawber's creditors. They return from their successful mission to find Miss Betsey and Mr. Dick in David's apartment with a great deal of luggage, Miss Betsey's two birds, her cat, her fan, and Mr. Dick's kite. Mrs. Crupp is fawning over Miss Betsey, who later comments Mrs. Crupp is one of those "timeservers and wealth-worshippers" she'd warned Mr. Dick about. Miss Betsey insists on calling Peggotty "Barkis," because she thinks the name Peggotty sounds like a South Sea Island pagan name. After having tea, Miss Betsey announces she is ruined—all she has left is her cottage, which she has rented out. After shedding some tears in concern for David, Miss Betsey controls her emotions and tells David, "We must meet reverses boldly, and not suffer them to frighten us, dear ... We must live misfortune down, Trot!"

Analysis

Miss Mowcher's confession that she gave a letter to Emily reveals the extent of James Steerforth's treachery and planning. Mrs. Steerforth seems to regard her son's behavior as a personal insult against her. She has no concern for her son's happiness; she's concerned only with his obligation to show her respect and obedience. In contrast, Mr. Peggotty's only concern is to find Emily, tell her she is forgiven, and bring her home.

David Copperfield's secret engagement to Dora Spenlow is a bright spot of joy in the midst of the sadness and anxiety surrounding the search for Emily. Although David assures Agnes that this time it's real love, not a boyish fancy, Dora does seem to be someone Miss Betsey might call "a baby."

Miss Betsey's changed circumstances threaten to derail David's plans for marriage and success, just when they seem to be running smoothly. This reversal of fortune challenges Charles Dickens's protagonist; it will require hard work and all of David's resources of perseverance to salvage the situation.

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