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David Copperfield | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Chapters 54–57

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapters 54–57 of Charles Dickens's novel David Copperfield.

David Copperfield | Chapters 54–57 | Summary



Chapter 54

David Copperfield copes with his grief. He decides to go abroad as soon as the situation with Uriah Heep is resolved and the emigrants have left for Australia. David, Miss Betsey, Agnes Wickfield, and Tommy Traddles meet at the Micawbers house to discuss the state of Mr. Wickfield's business and the financing of the Micawbers emigration to Australia. After the Micawbers greet everyone and discuss their plans for going to Australia, they leave the others to discuss the business at hand. Traddles begins by praising Mr. Micawber's industrious and thorough work on the papers and books, as well as the number of letters he's written. Miss Betsey comments, "I believe he dreams in letters!" Traddles says he and Micawber have determined Mr. Wickfield, once he dissolves his business, will not be in debt, and Agnes proposes to "rent the dear old house and keep a school." Miss Betsey's money has been recovered. They come up with a plan to finance the Micawbers' emigration in a way that will prevent the family from running through the entire amount at once. Uriah Heep, who has disappeared from London with his mother, still has some I.O.U.s from Mr. Micawber, so they anticipate Mr. Micawber will be arrested several times for debt before they emigrate. It's decided Traddles will pay these off each time Micawber is arrested, so he won't have to spend any time in jail.

David has been concerned because his aunt has been "in and out of London" every day for the past two weeks. A few times she was out all day, and one night she returned after midnight. When they return to London, she reveals her husband had been in the hospital, and he died the night before they left for Canterbury. David and Miss Betsey attend her husband's burial exactly 36 years from the day she married him.

Chapter 55

Peggotty has come to London to spend time with her brother before he leaves for Australia. They talk about Ham Peggotty, and David decides to give Ham's letter to Emily now, so she can send a response to him before she leaves, if she likes. When Emily does send a response, David decides to take it to Ham himself. His coach is forced to stop at an inn before reaching Yarmouth due to a tremendous rain and wind storm. The wind blows through the night and picks up the next day. In Yarmouth, groups of people are on the beach—wives, old sailors, children, and ship owners—worrying about sailors caught at sea. "High watery walls" come roaring in to the beach. David searches for Ham and is told he has gone to Lowestoft to repair a ship; he's expected back the next morning. David spends the night at the inn, and the storm is still raging when he's awakened in the morning by people shouting that a schooner is about to be wrecked on the beach. Rushing to the shore, David sees a ship rolling broadside on the waves. Four men can be seen on the deck, one with long curly hair, clinging to the rigging. The ship turns over, and finally only the man with the curly hair remains on what's left of the ship. On the shore, David sees Ham, with ropes attached to him, preparing to swim out to make a rescue. David tries to persuade him not to go, but Ham insists, and David is swept along by the crowd. Ham plunges into the sea, and just as he approaches the ship a wave overtakes it and breaks it up. Ham is pulled back to shore, dead, and his body is taken to a house nearby. As David sits beside him, someone comes to him and leads him to a body washed ashore. On the part of the shore where David had played as a child, lying among the ruins of Mr. Peggotty's old converted boat, is James Steerforth's body. As narrator, David Copperfield tells the reader that these events affected him so powerfully, he still dreams of it.

Chapter 56

David Copperfield recalls Steerforth's parting request to "think of me at my best," and he knows he does think of him that way. Feeling responsible for informing Mrs. Steerforth about her son's death, David arranges to accompany the body to London that night. When he informs Mrs. Steerforth and Miss Dartle, Miss Dartle rages at Mrs. Steerforth for how she had dealt with her son, claiming she loved him better than his mother ever had. Mrs. Steerforth, affected by the shock, is unable to speak or move. The doctors can do nothing for her; she lies "like a statue," and Steerforth's body is laid in her room. David visits one last time, lifting Steerforth's hand to his heart.

Chapter 57

David Copperfield asks Mr. Micawber to help him prevent Mr. Peggotty and Emily from learning of the deaths in Yarmouth before they embark on their journey. Mr. Micawber vows to keep any newspapers from falling into Mr. Peggotty's hands. Everyone, except Emily, gathers at the Micawbers' lodgings the night before the emigrants are to depart. They share punch and hopes of success. Mrs. Micawber holds forth on the expectation that her husband's talents will be appreciated in Australia in a way they never were in his home country, and he'll finally attain the wealth and success he deserves. Mr. Micawber is arrested for one of Uriah Heep's I.O.U.s, and he's released when Tommy Traddles pays the debt. The following afternoon, David and Peggotty board the ship for a last farewell before it puts out to sea. Mr. Peggotty says Mr. Micawber has just been arrested again for a Heep I.O.U. Mr. Peggotty has paid the money Micawber owed, and David reimburses him. They go down between decks where emigrants of all ages are finding their berths, arranging their baggage, and claiming their spaces for the long voyage. David is pleased to learn Mr. Peggotty has persuaded Martha Endell to go with them. The time comes for visitors to go ashore. As the ship pulls away to cheering crowds on the docks, David catches a last glimpse of Emily, standing at Mr. Peggotty's side.


In this section, Charles Dickens provides resolution for many of the people in David Copperfield's life. An important phase of David's life is coming to an end as people connected to him from his youth move on. With the death of Ham Peggotty and the emigration of Mr. Peggotty and Emily, David's connection with Yarmouth is now part of his past. The Micawbers have been something of a fixture in David's life since his days in the London warehouse, and their emigration closes another door on David's past, as does James Steerforth's death. David seems to have finally recognized Steerforth's character flaws, but what he's learned about Steerforth's home life has given him an understanding of what contributed to those flaws.

Mrs. Micawber has always been a strong booster of her husband's worth and talents, but so far, he's failed to live up to her expectations. His success in bringing down Uriah Heep, however, shows he has the ability to apply himself and achieve results, so it remains to be seen whether he'll find his niche in Australia. His last two arrests for debt, just before putting out to sea, reinforce the idea that by leaving England, Mr. Micawber is escaping from the bad fortune that has dogged him for so long. The arrests are a reminder of the lingering malevolence of Uriah Heep. It remains to be seen whether Heep will find a way to take some revenge on David.

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