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David Copperfield | Chapters 7–9 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 7

Mr. Creakle flogs the students at Salem House every day. Tommy Traddles, described by David Copperfield as "very honorable," is a particular target. Traddles is mistakenly blamed and beaten for laughing in church, but James Steerforth is the real culprit. Steerforth doesn't protect David from Mr. Creakle's beatings. Instead, Steerforth tells David he "wouldn't have stood it himself" and advises him to have more pluck. David assumes Steerforth is offering encouragement. David is flattered when Steerforth asks him to tell stories every night based on the adventure novels David has read. As the youngest student in the school, David's storytelling gives him a kind of status. Steerforth has a habit of badgering and insulting Mr. Mell about his poverty, encouraging others to do so as well, and one day things get out of control. Mr. Creakle intervenes, and Steerforth says he called Mr. Mell a beggar because Mr. Mell's mother lives in an almshouse, a piece of information he got from David. On hearing this, Mr. Creakle fires Mr. Mell. Tommy Traddles is punished for defending Mr. Mell, and David feels conflicted, even after Steerforth says he'll have his mother send money to Mr. Mell. One afternoon, Mr. Peggotty and Ham Peggotty surprise David with a visit, bringing him a gift of shellfish. David introduces them to Steerforth and says he'd like to take him to Yarmouth for a visit. At the end of the term, David travels home for the holidays.

Chapter 8

Barkis picks up David at Yarmouth in his horse cart to take him back to Blunderstone and he asks David to remind Peggotty he's still waiting for an answer to the message "Barkis is willin'." David arrives at Blunderstone to find, to his delight, he has a baby brother. The Murdstones are out for the evening, so David, his mother, and Peggotty enjoy a pleasant reunion. David delivers Barkis's message and realizes for the first time it means he wishes to marry Peggotty, who declares she won't have him, or anyone, because she won't leave Clara and David. The remainder of David's visit, though, is uncomfortable. Mr. Murdstone forbids David from escaping to his room to read. Noting David's "attachment to low and common company," Mr. Murdstone also forbids him from spending time with Peggotty. Dismayed by his mother's complete submission to the Murdstones, David is glad to return to school in spite of Creakle's beatings.

Chapter 9

On David's birthday in March, he's called to Mr. Creakle's parlor and is told his mother has died. On the way home, in Yarmouth, David is met by Mr. Omer, tailor and funeral director, who tells him his baby brother has died as well. David is measured for a suit of mourning clothes while his mother's casket is being built outside. Mr. Omer takes David to Blunderstone, where Peggotty tells him about his mother's last hours. Clara Copperfield is buried, with the baby in her arms, in the churchyard next to David's father.

Analysis

In Chapter 7, David Copperfield's admiration for James Steerforth grows into a kind of hero-worship. He's very impressed by Steerforth's good looks, seeming to equate good looks with good character. However, several hints in this chapter suggest that Steerforth's character is somewhat lacking. He doesn't step up and confess it was he, not Tommy Traddles, who laughed in church, so Traddles suffers the punishment that is rightly his. Steerforth promised to protect David, but he doesn't protect him from being beaten by Creakle. Also, Steerforth's comment that he wouldn't stand for being beaten and David should have more pluck seems like criticism, but David chooses to take it as encouragement. Steerforth's hounding of Mr. Mell reveals a streak of meanness in his character, and only Traddles points this out. Steerforth clearly enjoys using his charm and position to wield power over others.

In Victorian England, social status was extremely important, and for those who were class conscious, it was considered shameful to be poor. It was believed people who were poor had weak characters or were lazy, drunken, or irresponsible. Only very poor people lived in almshouses, supported by charity, like Mr. Mell's mother. It seems unfair for Mr. Mell to lose his job because his mother is poor, but this information, which David revealed to Steerforth, seems to be the excuse Creakle uses for firing Mr. Mell.

In Chapter 8 when David Copperfield arrives at Blunderstone for the holidays, the Murdstones are away from home, so David receives the unexpected gift of "one happy afternoon" with just his mother and Peggotty. Those brief, joyful hours contrast sharply with the cold, repressed atmosphere pervading the house as soon as the Murdstones return. David realizes how much the Murdstones have come between him and his mother, and becomes sadly resigned to the loss of their close relationship. The last scene in the chapter, as Clara stands at the garden gate, foreshadows the final loss to come.

In Chapter 9, Charles Dickens's description of David's feelings and behavior after learning of his mother's death perfectly captures a child's feeling of dramatic importance in the midst of the first experience of real grief. At the same time David is trying to grasp the fact he is now an orphan, he is thinking about the dignity these new feelings of melancholy lend to his demeanor.

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