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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
CHAPTERS XXII - XXIV
Why does David dwell on how often he and Steerforth were apart at Yarmouth? While David nostalgically relives the past, Steerforth is mysteriously absent. One evening, when David rejoins Steerforth at the Peggottys' house, Steerforth is sitting alone morosely by the fire, making obscure comments about how little moral guidance he has had, and what a torment he is to himself. He quickly cheers up, however, and tells David that he has bought a boat to keep moored at Yarmouth. David assumes Steerforth has done this as a kindness to Mr. Peggotty, but Steerforth is suspiciously embarrassed by this assumption. It also seems suspicious that Littimer has come down to help rig the boat out, and that Steerforth has named the boat the "Little Em'ly." When Emily and Ham arrive, she blushes as she greets Steerforth, then walks away from Ham. A mysterious woman follows Emily in the shadows, completing an unsettling picture.
At the inn, Steerforth introduces David to Miss Mowcher, a dwarf who's a hanger-on of high society. Her tag word is "volatile." Like Rosa Dartle or Uriah Heep, Miss Mowcher has a roundabout, insinuating manner of speech. She peppers this with fashionable slang and malicious gossip. Steerforth, too, makes breezy jokes, but David scarcely opens his mouth. Miss Mowcher, a manicurist and hairdresser, also seems to get involved in her clients' love lives, so she pays close attention to Steerforth's light talk of Emily. When David is asked to describe Emily, he makes a priggish little speech about her virtues. He seems out of his element with this worldly pair.
Later that night, David watches a melodramatic scene in the Barkises' kitchen. Emily talks with the young woman who followed her-a local girl, Martha Endell, who's lost her virginity and is now a figure of shame. Emily gives Martha money so she can go to London and be anonymous. Martha keeps repeating to Emily, "I was once like you!"- reminding you that Emily, too, could end up like this. After Martha leaves, Emily cries, saying she hasn't been good enough lately.
NOTE: SEXUAL PRUDERY
In keeping with Victorian literary standards, Dickens never writes
explicitly about sexual matters. Sometimes you have to read between the
lines to figure out what's going on. You're only told vaguely of Martha's
shame, though her "bold," "flaunting" looks suggest
she's morally loose. Who was Martha's seducer? How did her affair become
public knowledge? Is she pregnant? Dickens never answers such questions.
Martha is just a figure of a fallen woman who foreshadows Emily's fall.
Paired with the scene with Miss Mowcher, this scene shows the double standard
of Victorian society, where rich people fool around casually but the poorer
classes are bound by strict moral codes.
On the coach back to London, David discusses his search for a career with Steerforth. But Steerforth merely points out the window at the flat landscape, suggesting that that's all he sees in life. When David mentions his aunt's suggestion that he become a proctor, Steerforth delivers a capsule satire of Doctors' Commons, where the proctors operate. David, however, knows Steerforth well enough not to take his cynicism seriously, and that night in London he tells his aunt that he likes the idea. Betsey speaks movingly to David about her love for him, and her regret for past mistakes. She also halts, briefly, in talking about the claims upon her income. This should stir your memory of the man Mr. Dick saw. The next day, on their way to Doctors' Commons, David and Betsey run into that man, who looks poor and ill-tempered. Betsey briefly goes away with him, but refuses to discuss this incident with David.
Spenlow and Jorkins' office in Doctors' Commons is described impressionistically: dusty, faded, with great bundles of papers and thick books piled high. Stiff, formal Mr. Spenlow is gracious to Betsey and David, but he seems restricted in his dealings by his rigid partner, Jorkins. David tells you that he later discovered that Jorkins was mild and timid, and Spenlow only used him as a front. Perhaps you should already be suspicious of Doctors' Commons.
David's visit to the courtrooms of the Commons gives Dickens an opportunity to satirize this institution. Notice his satiric style: he pretends to be ignorant, describing everything in literal terms (the dining room chairs, the judge looking like an owl). This strips away the court's dignity, and also shows what a fraud it is. Dickens' objective, innocent tone is convincing because he seems like an ordinary fellow with no particular axe to grind.
Romantic David likes this dreamy atmosphere, however, and is also thrilled with the rooms Aunt Betsey rents for him nearby, though the landlady Mrs. Crupp looks shifty. Aunt Betsey keeps telling David that he must learn to be firm and self-reliant, but he's so wrapped up in old memories of the neighborhood and dreams of his new life that he's hardly listening.
David says over and over how "fine" his situation is, but soon loneliness catches up with him (the first person he misses is Agnes). He even has dinner with Mrs. Steerforth and Rosa, so hungry is he for company. Steerforth shows up soon, but he has a busy social life. To be included, David offers to throw a housewarming dinner party for Steerforth and his college friends. David's tone is heavily ironic as he remembers his foolish preparations. Mrs. Crupp takes advantage of him, persuading him to hire two useless servants, to order more food than necessary (which she then steals), and to order food already cooked so she won't have to do any work. But David is delighted with it all, though he's intimidated by Steerforth's sophisticated, affected friends. As the evening rushes by, David goes through every phase of drunkenness. He starts out bubbly, then becomes loud and talkative, then quarrelsome, then maudlin. He takes snuff and smokes; he has to stick his head out a window; he falls down the stairs in the dark. His loss of control is reflected by the way he describes himself as another person doing all this. His sentences get shorter and muddled. Finally, at the theater, he makes a complete fool of himself in front of Agnes, and this awakens his conscience. Steerforth gets him home to bed at last. The next morning, the pain of his hangover is nothing compared to his remorse and shame. Have you ever felt this kind of sinking feeling, realizing how you lost your self-control and made a fool of yourself "the night before"?