Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version
THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
CHAPTERS LIV - LVII
David begins this installment by telling of his sorrow and describing Agnes' saintly support in his grief.
Many of Dickens' first readers would have begun this chapter a couple of weeks after they'd read about Dora's death. Notice how Dickens skillfully reminds them of what happened last month and re-establishes his mood.
Then he plunges back into comedy, as the Micawbers make a big show of preparing themselves for Australia. At this stage, Dickens has to tie up many threads of his plot, and he does so quickly. Traddles tells David that Mr. Wickfield's affairs have been settled, though Agnes has decided he should retire while she supports them by keeping a school. As Traddles reports that Betsey's money has been recovered, she surprisingly reveals that she had 2000 pounds left all the time, but she kept it a secret to test David's self-reliance. Heep, nasty to the end, appears to have left town with his mother. Traddles' shrewd summary of Heep's character shows Dickens' insight into human psychology. Micawber's affairs, you learn, are comically tangled, since he still owes several debts. Magnanimously, Betsey intends to give him a lump sum to pay them off, but David and Traddles know Micawber better. They work out a way to pay his debts and give him capital for his new life, without having to trust him with cash. Only moments later, they have to save Micawber from being arrested.
One sad affair must be settled. Traddles reminds Betsey that Heep threatened to hurt her through her husband. This danger fades forever as Betsey and David attend the poor man's funeral. The chapter ends on a note of comedy as Micawber writes in despair, announcing another arrest for debt, only to add in a P.S. that Traddles has just paid it off.
The mood changes swiftly to suspense in the next chapter. David prepares you for an event so awful, it still haunts him. Learning from Peggotty of Ham's strength in his sorrow, David decides to write to Emily, telling her of Ham's forgiveness, so she can respond before she sails for Australia. Emily sends back to David a grateful note to Ham, and David decides to take it to Ham. On his way down, however, he meets a violent storm.
This storm seems unnatural and chaotic, like the end of the world. It comes from the sea, which is associated in this book with life and death. What does the storm stand for? Some readers think it symbolizes fate, as it relentlessly advances and carelessly batters people around. Others think it represents Dickens' view that life is dark, violent, and confusing.
Ominously, Ham isn't home when David gets to Yarmouth, and David feels uneasy at the inn when he hears stories of foundered ships offshore. He sleeps fitfully that night. Next morning, he's awakened by news that a ship has been wrecked on the beach, and he runs to join the crowd watching it. One figure in a red cap stands out among the struggling survivors on deck. The roaring of the wind and waves almost create a silence. The only sound is the ship's bell, tolling its death knell. Then David sees Ham volunteer to wade out to save the men. The way Ham looks out to sea convinces David that he wants to die. David tries to stop him, as he once stopped Martha from suicide. Ham's cheerful, resigned voice rings through the confusion, begging David to let him go.
The action is set up almost like fast-cutting camera shots. Now you see the lone figure clinging to the mast, waving his red cap (David is reminded strangely of Steerforth). Now you see Ham plunging forward, flung about by the waves. The men haul in the rope, and Ham lies on shore, dead. The body is taken to a nearby cottage. Then David is called away by a kind old fisherman, who leads him to the beach to view the corpse of the shipwreck's victim-Steerforth.
Dickens packs this final shot with life's grim ironies. This beach is where Emily once played innocently. The boat-house stood nearby, but it's been wrecked by the storm, just as its family was wrecked by tragedy. In death, Steerforth is handsome, graceful, boyish again. The cruelest irony is that Ham died trying to save the man who destroyed his reason for living.
David accompanies Steerforth's corpse back to London. It's an autumn day, but bright and peaceful after the storm. David goes to Steerforth's house, where invalid Mrs. Steerforth sits in her beloved son's room, surviving on her memories of him. David tries to break his news gently, but Rosa picks up the truth. In the end, she's the one who tells Mrs. Steerforth, harshly, tauntingly. Rosa accuses the old woman of ruining her son and bitterly describes how she herself once loved him with selfless devotion, only to be discarded. Rosa works herself up to a mad pitch, and David urges her to be kinder to the old woman in her grief. But Mrs. Steerforth never says a word, sitting rigid in her chair, moaning dully. Suddenly, Rosa realizes the woman's had a stroke, and frantically tries to care for her. How do you account for her behavior here?
David decides to keep the tragic news from the emigrants, with Mr. Micawber's help, until they have safely sailed. Comically, the entire Micawber family is dressed in seafaring clothes the night before they set off. In a tumble-down lodging house, Micawber brews his famous punch with his old zest, but he makes his family drink out of sailors' tin mugs. One more time he is arrested and bailed out, one more time he hands Traddles an IOU. One more time Mrs. Micawber predicts that her family will come around and that her husband's talents will be recognized.
Peggotty and David go on board the next day to see the passengers off. (Micawber's been arrested once more in the interim.) David sketches, as a journalist might, the scene below deck: dark, cramped, cluttered, with a wide spectrum of society thrown together, cheerfully looking to their future. He sees Emily through the crowd, and even thinks he sees Agnes, like an angel of mercy, bidding her good-bye.
NOTE: EMILY'S DISTANCE
Ever since Emily returned to London, she's been kept offstage. David hears her through a door, learns her story from her uncle, and reads her letter, but never meets her face to face. Dickens thus pulls off several effects: he accentuates her shame, as though she's hiding; he keeps her at a distance, as an idealized tragic figure; and he avoids having to show how her sexual experience has changed her. After all, good as her heart is, she is still a fallen woman, and Dickens would have had to show that.
At the last moment, David learns that generous Mr. Peggotty is also taking Martha with him to start a new life. As David and Peggotty return to shore, the boat leaves, amid cheers, in a blaze of sunset, and David finally catches a glimpse of Emily beside her uncle. The scene is hopeful and uplifting, but David's own grief begins to settle on him as dusk falls.