David remarks that although he is less naïve than he used to be, he still finds it hard to believe that he was cast off at such a young age to become a "little labouring hind in the service of Murdstone and Grinby."
David's words here highlight a point made in the preceding chapter about the darker side of the Victorian emphasis on self-reliance and industriousness. Although David is ostensibly at Murdstone and Grinby for his own good, it's clear to him even at the time that his removal from school and his new position in the counting-house will stunt his growth and limit his prospects.
Murdstone and Grinby turns out to be a warehouse in Blackfriars—a region of central London. The counting-house is on the Thames, and is constantly wet and dirty as a result. Most of its business comes from supplying alcohol to packet ships, and David's job is to clean, label, cork, and pack bottles. Although he shares this work with a few other boys his age, he feels "agony" and "shame" over his new position in life and misses his friends at Salem House.
David Copperfield is mostly concerned with upward mobility, but David's time at the counting-house is a grim reminder that it's possible to slide down the social ladder as well. David is now a member of the working classes, and without any hope of further education, his prospects for climbing back into the middle class are limited.
On David's first day at work, Mr. Quinion introduces him to Mr. Micawber—David's new sublettor. Micawber is a "stoutish, middle-aged person" who speaks in an ornate and over-the-top manner that nevertheless impresses David. Micawber returns later that day to escort David to his home, which is "shabby like [Micawber], but […] made all the show it could." He then introduces David to his family—four children and his wife, Mrs. Micawber, who looks tired and overwhelmed.
The Micawbers do not fit easily into the Victorian class system, and Mr. Micawber's appearance and mannerisms underscore that point: he dresses in a respectable style, but his clothes are shabby, and his ostentatious way of speaking seems intended to make himself seem more well-to-do than he actually is. The latter in particular is significant, because it implies that not everyone can or should aspire to rise in society: Micawber's attempts to craft a more genteel persona for himself come across as somewhat ridiculous.
Mrs. Micawber shows David his room and laments the necessity of taking in lodgers, implying that she grew up in more genteel circumstances. She also reveals that Mr. Micawber is in debt, and that her efforts to earn money to pay off their creditors have so far been in vain. David further explains that throughout his stay with the Micawbers, the couple received a stream of visits from creditors that would throw both of them into temporary fits of despair.
Like her husband, Mrs. Micawber constantly draws attention to her respectable and middle-class status in a way the novel implies a securely middle-class person wouldn't do. The fact that Mr. Micawber is in debt, meanwhile, suggests a reason why the Micawbers' poverty might be justified to the Victorian mind: the implication is that he lacks the self-discipline to work hard and/or the restraint to avoid overspending.
Throughout this period, Mr. Murdstone pays for David's lodgings, but expects David to pay for his own food and other necessities. Being "young and childish," however, David sometimes spends all his money on a treat, forcing him to go without a meal later on. Even when he spends his money wisely, David is prone to being taken advantage of by older and more experienced shopkeepers.
Considering his very young age, David shows amazing self-control when it comes to spending his wages. Still, he isn't truly ready to take on the task of providing for himself and planning his own life. This doesn't necessarily reflect badly on him, however; Dickens was generally a critic of child labor, having worked in a blacking factory himself as a boy.
Meanwhile, David continues to suffer silently at the counting-house. He quickly becomes proficient at the work, but his "conduct and manner" ensure that he remains somewhat estranged from the other boys. He is also preoccupied by the problems of the Micawbers, with whom he has grown very close. He is careful not to accept their offers to dine with them, however, for fear of making their financial difficulties worse.
Despite being functionally working-class at this point, David's middle-class upbringing remains a barrier between him and his fellow workers. This is another indication of the limits the novel places on social mobility: whether due of innate differences or learned ones, the middle and working classes remain distinct.
One day, Mrs. Micawber approaches David and confesses that the family has run out of food, and David offers to give her the money he has in his pocket. Mrs. Micawber refuses, but begins to describe all the items she has pawned or sold, and how painful it has been. David, taking the hint, offers to carry out the transactions for her, and soon disposes of the Micawbers' "more portable articles of property," including Mr. Micawber's books. This is not enough to put an end to the family's troubles, however, and Mr. Micawber is eventually arrested for debt.
The items the Micawbers begin to sell off are in many ways markers of middle-class status. Micawber's books, for instance, aren't basic necessities, but rather items that make the Micawbers' lives and household more comfortable. The fact that they can no longer maintain the appearance of middle-class life is a sign of just how desperate their situation is becoming.
David goes to visit Mr. Micawber in prison, and Micawber warns him not to mismanage his money as he himself has. Immediately after this, however, he borrows a shilling from David, and the two have dinner together.
Although Mr. Micawber theoretically realizes the importance of discipline and restraint, he doesn't seem capable of applying that knowledge to his own life. Given Micawber's melodramatic tendencies, it seems likely that his words to David are less about sharing advice than they are about cultivating an image of himself as a long-suffering victim.
The Micawbers sell off the rest of their furniture, but this is still not enough to secure Mr. Micawber's release. Mrs. Micawber therefore moves into prison with him, and David moves to a room nearby to keep them company. The Micawbers are in some sense better off in prison, where they receive assistance from their relations, and this in turn relieves some of David's anxiety. He is still unhappy and lonely at work, but he will eventually consider himself fortunate not to have associated too much with the other workers.
The fact that the Micawbers are more suited to life in debtor's prison than life outside of it reveals just how unforgiving Victorian society is of anyone who fails to live up to its ideals of hard work and determination; prison is ultimately preferable to freedom under the constant threat of poverty and homelessness. Meanwhile, David's anxiety about spending too much time with lower-class boys reveals a degree of disdain for the working classes, as well as a fear that working-class traits or behaviors are contagious.
Eventually, Mr. Micawber decides to apply for release under the "Insolvent Debtors Act." In the meantime, he drums up the other inmates' interest in a petition to change the laws surrounding debt and imprisonment. David is there when the prisoners sign this document, and mentally invents backstories for all of them. Many years later, David recalls these events and pictures himself as a young boy, "making his imaginative world out of such strange experiences and sordid things."
Even during one of the bleakest periods of his life, David is (unwittingly) developing habits that will later lead to his success as an author. By contrast, Mr. Micawber is also hard at work, but not on anything that's likely to advance his own prospects. David remarks that this kind of misdirected determination is typical of Mr. Micawber, revealing one more way in which Micawber is at odds with Victorian ideology.