David Copperfield

David Copperfield

David Copperfield Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mr. Wickfield takes David to school the next morning and introduces him to his new schoolmaster, who is named Doctor Strong. Doctor Strong is a "stiff" elderly man dressed in old-fashioned clothing, so David is surprised to learn that the pretty young woman accompanying him, Annie, is his wife. Before Mr. Wickfield leaves, Doctor Strong asks him whether he has been able to find a position for his wife's cousin, Jack Maldon, whom he says will get into trouble if he is left "idle." Mr. Wickfield remarks that many busy people also "achieve their full share of mischief," but seems to agree that it would be better for Jack to be employed. In fact, he even suggests that Doctor Strong might wish to see Jack sent abroad, although Strong himself denies this.
At first glance, the Strongs' marriage appears to be another example of an ill-advised relationship. As it turns out, this isn't the case, but the age difference alone leaves Annie Strong vulnerable to rumors that she married for money and (even more seriously) that she's having an affair with her cousin. Jack's overall character lends further credence to this rumor, because his laziness and carelessness, by the standards of time, are signs of more general moral laxness.
Themes
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Doctor Strong leads Mr. Wickfield and David to the schoolroom, which looks out on a garden. The other students are welcoming, but David feels awkward and resists their attempts at friendship: he is self-conscious both of what he has missed out on recently (formal education and the company of boys his age) and of what he has been doing instead (living with the Micawbers and traveling around the country on foot). In particular, he worries that the things he learned while working at the counting-house are somehow obvious to his peers. However, when he returns to the Wickfield's that evening, he finds that these memories begin to dissipate in the house's comforting atmosphere.
David's sense of alienation stems partly from knowing that his time at the counting-house has taught him things a middle-class boy shouldn't know, and has perhaps even left a permanent mark on his character. On the one hand, this suggests that behaviors seen as lower-class are learned rather than innate. It also suggests, however, that the stain of lower-class status is almost impossible to get rid of. David understandably finds the thought of this upsetting, so it's a testament to the comfort and tranquility of the Wickfields' home (and Agnes's skill as a housekeeper) that David is able to set his worries aside.
Themes
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Agnes greets David that evening, and the two discuss school; Agnes receives lessons at home so that she can act as Mr. Wickfield's "housekeeper." David remarks that Agnes's father seems to care deeply for her, and she responds that her mother, whom she strongly resembles, died shortly after giving birth to her.
The similarities between Agnes and her mother, combined with the work Agnes now does in the Wickfield household, strongly suggest that Agnes is functioning as a replacement for the late Mrs. Wickfield. This again underscores the unhealthy relationship that has developed between Mr. Wickfield and Agnes.
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At that moment, Mr. Wickfield returns home. He praises Doctor Strong to David, saying he is an extremely kind man and warning David not to be "one of those" who take advantage of his generosity. Mr. Wickfield, David, and Agnes then prepare to sit down for dinner, but they are interrupted by Uriah Heep, who says that Jack Maldon wants to speak with Mr. Wickfield. Meanwhile, David notices Uriah looking around the room and at Agnes.
Uriah's behavior in this scene is an early hint that he hopes to supplant Wickfield at the firm; the look he casts around the room seems to be covetous. It's also significant that Uriah includes Agnes in this appraisal, since it suggests he sees her largely as another possession he hopes to own one day.
Themes
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Jack Maldon pokes his head into the room and announces that while Annie and "the old Doctor" would prefer him to stay close by, he wants to leave as soon as possible if he must in fact leave. Dryly, Mr. Wickfield says that there will be "as little lingering as possible," while also objecting to the way Maldon continues to refer to Doctor Strong. Maldon goes on to say that Annie could easily find a position for him by using her influence with Doctor Strong, since she is a "charming young girl" who is owed "some compensation" for marrying an aging man. He then leaves quickly to dine with Annie, leaving David with the impression that he is a handsome but "rather shallow" man.
Although Maldon does not explicitly say Annie married Doctor Strong for money, he does frame their marriage in transactional terms, arguing that her husband owes her something for agreeing to marry him. This threatens Annie's reputation on two levels, implying that she's self-interested (a bad quality for a Victorian woman) and doing little to quell the rumors that she's having an affair. His remark that Annie ought to use her youth and looks to extract favors from her husband is also questionable, since it frames the marriage as something closer to prostitution. Again, however, this is in keeping with Maldon's generally lax morals.
Themes
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Mr. Wickfield, David, and Agnes repeat their previous after-dinner routine, although this time Agnes also looks through David's schoolbooks with him and offers advice. He remains infatuated with Emily, but also has a powerful sense of Agnes's "goodness, peace, and truth."
The help Agnes offers David in this scene encapsulates the role she will play throughout his life—namely, supporting and encouraging his intellectual and moral growth. David, however, hasn't realized yet that these are the qualities he "ought" to be looking for in a wife.
Themes
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Before David goes to bed, Mr. Wickfield—his eyes "bloodshot" from drinking—asks David whether he wants to continue living in the house despite its "dullness." David replies that he would, and that it isn't any duller for him than it is for Agnes. Mr. Wickfield broods on this for a while, wondering whether Agnes would like to leave but insisting that he cannot spare her. Finally, however, he perks up and says that he is happy David is staying with them, and hopeful that he will provide a "wholesome" presence.
Although David considers the Wickfields' house an ideal home, Mr. Wickfield realizes guiltily that it is not, at least for Agnes. Wickfield's reliance on his daughter in many ways limits her life (for instance, by preventing her from going to school), and this will only become more obvious as Agnes grows older and begins to think about establishing her own family.
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Later that evening, David goes to read in Mr. Wickfield's study, but decides at the last minute to visit Uriah Heep, whom he finds hard at work. Uriah explains that he is studying law, but insists—when David says he must be a "great lawyer"—that he is a "very umble person." As David chats with him, he learns more about Uriah's family: he lives with his mother, and his father (now dead) was a sexton. Uriah then explains that he is apprenticed to Mr. Wickfield, expressing profuse gratitude for this. He also lavishes praise on Miss Betsey and Agnes, which David finds unnerving: Uriah "writhes" every time he pays someone a compliment—particularly Agnes, whom he says David must "admire."
On the surface, Uriah's storyline corresponds perfectly with the nineteenth-century ideal of upward mobility: although born into poverty, he has since managed to enter a prestigious field (the law) and is working diligently to advance in his career. Ultimately, this turns out to be an elaborate charade, with Uriah rising more through trickery than hard work. The novel condemns him for this, but it also associates his villainy with his class status. One of Uriah's most frequent lies is that he is "[h]umble," when in fact he desperately wants to advance in the world. Given the respect expected of the lower class, this backhanded boast is the only means Uriah has of asserting himself; he is in some sense forced into a position of dishonesty in order to have a chance of succeeding in the world.
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Finally, Uriah says he needs to return home so as not to worry his mother, and asks whether David will be staying with the Wickfields long. David explains his situation, and Uriah repeatedly says that it will be David—rather than Uriah himself—who will eventually become a partner of Mr. Wickfield's. Uriah then leaves, but David dreams that night that Uriah is a pirate who has used Mr. Peggotty's house to kidnap and drown both David and little Em'ly.
Uriah's closeness to his widowed mother is one of the ways in which he serves as a double to David. Ultimately, however, these resemblances underscore the class difference that separates the two characters; although David does not in fact become Mr. Wickfield's partner, Uriah is correct in saying that, in the normal course of things, David would be much more likely to gain that kind of position. 
Themes
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David gradually grows more comfortable around the boys at school, which he finds is nothing like Salem House; in fact, the students are so attached to the school that they are eager to do well just to do the school—and Doctor Strong himself—credit. The Doctor's kindness makes him a favorite with the students, despite his eccentricities (he hopes to write a dictionary, for instance, and is therefore always "looking out for Greek roots"). In fact, the Doctor's generosity borders on naiveté, since he cannot bear to turn down requests for help. David also notices that Doctor Strong has a "fatherly" manner toward Annie, whom David learns came from an impoverished family. He sees Annie often, in part because she is friends with Agnes—though not, David notices, with Mr. Wickfield.
Like Salem House, Doctor Strong's school illustrates the effect that environment has on children's development. In this case, however, the effect is a positive one: the school is so well-run and respected that the students consider it a duty to maintain its atmosphere and reputation. As a result, they not only learn more but also learn to exercise personal responsibility. Doctor Strong's kindness does have its downsides, however, as it allows others to take advantage of him. Although Annie was not actually motivated by greed when she married her husband, the Doctor's naiveté means that she easily could have been. This shadow on Annie's reputation leads Mr. Wickfield to disapprove of Annie and Agnes's friendship—the implication being that Annie might infect Agnes with either her supposed self-interestedness or her supposed sexual looseness.
Themes
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David also comes to know Annie's mother, Mrs. Markleham, who is known as the "Old Soldier" because of the way she "marshals great forces of relations against the Doctor"—that is, she uses Annie's position to advance her own family. Mrs. Markleham is present at the Strongs' farewell party for Jack Maldon, which David, Mr. Wickfield, and Agnes also attend. Although she thanks Doctor Strong profusely for finding Maldon a post in India, she then alludes to several subjects that make Annie visibly uneasy: most notably, a childhood romance between Maldon and Annie, and how surprised both she and her daughter were when Doctor Strong—a friend of Annie's father—proposed to Annie. She also scolds Annie for refusing to speak up more on her family's behalf, which Doctor Strong agrees is wrong, because it "robbed [him] of the pleasure" of doing someone a favor.
Mrs. Markleham's words and behavior deepen the suspicions surrounding Annie and Doctor Strong's relationship. Unlike her daughter, Mrs. Markleham is perfectly happy to use Doctor strong to rise in the world. Worse still, she urged Annie to consider the family's "means" when considering Doctor Strong's proposal of marriage, effectively asking her to prostitute herself for her family's benefit. Her other main argument (that Doctor Strong would fill a vacancy left by the death of Annie's father) is similarly troubling: although there is a parent-child dynamic at play in Annie and Doctor Strong's relationship, tying it specifically to Annie's father borders on incestuous.
Themes
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The evening continues with talk of Maldon's impending voyage, followed by games and entertainment. Annie, however, seems anxious and unhappy, and does not end up taking part in either the singing or the card game. The supper that follows is awkward for everyone but Doctor Strong, who doesn't seem to notice Annie and Maldon's moodiness, or the inappropriateness of Mrs. Markleham's stories. Finally, the Doctor makes a formal toast to Maldon, wishing him a successful career and advising him to "imitate [Annie's] virtues." The party then breaks up, and as the students accompany Maldon to the door and watch him drive away in a chaise, David thinks he sees something "cherry-colored" in Maldon's hand.
Despite his generally forgiving nature, even Doctor Strong appears to have noticed Maldon's laziness. Although the Doctor doesn't specify which of Annie's "virtues," Maldon should copy, he presumably means qualities like patience and self-discipline, since these are the kinds of traits that might help him succeed in his new position. However, the fact that Maldon leaves having stolen a ribbon from Annie's dress suggests that he has little intention of reforming in any way.
Themes
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Returning inside, David learns that Annie is missing. Doctor Strong and the guests eventually find her lying in the hall in a swoon. She quickly recovers, and Doctor Strong attributes her faintness to her affection for her "old playfellow." As Doctor Strong leads her away to sit down, however, Mrs. Markleham notices that Annie has lost one of the red ribbons decorating the bodice of her dress.
At the time, Annie's missing ribbon seems to confirm that she's having an affair with Maldon—the fact that the missing bow was one she "had worn at her bosom" is especially suggestive. Much later in the novel, however, Annie explains that Maldon grabbed the ribbon without her permission. The fact that she describes this incident as attempted seduction rather than as sexual assault illustrates just how strict the norms surrounding female sexual behavior were in the nineteenth century.
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Mr. Wickfield, Agnes, and David leave soon afterwards, but David then turns back to fetch a purse Agnes accidentally left behind. As he enters the study, he sees Doctor Strong sitting in a chair reading aloud to Annie, who is seated at his feet and looking up at him with a "wild, sleep-walking, dreamy horror." David's arrival breaks the mood, and Doctor Strong suggests that Annie go to bed. Annie, however, begs to stay, and as David leaves, he sees the couple settling back into their earlier position.
Annie is visibly ashamed of the evening's events—not just Maldon's behavior, but also her mother's transparent use of Doctor Strong's wealth and influence. Again, the strict rules Victorian women were expected to live by mean that Annie feels responsible for dishonoring her husband, even though she is as much a victim as he is. Meanwhile, the fact that Doctor Strong is reading to Annie hints at the nature of their relationship and Annie's real reasons for accepting his proposal: as Annie will eventually explain, she views Doctor Strong as a guide and mentor who has taught her to be the person she now is.
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