David Copperfield

David Copperfield

David Copperfield Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Sometime after arriving at Miss Betsey's, David had written to Peggotty explaining his new circumstances. Peggotty's response makes it clear that she is still somewhat wary of Miss Betsey, and also notes that the Murdstones have left the Rookery and put the house up for sale. In happier news, Peggotty tells him that her brother, Mr. Peggotty, and his family are doing well. David passes this information on to Miss Betsey but does not mention little Em'ly, whom he senses his aunt would not approve of.
Although David had never wanted the Murdstones living in the Rookery, their abandonment of it in some ways marks the final loss of David's childhood home; the fact that it's now entirely uninhabited and neglected pains David, who feels that his one physical connection to his parents is now "dead" as well. Peggotty's other news is also significant, largely because of David's response to it: his sense that his aunt wouldn't approve of Emily is another nod to Emily's flirtatiousness.
Themes
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Home and Family Theme Icon
Meanwhile, Mr. Dick pays frequent visits to David at school, always speaking glowingly of Miss Betsey when he comes. On one occasion, he wonders aloud to David who "the man" is that frightens her by hanging around the house. David has some difficulty learning more, because Mr. Dick is once again struggling to make sense of the date of Charles I's execution. Eventually, however, Mr. Dick explains that the man has repeatedly come up to the house and spoken to Miss Betsey, causing her to faint on one occasion and pay him off on another. Mr. Dick insists that the man was not a beggar, but David privately suspects the story is simply a delusion on Mr. Dick's part. Later, however, David wonders whether the man might have been charged with kidnapping Mr. Dick.
The man lurking around Miss Betsey's cottage is eventually revealed to be her former husband. Given that Miss Betsey wasn't even intimidated by the Murdstones, the fact that she's afraid of her husband speaks to how badly he must have treated her.
Themes
Womanhood and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Home and Family Theme Icon
Mr. Dick quickly becomes a favorite with David's classmates. The visits benefit Mr. Dick as well, since playing games with the students takes his mind off his fixation on Charles I. Mr. Dick also turns out to have a knack for making toys out of odds and ends, and even Doctor Strong eventually hears about Mr. Dick's skills. David introduces the two men, and Mr. Dick becomes a friend of both the Doctor and Annie, who has looked sad and pale recently. Mr. Dick is particularly impressed by the Doctor's learning, and listens delightedly as he reads from the dictionary he is working on. Mr. Dick also meets and befriends Agnes.
If Mr. Dick's obsession with Charles I and the Memorial is in part a cautionary tale about living in the past, this passage suggests that it's possible to overcome the past and move forward. Although Mr. Dick isn't entirely cured of his fixation, the friendships he forms at the school help refocus some of his attention on something more pleasant.
Themes
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One day, David is walking Mr. Dick back to the coach office when he stumbles across Uriah Heep. Uriah reminds David that he had promised to come and have tea at his house, and David (somewhat reluctantly) agrees to visit that same evening. Accordingly, Uriah and David meet up at the end of the day and walk to the Heeps’ house together, chatting about Uriah's legal studies on the way. David offers to help by teaching Uriah Latin, but Uriah insists that he is too humble for that kind of education.
Once again, Uriah makes a point of demonstrating humility as a backwards way of signaling how deserving he actually is. The fact that he declines an offer to learn Latin specifically is significant, since a classical education would have been available only to relatively well-off students at the time; early in the nineteenth century, gaining access to any kind of education at all could be a challenge for the working classes.
Themes
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
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When David arrives at Uriah Heep's house, he finds that Mrs. Heep closely resembles her son. She also shares his personality, saying she is honored to receive David and apologizing for the "natural affections" that lead her to welcome Uriah home with a kiss. The three then sit down for tea, where Mrs. Heep and Uriah make a show of giving David the best food on the table. They also manage to turn the conversation first to David's family and then to the Wickfields, and David inadvertently reveals a great deal of information about both. Despite his discomfort, however, David is forced to admit that the Heeps are "very fond of one another."
Like her son, Mrs. Heep makes a show of embracing her class status as a way of communicating her resentment. Her "apology" is in reality a thinly veiled criticism of the idea that the lower classes don't feel things as intensely as the middle and upper classes. More specifically, it challenges the idea that loving family relationships can't exist alongside poverty—an idea that Dickens later condemns in the context of Steerforth's elopement with little Em'ly. In this case, however, the extreme closeness of Uriah and Mrs. Heep actually does seem unnatural, and serves as another indication of their villainy.
Themes
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
Home and Family Theme Icon
The conversation is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Micawber, who notices David while walking by the house and greets him enthusiastically. David is less thrilled to see Mr. Micawber, because he fears Micawber will let something slip about his time at the counting-house. However, David introduces Micawber to Uriah and Mrs. Heep, who protest that they are too lowly to be considered David's friends. David explains that he is now a student at Doctor Strong's and asks whether he could visit Mrs. Micawber. Micawber agrees that this is a wonderful idea, and extols David's faithful friendship throughout all of the Micawbers' financial difficulties.
Perhaps sensing that the Heeps don't actually respect him as much as they theatrically claim to, David is very anxious about losing his claim to middle-class status in front of them.
Themes
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Mr. Micawber leads David to the inn where he and his family are staying, and then leaves him with Mrs. Micawber while he himself goes to look over advertisements for jobs. Mrs. Micawber explains that her husband was unable to find a job in Plymouth, and that her own relatives there were not happy to see the Micawbers—though she suggests that all of this is a sign that Mr. Micawber is not adequately appreciated for his talents. She says that the family then went to Medway in the hopes of something "turning up" in the coal trade, but these plans also fell through. They traveled on to Canterbury, however, both to see the cathedral and in the hopes that there might be a job there.
Like her insistence that she'll never leave her husband, Mrs. Micawber's defense of her husband's talents reads as defensive; presumably, she's aware of her husband's failings and suffers because of them. With that said, Mr. Micawber is certainly diligent in his attempts to find work, so his ongoing financial struggles likely say as much about the society he's living in as they do about his own character.
Themes
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Home and Family Theme Icon
David feels sorry for the Micawbers but does not have any money to lend them. Mr. Micawber returns, apparently so despairing that he alludes to the possibility of suicide. This throws Mrs. Micawber into a state as well, but both recover quickly and place an order for a large breakfast for the following morning. Before leaving, David agrees to have dinner with the Micawbers sometime in the next few days.
Although the Micawbers' despair is clearly exaggerated for dramatic effect, the fact that they rebound so quickly from disappointment suggests that they themselves believe in the promise of upward mobility; when one prospect falls through, they almost immediately pin their hopes on a new one.
Themes
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
The evening before David is scheduled to dine with the Micawbers, he happens to see Uriah and Mr. Micawber walking along the street together talking. This unnerves David, particularly when Micawber praises Uriah's resourcefulness the next day: David is concerned that Mr. Micawber might have revealed something about David's past over the course of the conversation.
Once again, David worries that his stint as a worker in the counting-house will come to light and threaten the middle-class life he is building for himself. Meanwhile, David's discomfort with Uriah's resourcefulness underscores the fact that hard work and talent are judged differently (and more negatively) in working-class people.
Themes
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
Despite David's misgivings about Uriah, the dinner itself passes happily: David and the Micawbers drink, exchange compliments, and sing "Auld Lang Syne" together. David is therefore surprised when he receives a letter from Mr. Micawber the following morning declaring that "all is over" for him and that he simply didn't have the heart to speak of his troubles the preceding night. Alarmed, David runs off to find the Micawbers, only to see them sitting quite happily on a coach to London. David is glad that they are leaving, despite his enjoyment of their company.
In this scene, the Micawbers again demonstrate great optimism in the face of misfortune. Although Mr. Micawber's account of their misery is characteristically overblown, the family's perseverance speaks to their basic faith in the promise of upward mobility.
Themes
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon