David is excited to finish school and become independent. However, he does not have a clear idea of what he wants to do with his life, despite many talks on the subject with his aunt and Mr. Dick. Eventually, Miss Betsey suggests that he take some time to mull over the matter by going to see Peggotty and her family. David agrees, and his aunt indicates that she is very proud of him—though she attributes this feeling to Clara Copperfield rather than owning up to it directly. She also cautions David, however, that she wants him to be a "firm fellow," unlike the parents he closely resembles.
Although David is eager to grow up, his lack of any clear goal in life is a sign of his relative immaturity. Miss Betsey's pointed words to him reflect not only the necessity of choosing a career, but also her hope that settling into said career will shore up David's character, making him more purposeful and better able to withstand external pressure. Meanwhile, by attributing her pride in David to Clara, Miss Betsey reveals some of the difficulties associated with nineteenth-century female gender norms; because femininity was seen as incompatible with independence and strength, Miss Betsey seems to feel that she needs to suppress any conventionally feminine emotions in order to survive as a single woman.
Miss Betsey sends David off with enough money to do what he likes for three or four weeks. His first stop is Canterbury, where he says goodbye to Agnes and tells her that being apart from her is like missing his "right hand." He also promises to always tell her of any major changes in his life, including any romances. He then wonders aloud why Agnes herself hasn't fallen in love yet, though he says he would probably deem any man she liked to be undeserving of her.
David's description of Agnes as his "right hand" suggests that he knows how crucial her advice and support is to him. Nevertheless, he fails to recognize that he's essentially already relying on her as if she were his wife—not to mention the significance of the fact that he doesn't want her to marry anyone else.
The conversation turns more serious as Agnes asks whether David has noticed any change in Mr. Wickfield. David admits that he has, and delicately attributes it to increased drinking. He also remarks that Uriah Heep often calls Mr. Wickfield away to do business when he is at his drunkest, which Wickfield himself always seems ashamed of afterwards. Mr. Wickfield himself appears at this moment, however, and as Agnes goes to meet him, David notices how tenderly and lovingly she interacts with her father.
Although Uriah takes advantage of Mr. Wickfield's alcoholism to further his own ambitions, Wickfield's behavior is itself a moral flaw. Wickfield himself will eventually admit that he sees his alcoholism as a weakness tied to his tendency to allow his memories to overtake him. In fact, Mr. Wickfield's lack of self-control causes him to revert to a childlike state at times. Agnes, meanwhile, continues to take on a maternal role when interacting with her father, highlighting just how upside-down their family situation has become.
Later, Mr. Wickfield, Agnes, and David all go to have tea at Doctor Strong's. The Doctor says he plans to retire from his position as headmaster soon so that he can focus exclusively on his dictionary and Annie. This reminds Mr. Wickfield of Jack Maldon, who has recently written to the Strongs. Mrs. Markleham laments that Maldon is too frail to endure the Indian climate. Annie refuses to corroborate this, however, and it emerges that Maldon's letters have not said much about his supposed sickness—something Mrs. Markleham attributes to stoicism and a wish to avoid disappointing Doctor Strong. Mr. Wickfield reminds everyone that he found Maldon his position and takes full responsibility for the consequences, but Doctor Strong remarks that he is open to finding Maldon a position closer to home if, as Mrs. Markleham says, his life is in danger.
Maldon's ongoing attempts to avoid work serve as a cautionary tale for David, particularly in the context of Miss Betsey's words at the beginning of the chapter. What's more, Mrs. Markleham's concern for her nephew (whether real or exaggerated) borders on infantilizing, further underscoring Maldon's refusal to accept the responsibilities of an adult man. Meanwhile, Mr. Wickfield's attempt to take the blame for Maldon's posting reflects his ongoing concern about the nature of Maldon and Annie's relationship; anticipating that Doctor Strong will offer to help Maldon return, Wickfield jumps in an attempt to keep Annie and her cousin far apart from one another.
Mrs. Markleham thanks Doctor Strong profusely and urges Annie—unsuccessfully—to do the same. She then reads aloud from Maldon's letter to her in order to prove to Mr. Wickfield that he is ill. When that doesn't work, she badgers Annie to show her own letter from Maldon, in which he states that he will need to return on sick leave, because his life in India is "insupportable."
In addition to taking advantage of Doctor Strong's kindness, Mrs. Markleham also repeatedly oversteps her authority as a mother: despite the fact that Annie is both an adult woman and married, Mrs. Markleham harasses her and ignores her boundaries, forcing her to share private correspondence.
The rest of the evening goes more smoothly, although Mr. Wickfield seems troubled and continues to shoot glances at Doctor Strong and Annie. When Annie and Agnes sing and play duets together, David realizes that Mr. Wickfield disapproves of his daughter's friendship with Mrs. Strong; in fact, he even prevents them from embracing when the night is over. Thinking back to the party the night Jack Maldon went away, David suddenly realizes that Annie may be having an affair. This disturbs David, and seems to cast both Annie and all his happy memories of Doctor Strong and school in a new light.
David's reconsideration of his childhood memories is in some ways the opposite of the nostalgia that colors much of the novel. Rather than idealizing the past, David now realizes that his impression of the Strong household was romanticized. This is an indication of how David's perspective has shifted and become more realistic as he has matured. Mr. Wickfield's behavior in this passage is also significant: his wish to keep Agnes and Annie apart implies that sexual promiscuity is somehow contagious.
David is sad to leave Agnes's house, which he realizes he will never live in again. However, he tries very hard to conceal his feelings out of a wish to appear "manly." He continues to act as much like an adult as possible during the coach ride to London, answering the driver's questions about his planned trip in a condescending and indifferent manner. Eventually, however, the driver hints that David should give up his seat in the front of the coach to another rider—a "shabby man with a squint." David agrees, but feels both insulted and deeply insecure. Nevertheless, he enjoys the ride—particularly passing by places that stir up old memories, like Salem House.
David's preoccupation with looking and acting like an adult clearly stems from insecurity: he realizes on some level that he isn't fully grown up and wishes to conceal it. This deep anxiety about what others will think of him is itself a sign of immaturity, since a truly mature man (as Miss Betsey earlier suggested) wouldn’t be so influenced by the opinions of those around him. His fond recollections of Salem House and his home with the Wickfield also signal a reluctance to leave childhood fully behind.
David arrives in London and takes a room at an inn, where he continues to try to act as maturely and impressively as possible. He resists the waiter's suggestions on what to order, for instance, and asks him to check for any letters he may have received. Nevertheless, the waiter takes advantage of David's inexperience by giving him the dregs of several bottles of wine.
Once again, David's excessive concern with the appearance of adulthood suggests that he hasn't quite attained it yet; the "firm fellow" Miss Betsey described earlier in the chapter would be more confident of his own actions and less worried about what others think of him.
Later that evening, David goes to Covent Garden Theatre and sees a production of Julius Caesar that deeply impresses him. After returning to the inn, David sits meditating on both the performance and his past, when he notices that another young man has entered the coffee-room. As David rises to go to bed, he passes by the man and, realizing it is James Steerforth, calls out to him. David is overwhelmed by the encounter, while Steerforth seems both pleased to see his friend and pleased that David thinks so highly of him.
The fact that David recounters Steerforth immediately after seeing Julius Caesar—a play famously about treachery among friends—is ominous, and foreshadows Steerforth's ultimate betrayal of David's trust. At the time, however, David is simply excited to see his old friend from school, perhaps in part because he was already reminiscing about the past.
David and Steerforth sit down to chat, and David explains why he is in London. Steerforth then reveals that he is (half-heartedly) studying at Oxford, and is currently returning home to visit his mother, Mrs. Steerforth. It turns out that Steerforth also saw the play in Covent Garden, which David praises enthusiastically. Steerforth is amused by this, however, and calls David a "very Daisy," saying that the production was terrible. He then calls over the waiter and questions him about which room David has been assigned to, until the waiter agrees to move him to a better one. Before they part for the night, Steerforth asks David to have breakfast with him the next morning, and David delightedly agrees.
Steerforth and David's conversation underscores just how naïve David still is in many ways—not only because of his overly enthusiastic reaction to the play, but also because the nickname Steerforth gives him, in its femininity, suggests innocence and vulnerability. On the other hand, the novel suggests that Steerforth's relative cynicism is immature in its own way: his boredom with everything is part of what prevents him from sticking to any course of action, since nothing holds his attention and interest.