David Copperfield

David Copperfield

David Copperfield Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
David continues to worry about his age the next day, particularly when he is unable to use the shaving-water the maid leaves outside his door. He is also intimidated by Steerforth, whom he finds dining in a luxurious private room. Steerforth's friendliness soon puts David at ease, however, and he is thrilled when Steerforth asks to hear all about his life on the grounds that Steerforth, "feels as if [David] were [his] property."
David's preoccupation with looking mature takes on added urgency when he meets Steerforth, whom David considers highly sophisticated and worldly. What Steerforth seems to appreciate about David, however, is precisely the fact that he's so innocent and malleable; as his remark about David being his "property" demonstrates, he enjoys being in control of the relationship.
Themes
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
After David explains more about his circumstances, Steerforth invites him to spend some time at his home in Highgate, assuring David that Mrs. Steerforth is sure to like anyone who likes her son. They spend the rest of the morning sightseeing in London, Steerforth enjoying David's naiveté and David enjoying Steerforth's knowledge. In fact, David is so impressed that he says Steerforth is certain to receive a "high degree" at Oxford, but Steerforth laughs this (and academia in general) off as a waste of time, embarrassing David in the process. Steerforth also decides to call David "Daisy" on account of his innocence. 
The exchange about Steerforth's studies highlights both boys’ immaturity. Since Steerforth comes from a wealthy, upper-class family, he doesn't truly need to pursue a career or even complete his education. From a moral point of view, however, the novel suggests that this lack of purpose has simply exacerbated Steerforth's worst tendencies—particularly his carelessness and impulsiveness. Steerforth's remark about his mother, meanwhile, provides a clue as to why Steerforth has turned out the way he has: apparently, he is used to getting his way at home.
Themes
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
Home and Family Theme Icon
David and Steerforth have lunch and travel to Steerforth's home, where they are greeted by Mrs. Steerforth—a woman with a "proud carriage and a handsome face." The house itself, meanwhile, has a stately air.
Ultimately, the novel implies that Steerforth's flaws stem from the home he was raised in: he was not only born into wealth, but also raised by a mother who coddled him, and herself had little capacity for self-criticism.
Themes
Home and Family Theme Icon
David, Steerforth, and Mrs. Steerforth enter the dining room, where they meet another woman: Rosa Dartle, who is Mrs. Steerforth's companion. She is roughly thirty and has "some appearance of good looks," but David finds her alarming to look at—not only because she has a scar running across her lips and chin, but also because she has an unusually intense manner. Furthermore, David notices that Rosa has a habit of insinuating unpleasant things by feigning ignorance, breaking off mid-sentence, and speaking sarcastically. For instance, when Mrs. Steerforth suggests that her son's tutor is conscientious and will prevent him from leading a "wild life" at Oxford, Rosa responds, "What a comfort! Really conscientious? Then he's not—but of course he can't be, if he's really conscientious."
Like Uriah Heep, Rosa Dartle tends to express herself in an indirect way. In Rosa's case, however, this is largely due to her thwarted romantic relationship with Steerforth, which has quite literally scarred her and left her bitter and twisted. Furthermore, as an unmarried woman, she has few options beyond remaining in her dependent position among the same people who have hurt her. Her backhanded way of speaking is both a way of needling the Steerforths and a reflection of how much anger and jealousy she is forced to suppress.
Themes
Womanhood and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Home and Family Theme Icon
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As dinner continues, David explains that he is going to visit Peggotty and Mr. Peggotty, and says that he would like Steerforth to come along. Steerforth likes the idea and remarks that he would enjoy "seeing that sort of people together, and […] making one of 'em." Rosa latches onto this remark, however, and presses Steerforth about whether the Peggottys are "really animals and clods, and beings of another order." Steerforth suggests that working-class people are virtuous but not as sensitive as the upper classes, and Rosa says that she is happy to hear that "when they suffer, they don't feel."
Steerforth's interest in visiting the Peggottys stems less from an appreciation of them as human beings and more from curiosity about people he views almost as another species. Steerforth doesn't believe that the people in the working class have feelings in the same sense that wealthier people do.  This idea is highly convenient for the middle and upper classes: if working-class people don't truly suffer, the terrible conditions they often live in seem more justifiable. For Rosa, Steerforth's remarks are another reminder of the self-absorption that has also wounded her, so she seizes on the opportunity to mock his words.
Themes
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
Later, Steerforth asks David what he thinks of Rosa and, when David hesitantly says that she is clever, retorts that Rosa is habitually sharp. David then mentions Rosa's scar, and Steerforth is forced to admit that he is responsible for it—not, as David assumes, because of an accident, but because he once threw a hammer at her when she annoyed him. He further explains that Rosa is an orphaned cousin of his who has lived with the Steerforth's for years, but scoffs when David suggests she must love Steerforth "like a brother," quickly changing the subject.
Although Steerforth does seem to regret his actions, the childhood tantrum that injured Rosa encapsulates their relationship to the present day: Steerforth remains prey to his impulses and emotions, often hurting those around him as a result. Meanwhile, Steerforth's scorn when David mentions Rosa's sisterly love is both a hint toward the true, romantic nature of her feelings and a reminder of the tensions that can exist within the supposedly happy realm of family life.
Themes
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
Home and Family Theme Icon
Later that day, the Steerforths and David have tea together, and David notices that Rosa's scar tends to flush or turn pale when she is upset. He also notices that Mrs. Steerforth speaks of little except Steerforth himself; in fact, she even shows David letters, pictures, and baby hair that she keeps as souvenirs of him.
The fact that Mrs. Steerforth's life revolves entirely around her son is one reason why he has grown up to be so spoiled and reckless. It's not simply that his mother has consistently indulged all his whims and wishes (though that certainly seems to be the case), but also that she seems unwilling to allow him to grow up: the relics of Steerforth's childhood suggest that she still thinks of him as a young boy.
Themes
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
Memory and Nostalgia Theme Icon
Home and Family Theme Icon
Mrs. Steerforth asks David about how he came to know Steerforth, and David speaks glowingly of Steerforth's kindness to him at school. Mrs. Steerforth approves of this, and goes on to say that she placed Steerforth in what was otherwise an unsuitable school because she wanted her son to study with a headmaster who would defer to his "superiority." Far from alarming David, this makes him think more highly of Mr. Creakle. Mrs. Steerforth then goes on to say that while she is not surprised David is so devoted to her son, she appreciates it nonetheless. What's more, she says, Steerforth himself has a genuine liking for David for will always help and protect David. Throughout this entire conversation, David is conscious of Rosa listening on while seeming to play backgammon.
In this passage, Mrs. Steerforth essentially admits that her goal in placing Steerforth in Salem House was to prevent him from having to acknowledge any kind of weakness or deficit in himself: out of respect for the family's wealth, Creakle would never dare punish or even stand up to Steerforth. In Mrs. Steerforth's mind, her actions are justified because she sees her son as perfect and superior to everyone else to begin with. The novel as a whole, however, is deeply concerned with personal growth, which education plays a crucial role in. Mrs. Steerforth ultimately deprived her son of many of the experiences that would help him grow and learn.
Themes
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
Later that evening, Steerforth says he might take David up on his offer to visit the Peggottys in a week or so. As they talk over these plans, Rosa asks why Steerforth calls David "Daisy," and David is forced to admit that it is, as Rosa suggests, because he is "young and innocent." Rosa and Mrs. Steerforth then go to bed, and David and Steerforth continue to reminisce in Steerforth's room, which David notices contains a portrait of his mother. When David returns to his room, meanwhile, he finds a portrait of Rosa there. This disturbs him, and he dreams that night that he is constantly asking people, "Is it really, though?" in Rosa's manner.
The fact that Steerforth's bedroom has a portrait of Mrs. Steerforth in it once again underscores how close the two are to one another—inappropriately close, the novel suggests, given that Steerforth is now an adult. Rosa, meanwhile, attempts to draw attention to the fact that Steerforth is in some ways taking advantage of David's own youth and inexperience, but David doesn't really grasp her point, at least beyond feeling vaguely uncomfortable.
Themes
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
Home and Family Theme Icon