David passes the time until his dinner party by thinking about Dora and eating very little, which he feels is appropriate to his "love-lorn condition." Having learned from his dinner party with Steerforth, David plans a much more modest meal this time. He manages to persuade Mrs. Crupp to cook for the party, but she manipulates him into agreeing to dine out for the following two weeks. He does, however, procure the ingredients for Mr. Micawber to make punch, which is a specialty of his.
David's reaction to falling in love with Dora is another indication of his youth and immaturity. Although his feelings are genuine, he makes a performance of them (for example, by not eating) in a way that's reminiscent of his efforts to look like an adult. In other respects, however, David is learning from past mistakes—in particular, the dinner he previously hosted.
Mr. Micawber, Mrs. Micawber, and Traddles all arrive together and praise David's rooms. Mrs. Micawber is especially delighted with a dressing-table David prepared for her, and Mr. Micawber remarks that the apartment reminds him of his days as a bachelor. This sparks a minor argument between Mr. and Mrs. Micawber that concludes with Mrs. Micawber saying, in tears, that she will never desert her husband. Mr. Micawber hints that Mrs. Micawber's moodiness is the result of their water having been shut off earlier in the day, and David attempts to cheer everyone up by asking Micawber to make punch.
Mr. Micawber's remark is obviously an offhand comment, so the fact that Mrs. Micawber responds to it the way she does is significant. Whether she truly believes the comment was a backhanded insult, or whether she's simply taking the opportunity to vent her own frustration, it's clear that Mrs. Micawber isn't entirely happy with her marriage. As a woman, however, she doesn't have many avenues for expressing her annoyance, so she instead accuses Mr. Micawber of feeling the regret that she herself presumably feels.
Mrs. Crupp's cooking is mostly a failure, but everyone is in such a good mood that David can't be too unhappy himself. Mr. Micawber reassures him that these kinds of domestic "accidents" happen, especially in households without a wife. He also proposes cooking the (undercooked) mutton on a gridiron David has for frying bacon.
Mr. Micawber's words sum up the domestic role of a Victorian woman: regardless of whether the wife herself was doing the chores herself or simply overseeing servants, she was expected to arrange things so smoothly that the actual running of the household would seem effortless.
Suddenly, David realizes that Littimer has entered the room and asks him what he wants. Littimer explains that Steerforth has sent him, and will likely be visiting David tomorrow. Littimer then takes over cooking and serving the mutton, making everyone there uncomfortable with his air of extreme respectability. As Littimer prepares to leave, David asks several times whether Steerforth is coming from Oxford without receiving a direct answer. Littimer is similarly vague when David asks whether he stayed long in Yarmouth overseeing the Little Em'ly's refurbishment, and then whether Steerforth has seen the boat yet. Littimer than leaves, much to everyone's relief—and particularly David's, because he feels guilty for harboring suspicions of Steerforth after his conversation with Agnes.
Littimer makes everyone nervous in part because they're unused to having servants to wait on them. In other words, although Littimer isn't upper-class himself, his presence is a reminder that David, Traddles, and the Micawbers aren't particularly well-to-do themselves. The scene is most important, however, for Littimer's evasiveness; in retrospect, it's clear that he doesn't answer David's questions directly because he's hiding Steerforth's affair with little Em'ly.
Mr. Micawber announces that the punch is ready and gives a speech. As everyone drinks, Mrs. Micawber asks for David's and Traddles's opinions on her husband's prospects, explaining that his hopes for work in both the corn and coal trades have fallen through. She further says that while she feels her husband would be suited to either banking or the brewing business, the fact that no one will hire Micawber for these jobs poses problems. Traddles and David agree with this, and with Mrs. Micawber's conclusion that "it is clear that [the Micawbers] must live." Finally, she says that the Micawbers cannot simply wait for an opportunity to arise, and that society clearly owes something to a man of Mr. Micawber's talents. She therefore suggests that Micawber should "throw down the gauntlet" by advertising his skills and qualifications in the papers.
Once again, the Micawbers' situation raises questions about how inclusive the promise of social mobility in the nineteenth century was. Mrs. Micawber's ideas about her husband's abilities may be exaggerated, but at the very least he has demonstrated a willingness to work. So far, however, his attempts to create opportunities for himself have all fallen through. This suggests that success isn't simply a matter of personal initiative, but rather something that hinges on broader societal circumstances. It's not unreasonable, then, for Mrs. Micawber to feel that society owes her husband and her family a livelihood.
David reminds the Micawbers that advertising is expensive, and Mrs. Micawber replies that she has considered this and thinks that Mr. Micawber should first borrow some money on credit. She then delivers a long speech reiterating her position and acknowledging that while financial matters typically require "masculine judgment," her father always regarded her judgment as sound. She then goes to lie down in David's bedroom, and David and Traddles congratulate Mr. Micawber on having such a "heroic" wife.
Borrowing money isn't necessarily the wisest thing for the Micawbers to do, given that they're in debt to begin with. It's unclear, however, what other options they have at this point, which again underscores the limitations of viewing success solely in terms of personal responsibility. Meanwhile, Mrs. Micawber's remark about "masculine judgment" is somewhat ironic, given her husband's inability to manage his money.
Mr. Micawber praises Mrs. Micawber's virtues before speaking at length about the joys of having children, despite the financial costs involved. He then moves on to praising Traddles and Traddles's fiancée before hinting that he suspects David is also in love. David is embarrassed, but eventually proposes a toast to "D," which everyone happily drinks to. The conversation then moves on to more "worldly" matters, and Mr. Micawber says he plans to move to a better neighborhood once something "turns up." However, he says that Traddles and David will always be welcome at his home. Mrs. Micawber finally resurfaces and makes tea, all the while pressing David more information about Dora. After tea is over, Mrs. Micawber performs a few ballads, and Mr. Micawber confides that it was partly his wife's singing that led him to fall in love with her.
As always, Mr. Micawber is hopeful that he is on the verge of financial success. His desire to move to a more prosperous area is a particular sign of his aspirations to respectable middle-class life, as is the praise he lavishes on marriage and childrearing; the idealization of the nuclear family coincided with the growth of the middle class and the spread of their influence. Unlike Traddles, however, Micawber didn't wait until he was capable of supporting a family to marry and have children, which throws his self-discipline and responsibility into question.
Sometime after ten at night, David's guests prepare to leave, Mr. Micawber slipping a letter to David as he does so. David, meanwhile, holds Traddles back and warns him not to lend Micawber anything. Traddles says that he doesn't have any money to lend, but tells David that he has already "lent" his name by acting as a guarantor for Mr. Micawber. He also says that Micawber assured him he had nothing to worry about, but David remains anxious.
Although Traddles ultimately does become a successful lawyer, his future seems very much in doubt in this passage. Interestingly, however, what seems to hold Traddles back isn't a lack of drive or ability, but rather a lack of shrewdness. Traddles is eager to believe the best of people and, as a result, doesn't look out for his own interests enough.
David is still sitting lost in thought when Steerforth arrives at his apartment. As soon as David sees his friend, he regrets ever having doubted him, although he still considers Agnes a "benignant, gentle angel." Meanwhile, Steerforth teases David about having another dinner party and asks about Micawber, whom he crossed paths with in the street. David explains the Micawbers and their situation and then excitedly tells Steerforth that his other guest was Traddles. Steerforth, however, doesn't remember Traddles at first, and then simply asks whether he is "as soft as ever." Slightly annoyed, David praises Traddles, but Steerforth seems uninterested, prodding at the fire with a poker.
Steerforth's lukewarm reaction to hearing news of Traddles is another mark against him, although David doesn't fully see it at the time. Steerforth seems bored by David's account of Traddles's hard work and patience—probably because these are qualities Steerforth himself never developed or cared about. Meanwhile, Dickens continues to position Steerforth and Agnes as opposing influences on David, with Agnes functioning as David's moral compass.
Steerforth mentions that he is hungry, having just arrived from Yarmouth, where he says he was "seafaring." This reminds David that Littimer had come looking for Steerforth, but Steerforth simply says Littimer is a "fool." David then asks how long Steerforth was in Yarmouth, and whether little Em'ly is married yet. Steerforth replies that he was there for a week and didn't see much of the Peggottys, but that Emily isn't married yet. He also gives David a letter from Peggotty, saying that Barkis is close to death. Steerforth is philosophical about Barkis's impending death, remarking that everyone dies and the important thing is to keep "riding on over all obstacles, and win the race" David notices, however, that there is something agitated and strained about Steerforth's expression.
Steerforth's cavalier attitude towards Barkis's illness likely stems partly from class prejudice; although he takes pleasure in talking to working-class people, he sees them less as fully human beings and more as objects for his own entertainment. Of course, Steerforth is also preoccupied with issues other than Barkis's illness—namely, his affair with little Em'ly. This is presumably what he's thinking of when he talks about "riding on over all obstacles"; he feels guilty about his intended actions, but also feels compelled to go through with them. Steerforth's words are therefore another indication of his difficulties with self-control and purposefulness; although he talks about acting independently and determinedly, his goals are warped and his emotions are controlling him.
David tells Steerforth he intends to go visit Peggotty to try to comfort her. Steerforth agrees that David might as well go but declines to accompany him, saying he needs to visit his mother. He then invites David to come stay at Mrs. Steerforth's before going to Yarmouth, joking that he wants David to "stand between" him and Rosa Dartle. David agrees to come the following day and then walks with Steerforth to the main road, thinking that Steerforth deserves a "worthy race to run."
David still idolizes Steerforth at this point in the novel, and consequently considers Steerforth's aimlessness to be a function of the world rather than a personal flaw. In effect, David thinks Steerforth refuses to commit to anything because he's above everything, when the reality is that Steerforth simply never learned to exercise self-control.
David returns to his room and prepares for bed, at which point he finds and reads Mr. Micawber's letter. It was written shortly before dinner, and explains that Mr. Micawber is "Crushed," his apartment and things having been repossessed. Unfortunately, Traddles' things have also been repossessed, which worries David, who fears his friend won't be able to bounce back from the setback as easily as Micawber always does. He continues to think of Traddles and his fiancée for the rest of the night.
By this point, it's clear that the Micawbers' constant ups and downs financially are, if not exactly the Victorian ideal, somewhat functional for them. Traddles, however, aspires to a more conventional and stable life, so the loss of what he has long been saving for his future marriage is a major blow.