Despite feeling intense guilt over the part he has played in the "pollution of an honest home," David cannot bring himself to condemn Steerforth. In fact, he loves him more than ever and cannot stop thinking of all his good qualities. He realizes, however, that their friendship is over once and for all. From this point on, David writes, his memories of Steerforth "were as the remembrances of a cherished friend, who was dead."
David's description of the Peggotty's home as "polluted" again links sexual misconduct to disease, perhaps in part as a way of foreshadowing the fate that likely awaits Emily (poverty and prostitution). In any case, given the strength of the language, it's striking that David blames himself more than he does Steerforth. This possibly reflects David's belief that Steerforth, by virtue of his personality, isn't truly responsible for his own actions, but it seems likely that David is also simply unwilling to think badly of someone he has so much affection for. As a result, he takes refuge in his memories of Steerforth to avoid having to face the truth.
By the next morning, most of Yarmouth has heard what has happened, and while many are critical of the couple—and particularly of little Em'ly—everyone is sympathetic to Mr. Peggotty and Ham.
There's clearly a sexual double standard in the townspeople’s' attitudes towards Steerforth and Emily: it's acceptable and even expected for a man to engage in premarital sex, but harshly condemned when a woman does the same.
David meets Mr. Peggotty and Ham on the beach. Both look very determined, and David worries that if Ham ever came across Steerforth, he would kill him. Mr. Peggotty, however, simply says that he and his nephew have been talking, and he has decided he has an obligation to look for Emily. David offers to go with Mr. Peggotty to London the next day, and Mr. Peggotty agrees. Ham, meanwhile, will continue to work as a boat-builder, and Mrs. Gummidge will stay in the house and keep a candle lit in case Emily returns. As the conversation winds down, Ham goes and looks out over the sea, reflecting that "the beginning of it all did take place here—and then the end come."
Mr. Peggotty's plan to keep a candle burning is a way of communicating to Emily that she still has a home to return to. This is a significant gesture, because Emily's actions have in theory barred her forever from respectable domestic life. Ham's remarks about the sea, meanwhile, resonate on several levels. Literally speaking, Ham seems to be talking about the fact that he and Emily met as a result of their fathers' deaths at sea; the fact that he says the "end" will also take place there foreshadows his own eventual death. Metaphorically, it's also a reminder of the limitations on personal agency; Ham's words imply that some sort of fate is controlling his life regardless of his own actions.
Mr. Peggotty, Ham, and David return to the house, where Mrs. Gummidge has made breakfast and urges Mr. Peggotty to eat. She then begins mending some clothes for Mr. Peggotty, saying she will remain in the house while he is away and write to him to let him know what is going on. David, meanwhile, is amazed at how patient and helpful Mrs. Gummidge is being. She seems to have completely forgotten her own troubles and takes pains to be cheerful around Mr. Peggotty.
Mrs. Gummidge proves to be aware of what the Peggottys have done for her and is eager to return the favor. Significantly, she does this by taking on conventionally female tasks like cooking and sewing; by keeping the household running, Mrs. Gummidge frees Mr. Peggotty up to look for his niece.
That evening, David visits Mr. Omer, who is very distressed by Emily's flight. Minnie, by contrast, at first seems to strongly condemn Emily's actions, but then breaks down in tears wondering what will become of Emily. She explains that she doesn't know what to tell her child, who was friendly with Emily and wears a ribbon that Emily gave her. Minnie worries that she ought to take the ribbon away, but can't bring herself to do it.
Given that Minnie eventually expresses concern for little Em'ly, it's interesting that she's initially so much more critical of Emily's actions than Mr. Omer is. In fact, the strongest condemnations of Emily in the novel come from other women, which perhaps speaks to their need to protect their own reputations. As Minnie's anxiety about the ribbon demonstrates, simply being associated with a disreputable woman was enough to cast doubt on another woman's character.
David returns to Peggotty's house and thinks about everything that has happened since Barkis's death. Suddenly, he hears a knock at the door and opens it to find Miss Mowcher. Her demeanor is entirely changed from the last time David saw her, and he welcomes her in, asking her why she is so upset. She begins to berate herself, saying she could have "prevented it," but is then distracted by David remarking that he is "surprised" to see her "distressed and serious." Miss Mowcher replies bitterly that everyone treats her as a "plaything" without thoughts and feelings. She goes on to explain that she comes from a family of dwarfs, and that the only way she has found to support herself and them is to go along with people making a "jest" of her.
Miss Mowcher's predicament is another reminder of the limits of social mobility in the novel. In this case, Miss Mowcher is so constrained by the expectations of other people that her physical appearance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: people see her as comical, so she is forced to behave comically in order to make her way in the world.
Miss Mowcher changes the subject, explaining that she got Peggotty's address from Omer and Joram, and has been trying to find David all day. She asks whether David remembers Steerforth mentioning little Em'ly during their earlier meeting, and when David says he does, explains that she thought David was in love with Emily—something Littimer confirmed when she left the room. Although she was worried about what would happen to David under Steerforth's influence, she nevertheless agreed to deliver a letter to little Em'ly—ostensibly from David, but actually from Steerforth. She eventually began to suspect that Littimer and Steerforth had tricked her when she heard that they had been hanging around Yarmouth, but she was not able to reach Yarmouth in time to stop the elopement.
Miss Mowcher's initial belief that David was in love with Emily hint that his childhood feelings for her are not entirely resolved. This makes the guilt David feels over his role in the affair even more plausible, since David may be aware on some level that Steerforth has simply done what he himself would like to—namely, sleep with Emily.
Miss Mowcher says she has to go and asks David whether he trusts her. David hesitates until Miss Mowcher pointedly asks whether he would doubt her if she weren't a dwarf. This convinces David to trust her, and she promises to use her position to try to find out news of little Em'ly and (if possible) to bring Littimer to justice. Finally, she asks David to think kindly of her if he again sees her acting comically, and to remember why she does so.
In a strange way, the crisis surrounding Emily's elopement actually gives Miss Mowcher a sense of purpose. Up to this point, she has simply worked to get by, and has resented the need to conform to her customers' expectations. Now, however, she can usefully leverage her position to help the search; since people don't take Miss Mowcher seriously to begin with, they're more likely to speak freely in front of her.
The next morning, David, Peggotty, Mr. Peggotty, Ham, and Mrs. Gummidge all meet at the coach office. Ham pulls David aside and asks him to look after Mr. Peggotty. He also offers to send the money he earns to Mr. Peggotty, saying he has no need of it himself now. David hints that Ham might one day want to marry, but since Ham refuses to entertain this idea, David simply reminds him that Mr. Peggotty now has an inheritance from Mr. Barkis. David, Mr. Peggotty, and Peggotty then leave for London.
Part of what makes Ham a "good" member of the working class is his total selflessness. To the extent that Ham hoped to move up in life, he wanted to do so for Emily's sake. Now, he has no interest in the money he earns, and seems to view hard work as a distraction from his unhappiness. All of this contrasts starkly with a character like Uriah, whose actions are motivated by selfish ambition.
Since Peggotty will be staying in London for some time to deal with Barkis's affairs, David and Mr. Peggotty help her find a room to rent. They then have tea at David's apartment, and David writes a note to Mrs. Steerforth explaining what has happened and asking to see her the next day. The following afternoon, David and Mr. Peggotty go to Highgate, where David is momentarily overcome by his happy memories of visiting the Steerforths.
Although David Copperfield is generally an optimistic story, it's also a coming-of-age story and therefore, to some extent, a story about David losing his childhood innocence. This is especially clear as David arrives at the Steerforths' home and finds himself overwhelmed by sadness as he thinks back to how trusting and naïve he was in his friendship with Steerforth.
Mrs. Steerforth looks pale and unhappy but also very proud. She asks Mr. Peggotty why he has come, and he shows her little Em'ly's letter, asking whether Steerforth will follow through on his promise to "make Emily a lady" (that is, to marry her). Mrs. Steerforth says that this is impossible because of the class difference between them—even if Emily were not "uneducated and ignorant," her relationship to Mr. Peggotty would be a source of embarrassment.
At this point, marriage would be the only way of salvaging Emily's reputation. For Steerforth, however, marriage to a working-class woman would be far more scandalous than an affair, even if his mother wasn't so intractably opposed to the relationship.
Appealing to Mrs. Steerforth's love for her son, Mr. Peggotty passionately defends the selflessness of his love for little Em’ly. If Steerforth marries her, Mr. Peggotty says, the rest of her family will agree to stay out of the way until "the time when all of us shall be alike in quality afore our God." Mrs. Steerforth, however, repeats that no marriage will take place and offers "compensation" instead, which Mr. Peggotty angrily rejects. This in turn causes Mrs. Steerforth to lose her temper: she also cannot be compensated, she says, because her feelings for her son are much deeper than Mr. Peggotty's for Emily.
The confrontation between Mr. Peggotty and Mrs. Steerforth encapsulates the novel's complex attitudes towards class. On the one hand, Mr. Peggotty denies that there is any fundamental difference between the classes by saying that everyone will be equal in heaven. The fact that he accepts his station in this life, however, is part of what makes him a "good" working-class character. Meanwhile, Mrs. Steerforth implies that the classes are inherently different from one another by arguing that her own misery far outweighs the Peggottys'. Although this is clearly a prejudiced view, there is an element of truth to what she says about Emily's loss also representing a financial loss to the Peggottys, since they've also lost her labor. The offer to pay the Peggottys, however, is obviously insulting, not only because it denies the Peggottys' feelings but also because it effectively treats Emily as a prostitute.
Despite Rosa Dartle's repeated attempts to quiet her, Mrs. Steerforth launches into a long rant about how cruel it was of Steerforth to desert her after all the years she spent indulging him and making him the center of her life. Unless Steerforth casts little Em'ly aside, she says, she will never allow him to return. This speech strongly reminds David of Steerforth's own pride, and he foresees that reconciliation between Steerforth and his mother will be impossible
Although Mrs. Steerforth clearly disapproves of Emily on class-based grounds, the bulk of her anger seems to stem simply from the fact that Steerforth has taken up with another woman at all. This is another indication of how codependent her relationship to her son was: in fact, she claims in this exchange that she has "had no separate existence" from her son since his birth. It seems likely that Mrs. Steerforth would object to any romantic relationship her son became involved in on the grounds that it would take him away from her. This in turn helps explain Steerforth's immaturity, because his mother consistently refuses to treat him as an adult.
Mrs. Steerforth says she has nothing more to say, and Mr. Peggotty agrees to leave, explaining that he never really had any hope in talking to her to begin with. As he and David leave, however, Rosa intercepts them and bitterly "congratulates" David for bringing Mr. Peggotty to the house and causing a division between Steerforth and his mother. David objects, but Rosa angrily continues, saying that while she knows Steerforth is "false" and "corrupt," she has no sympathy for either Mr. Peggotty or his niece: in fact, she says, she would like to see Emily whipped. Mr. Peggotty leaves at this point, but Rosa continues over David's protests, saying she would like to ruin the entire family and drive Emily to her death.
Rosa's outburst is surprising, particularly given that she has earlier mocked Steerforth for his own classism. Rosa is in love with Steerforth, however, and despite her awareness of his faults, it's probably psychologically easier for her to see Emily as responsible for the affair. In any case, she echoes Mrs. Steerforth's suggestion that the working-class Peggottys do not constitute a family in the way the upper-class Steerforths do.
David rejoins Mr. Peggotty, who says he will leave to look for little Em'ly that very night but will not say where he is going. They have dinner with Peggotty, who also does not know her brother's plans. She does, however, persuade him to take some of her money, and Mr. Peggotty promises to write to David regularly. He then leaves, and David continues to think about his love and devotion to little Em'ly for the rest of the night.
David is deeply moved by Mr. Peggotty's devotion to Emily. Since Emily's actions have disgraced the entire family, Mr. Peggotty's immediate forgiveness of his niece and determination to find her are a testament both to his own selflessness and to the depth of the bond between them.