David Copperfield

David Copperfield

David Copperfield Chapter 38 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
David immediately begins studying shorthand, although he finds it much more confusing than he had expected. The thought of Dora keeps him going, however, and after a few months he tries his hand at reporting on the House of Commons. This proves to be a disaster, so David begins to practice transcribing speeches that Traddles gives for his benefit. Together with Miss Betsey and Mr. Dick, they hold mock parliamentary sessions in David's apartment. David slowly begins to find it easier to keep pace with Traddles, but then finds that he has forgotten how to read what he has written and has to start learning shorthand again from scratch.
David decided to become a parliamentary reporter hastily, and it shows: even mastering the basic skills he needs is more difficult than he anticipated. There are therefore several false starts on his journey to establish himself in a career, but to David's credit, he perseveres.
Themes
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
Meanwhile, David is still working at Doctors' Commons, where he arrives one day to find Mr. Spenlow looking serious. Sternly, Mr. Spenlow asks David to come with him to a nearby coffeehouse, and David nervously complies. When they reach their destination, Miss Murdstone is waiting for them in a private room, and Mr. Spenlow asks her to show something she has in her handbag. Miss Murdstone produces several letters to Dora, which David embarrassedly admits are his. Miss Murdstone then begins to explain that, knowing the "depravity of the human heart," she has suspected David and Dora for some time, but didn't want to approach Mr. Spenlow without proof. She noticed, however, that Dora seemed to receive too many letters from Miss Mills, and eventually managed to get her hands on one that Jip had found and started chewing.
The fact that it's Miss Murdstone who brings Dora and David's relationship to light is significant, because it links the episode back to the role she played in David's childhood, when she helped sabotage David's relationship with his mother. This in turn underscores the similarities between Dora and Clara Copperfield, implying that some of David's affection for Dora may stem from unresolved issues in his past. Of course, from Mr. Spenlow's position, what makes the relationship suspect is David's relative poverty: at best, David is endangering Dora's welfare, and at worst, he is using her in an attempt to advance his career.
Themes
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
Womanhood and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Mr. Spenlow asks David what he has to say for himself, and David accepts total responsibility for concealing the relationship. This does not appease Mr. Spenlow, who says that David has acted dishonorably. David objects that he loves Dora, but this only angers Mr. Spenlow further: Spenlow rants that David is too young and poor to think of marrying Dora, and that he has "undermine[d] the confidence that should subsist" between father and daughter. David admits that he has considered most of this, but explains that he and Dora were already engaged when he learned of Miss Betsey's losses, and that since then he has been working hard to improve his situation. Mr. Spenlow dismisses all this as youthful "nonsense" and urges David to be "sensible" and renounce Dora. David, however, refuses to take back his letters and burn them.
By explaining when he learned about his changed circumstances relative to the engagement, David attempts to deflect any charges of ambition. What truly seems to bother Mr. Spenlow, however, is the idea that Dora has withheld something from him, and perhaps the fact that she wishes to marry at all; he's outraged, for instance, when David bluntly declares his love for Dora. This links Mr. Spenlow to other overprotective parents (like Mrs. Steerforth and Mr. Wickfield) who refuse to allow their children to grow up—that is, to transition from being someone's child to being someone's spouse.
Themes
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
Home and Family Theme Icon
During the awkward silence that follows, David tries to think of a way to leave. Before he can, however, Mr. Spenlow reminds David that he is a wealthy man, and David assures Mr. Spenlow that that is not why he wants to marry Dora. Spenlow, however, says that it would be better if David were "mercenary," and explains his real point: if David continues to pursue Dora, he will change the conditions of his will (presumably to disinherit Dora if she marries against his wishes). He then gives David a week to mull this over, advising him to "confer with Miss Trotwood, or with any person with any knowledge of life." David leaves, uncomfortably aware of Miss Murdstone watching him and strongly reminded of the lessons she used to preside over back at Blunderstone.
In this exchange, David explicitly brings up the idea that he might have "mercenary" reasons for courting Dora, thereby reinforcing the parallels between David and Uriah (who definitely does wish to marry his employer's daughter for mercenary reasons). Interestingly, Mr. Spenlow feels that it would be better if David simply were ambitious rather than what he is—namely, fanciful and naïve. Meanwhile, David's memories of Miss Murdstone at Blunderstone further highlight the similarities between Dora and Clara Copperfield.
Themes
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
Memory and Nostalgia Theme Icon
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David returns to work in despair and tormented by thoughts of Mr. Spenlow and Miss Murdstone terrorizing Dora. He therefore writes a letter to Mr. Spenlow begging him not to take his anger out on his daughter, and Spenlow reassures him the next day that he doesn't need to worry about that: Spenlow has simply tried to convince Dora that the relationship is foolish, although he may send her abroad if David persists. This does not comfort David much, and he writes a letter to Miss Mills asking to see her.
David's fears for Dora stem partly from his knowledge of her "gentle nature." Knowing how easily frightened Dora is, David feels a responsibility to shelter and protect her as though she were a child.
Themes
Womanhood and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Miss Mills agrees to see David and makes a show of sneaking him into the back kitchen of her father's house, where she tells him that she has heard from Dora but has not been able to see her. David, meanwhile, "raves" in a way that he feels is appropriate, all the while suspecting that Miss Mills feels a "dreadful luxury in [his] afflictions." She advises him that only love can help him and Dora now, which doesn't bring him much solace. Despite the fact that everything Miss Mills sys only makes him more miserable, however, David feels that she is a good friend. Eventually, they decide Miss Mills will visit Dora the next morning to convince her of David's continued devotion. When David gets home, he explains everything to Miss Betsey, but remains depressed.
David's comical meeting with Miss Mills is a reminder just how naïve and foolish his love affair with Dora is in many respects. Both David and Miss Mills act more from a sense of what, in David's words, "becomes" a case of star-crossed love than from what's actually appropriate or necessary to their particular situation. As is often the case, however, there is a wistful fondness to David's recollections; he will eventually remark, for instance, that he preferred this over-the-top romanticism to the more worldly and greedy persona Miss Mills adopts later in life.
Themes
Coming of Age and Personal Development Theme Icon
Memory and Nostalgia Theme Icon
The next day, David arrives at Doctors' Commons only to find it locked up and the other clerks standing around outside. One of these clerks informs David that Mr. Spenlow has died, and David is so shocked he nearly faints. When he recovers, the clerk explains that Mr. Spenlow had dined out the previous night, and his carriage arrived home without him inside. His servants searched along the road and eventually found him lying dead along the roadside: he apparently suffered some kind of fit and either fell out of the carriage or got out because he felt ill, only to die. David finds the news surreal, but can't help but also worry that Mr. Spenlow's death will distract Dora from David himself.
Mr. Spenlow's death comes at a very fortuitous moment for David, since he had no time to alter the terms of his will (though it turns out he had little to leave Dora anyway). In any case, his death removes the main obstacle to David's marriage with Dora and, in doing so, reveals the extent to which David and Mr. Spenlow have been in competition for Dora's affections; David, for instance, is concerned that Dora will forget him in her grief for her father. That of course doesn't happen, and David soon steps in as Dora's protector in Mr. Spenlow's place.
Themes
Home and Family Theme Icon
That evening, David learns from a servant that Miss Mills is currently with Dora and writes to her, asking her to communicate his condolences to Dora. The next day, Miss Mills writes back that Dora was too overwhelmed by grief to send her love back to David—all she could say was "Oh, dear papa! oh, poor papa!"
The fact that Dora calls out for her father when David's name is mentioned is significant. Although Dora is probably not aware of any link between the two, the association underscores Dora's childishness, and the extent to which David acts as a parental figure to her.
Themes
Home and Family Theme Icon
A few days later at work, Mr. Jorkins tells David that he would like his help going through Mr. Spenlow's desk. David is anxious to know what will become of Dora, so he agrees, and they work through Spenlow's papers methodically until Jorkins finally concludes that Spenlow did not leave a will. David says that Mr. Spenlow himself told him that his affairs were entirely settled, but this only confirms Jorkins' opinion that no will exists, since (he claims) people always lie about this topic. Mr. Jorkins turns out to be correct, much to David's amazement. Furthermore, it emerges that Spenlow's accounts were disorganized, and that he was greatly in debt. In the weeks that follow, much of the household furniture is sold off, but most of the money from the sale goes to settling Spenlow's debts.
From a narrative point of view, Mr. Spenlow's relative poverty, like his death itself, is very convenient. If Dora did in fact stand to inherit a large amount of money, David's decision to marry her might seem suspect to readers, no matter how selfless he is elsewhere in the novel. As it is, however, David remains clear of any charges of ambition, and free to further establish himself on his own merits.
Themes
Ambition, Social Mobility, and Morality Theme Icon
Meanwhile, David relies on Miss Mills for news of Dora, but Dora can only bring herself to call out for Mr. Spenlow whenever David is mentioned. He does learn, however, that Dora will be going to live with two aunts in Putney after the funeral. Once the move has taken place, David hangs around Putney whenever possible, waiting for updates from Miss Mills. These updates mostly take the form of a journal full of melodramatic reports on Dora's emotional state. Nevertheless, David finds some comfort in reading and rereading these entries, despite the fact that doing so also makes him "more and more miserable."
Although Dora herself obviously doesn't mean it this way, the fact that she mentions her father whenever Miss Mills brings David up further emphasizes the connection between David and Mr. Spenlow. In other words, in much the same way Agnes functions as a kind of mother-figure for her father, David may function as a kind of father-figure for Dora.
Themes
Home and Family Theme Icon