To distract him from his misery, Miss Betsey arranges for David to see how things are going with her cottage in Dover. David wants to see Agnes anyway, so he arranges to take a few days off from Doctor Strong and from his office in Doctors' Commons, where business has suffered in the wake of Mr. Spenlow's death. In fact, David is less certain than ever about his future as a proctor, both because of Mr. Jorkins's poor management and because of the questionable business tactics they and other firms have been engaging in—for instance, effectively kidnapping people to make them their clients.
David's doubts about becoming a proctor are actually a measure of his growth. Whereas before he had no clear sense of what to do with his life, he now knows at least that this isn't his vocation, if only for moral reasons.
When David arrives in Dover, he is pleased for his aunt's sake to find that the tenant now occupying Miss Betsey's cottage is diligent about keeping donkeys off the yard. David then goes on to Canterbury, where he walks around marveling at how little the town seems to have changed. He also finds that the town itself reminds him of Agnes's calming presence.
David often returns to places he has visited before only to remark how different they seem, underscoring how much he himself has changed in the interim. Canterbury, however, continues to exist almost exactly as it is in David's memories, serving as an idyllic place he can retreat to in times of trouble. This in turn is related to its association with Agnes, who imparts a soothing and homelike atmosphere to everything around her.
When David reaches Mr. Wickfield's house, he finds Mr. Micawber at work downstairs. Micawber is pleased to see him, although he hints that he is not entirely happy with his job, explaining to David that legal writing does not allow "the mind […] to soar to any exalted form of expression." When David asks Mr. Micawber's opinion of Uriah himself, however, he is surprised to hear Micawber praise Uriah for having advanced him money. David then asks whether Mr. Micawber sees Mr. Wickfield often, to which Micawber replies that Wickfield is "obsolete." David retorts that Uriah is trying to make Wickfield obsolete, and Micawber uneasily says that he can't discuss business with David.
Up until this point, Mr. Micawber's basic decency has never really been in question. Although he occasionally drags others (notably, Traddles) into his reckless financial schemes, he seems largely honest and kind. In this scene, however, it begins to look as though Micawber's relative success as Uriah's clerk is corrupting him; at the very least, his remark that Mr. Wickfield is "obsolete" seems callous. Although it eventually becomes clear that the job hasn't corrupted Mr. Micawber per se, the fact that even modest financial success places him in a morally questionable position speaks to the novel's ambivalence toward upward mobility.
Mr. Micawber changes the subject, praising Agnes's "attractions, graces, and virtues" and saying that he would think David was in love with her if he didn't already know about Dora. David has a strong sense of déjà vu when Micawber says this. However, he simply wishes Micawber's family well and then leaves the room, feeling that there is a new barrier between him and Mr. Micawber.
David's sense of déjà vu is significant, given how interested the novel is in memory. Presumably, the feeling stems from the fact that David has unconsciously realized that he is in love with Agnes. Regardless, it suggests that memory—even "false" memory—can function as a guiding light, revealing what is truly important.
David finds Agnes writing at her desk and they greet one another, with David saying he never knows what to do without her advice and support. This leads him to suspect that he is missing some quality he needs, although he says he thinks he is "earnest," "persevering," and "patient." Agnes agrees with all of this, but David explains that he feels he is "unsteady and irresolute in [his] power of assuring [him]self." He then goes further, saying that he always seems to be a different person, with different goals, when Agnes is not around. In fact, he says that when he is not with his "adopted sister" he seems to go astray, only finding real contentment when he returns "home." Moved by all of this, David starts to cry, and Agnes comforts him.
Given David's eventual realization that he's in love with Agnes, it's strange how many times he refers to her as a "sister" throughout the novel. It does, however, fit into a broader trend of blurred boundaries between romantic and familial relationships (for instance, Steerforth's relationship with his mother). It also inverts David's dynamic with Dora; whereas David perhaps mistakes longing for his mother for genuine love for Dora, David mistakes his romantic love for Agnes as fraternal affection. This passage also deals heavily with David's incomplete transition to adulthood, and the role Agnes has to play in that; only Agnes, Dickens suggests, can draw out David's latent qualities of perseverance and self-assurance.
David tells Agnes everything that has happened since they last saw one another, saying he "relies" on her. Agnes, however, gently scolds him for this and reminds him that he ought to be relying on Dora now. This forces David to explain that Dora is "easily disturbed and frightened," and he recounts the story of trying to persuade her to learn housekeeping. Agnes suggests that David broached the matter too suddenly, and David feels grateful to Agnes for sympathizing with Dora; in fact, he takes great pleasure in imagining the two as friends.
Once again, Agnes selflessly sets her own feelings for David aside in order to encourage him to depend on Dora, his future wife, for guidance and support. Meanwhile, David's overwhelming desire for Agnes and Dora to be friends mirrors the narrative itself, which assures readers that Dora actually wants David to marry Agnes after her own death. Both this plot point and David's wishes in this scene seem like ways of mitigating or assuaging David's guilt in loving Agnes even while married to Dora.
Finally, David asks Agnes what he should do, and she says that the most "honorable" thing would be to write to Dora's aunts and ask for permission to visit without pressing his suit too strongly. David worries that the aunts might frighten Dora by discussing the issue with her, and then worries that the aunts will not be receptive to his request. Agnes, however, gently tells him that his only consideration ought to be whether this is the morally correct course of action, and David immediately realizes that she is right.
As she often does, Agnes provides David with moral guidance in this scene. She does this gently, however, and in a way that doesn't compromise David's independence; David's instant realization that Agnes is right suggests that she is simply drawing out qualities that he already possesses.
Before writing to Dora's aunts, David decides to go visit Mr. Wickfield and Uriah Heep downstairs. Uriah greets David in a "fawning" manner before taking him to Mr. Wickfield's office, which has been stripped of much of what used to be in it to furnish Uriah's new office. Mr. Wickfield asks whether David will stay with them, and Uriah says he will be glad to give David his room (which was formerly David's). David, however, takes Mr. Wickfield up on his offer of a second spare room and goes back upstairs to see Agnes.
Despite his new position of authority, Uriah continues to speak and act deferentially around his supposed social betters. It is clearer than ever, however, that this is actually a power play; Uriah's attempt to give up his room to David, though theoretically a show of respect, is actually a way for him to assert his authority over David and Mr. Wickfield.
Much to David's frustration, Mrs. Heep is now in Agnes's room knitting. In an effort to be polite, he asks how she is, and she says she is "only pretty well" before hinting that she sees a change in Uriah. David denies this, but Mrs. Heep insists that she has noticed a new "thinness" in her son, and then asks Agnes for her opinion. Agnes responds that Mrs. Heep worries too much, and that Uriah is as well as ever. This quiets Mrs. Heep, but she remains in the room until dinner, her presence feeling like an "evil eye" to David. Agnes's "angelic expression" encourages him, however, and he composes his letter.
Just as Agnes imparts a gentle and uplifting atmosphere to her surroundings, Mrs. Heep creates an oppressive and, in David's words, "evil" feeling in the Wickfield home. Mrs. Heep's presence, in other words, is the flipside of the Victorian idea of the "angel in the house"; although Mrs. Heep's behavior conforms to gender norms—she is a devoted mother, for example, and is seen knitting in this exchange—she makes the house feel less like a home.
After dinner, David finds himself alone with Mr. Wickfield and Uriah, who "leers" and "writhes" constantly. They then rejoin Agnes and Mrs. Heep in the drawing room, and Mrs. Heep insists that Agnes play a favorite song of Uriah's. The Heeps' presence is so unnerving to David that he barely sleeps that night, only for the entire process to repeat itself the next day. In fact, David is unable to speak to Agnes alone at all, and finally decides to take a walk to clear his head.
As the day goes on, Uriah and his mother continue to make David (not to mention Agnes and Mr. Wickfield) feel uncomfortable in the Wickfield home. Mrs. Heep's insistence that Agnes play a particular song for Uriah is especially striking given that Uriah himself pays no attention once she's actually playing it; clearly, the intention is simply to remind Agnes that she's no longer the mistress of the house.
As David walks, he debates telling Agnes what he knows about Uriah's designs on her. Before he has gone far, however, he is approached by Uriah himself, who says he will join him if David allows it. David hints that he wants to be alone after "so much company," and Uriah—guessing that he means Mrs. Heep—says that his and his mother's "umbleness" obliges them to make sure they're "not pushed to the wall by them as isn't umble." Uriah then says that David is a "dangerous rival," and David asks whether that's why he and his mother are constantly dogging Agnes's steps and making her uncomfortable in her own home. Uriah asks him to make his meaning clearer, so—angrily and reluctantly—David explains that he considers Agnes a "very dear sister" and that he is engaged to someone else.
Although Uriah continues to profess humility, he feels secure enough in his position by this point in the novel to admit that he refuses to be "pushed to the wall"—something he would presumably accept if he were truly "[h]umble." He also seems to have sensed that David is in love with Agnes before David himself realizes it. This gives Uriah an advantage over David, since David repeatedly loses his temper when Uriah talks about Agnes without quite being able to explain why it upsets him so much.
Uriah (who has already interrupted David many times to praise Agnes) grabs David's hand and kisses it, says that David ought to have "returned his confidence" on the night he himself confessed his love for Agnes. Uriah then forces David to link arms and walk with him. David says that Agnes is "far above" Uriah, and Uriah agrees that this is the case. However, he also presses David to admit that he considers Uriah beneath him. David retorts that what he objects to are Uriah's "professions" of humbleness, but Uriah says that David simply doesn't understand his position: both he and his parents were brought up in charitable institutions where they were constantly told to be humble. Furthermore, his father secured his job as a sexton by being respectful and subservient, and advised his son to do the same.
Uriah continues to have David at a disadvantage as their conversation continues. For one, the gender dynamics of the time allow Uriah to sidestep David's real meaning when he says that Agnes is "far above" Uriah: since women were commonly held to be spiritually and morally superior to men, Uriah can easily admit that this is true without acknowledging the class-based meaning David has in mind. He also forces David to admit that he himself considers Uriah "too umble" before essentially explaining to David the entire way in which he uses humbleness as a means of securing power. Since even Uriah's account of his family history is couched in professions of humility (he talks, for instance, about the "rightful umbleness of a person in [his] station"), there's little that David can outwardly object to in it.
As Uriah talks, David begins to understand that he wants revenge for his "long suppression'' of himself in deference to people of higher social standing. Neither David nor Uriah speaks much as they return to the Wickfields', but Uriah appears to be in a good mood and is very talkative through and after dinner. He drops hints about wanting to marry Agnes and presses Mr. Wickfield to make several toasts (and, consequently, to drink heavily). David, meanwhile, is revolted by Uriah's actions, as well as by Mr. Wickfield's consciousness of his own degradation.
Despite his obvious villainy, Uriah isn't a completely unsympathetic character; even David realizes that Uriah's personality is largely a byproduct of the classism he experienced growing up. In a sense, Uriah is just as enmeshed in his own past as a character like Mr. Wickfield, and unable to turn his early unhappy experiences to good as David does.
Uriah proposes a toast to Agnes, describing her as the "divinest of her sex," and finally saying he has more of a right to marry her than anyone. Mr. Wickfield grows more and more upset as Uriah speaks, and David finally has to physically restrain him from harming Uriah or himself. David pleads with Wickfield to think of Agnes, and Wickfield calms down enough to speak, accusing Uriah of robbing him of his "name and reputation, peace and quiet, house and home." Uriah is taken aback and admits he might have spoken too soon, but also insists that he has saved Mr. Wickfield. When this does not quiet Wickfield, Uriah warns him that he'll say something he regrets and that the two of them "know what [they] know."
For Uriah, Agnes partly a status symbol; his claim that he has just as much right to marry her as anyone else is an assertion of his newfound status, which allows him to aspire to marriage with a middle-class woman. Marriage to Agnes would also be the final step in his plan to usurp Mr. Wickfield's position, since he would not only replace Wickfield as Agnes's male guardian, but also (on Wickfield's death) inherit everything he owns.
Mr. Wickfield breaks down and laments how far he has fallen since first meeting David. He does not mention his drinking specifically, but says that "indulgence in remembrance, and indulgence in forgetfulness" have caused his decline. He then suggests that he allowed his grief for his deceased wife and his concern for Agnes grow out of hand until they became a "disease" that has ruined Agnes's life as well.
Mr. Wickfield's words in this passage are one of the novel's most explicit warnings about the dangers of memory. Most obviously, brooding over his wife's death has contributed to his alcoholism—or what Wickfield describes as his, "indulgence in forgetfulness." He also implies, however, that memories of his wife have tainted his relationship with his daughter. Since Agnes greatly resembles the late Mrs. Wickfield, it seems likely that Mr. Wickfield views her as a substitute for his wife, forcing Agnes to remain close to him long into adulthood.
Mr. Wickfield begins crying and says that he can't even remember everything he has done under the influence of alcohol. He says that Uriah knows, however, and Uriah again scolds Wickfield for speaking so freely. At that moment, Agnes enters the room and escorts her father out, saying he is unwell. Now alone with David, Uriah says he didn't expect Mr. Wickfield to react so badly, but that they will be "friends" again by the next day. David ignores this and goes upstairs to read.
Although lingering on the past can be dangerous in David Copperfield, forgetting it entirely is problematic as well. Mr. Wickfield's alcohol-induced amnesia obviously poses practical problems in his work, but it also undercuts his ability to live up to the broader social norms surrounding an adult man's behavior: because he has no clear sense of what he's doing or why, Mr. Wickfield isn't truly acting in an independent and purposeful way.
At midnight, Agnes stops by and says that she and David should say goodbye now, since he will be leaving the next day. David notices that Agnes has been crying, and asks whether there is anything he can do, since she so often helps him. Agnes declines, but David presses her to at least promise she will not "sacrifice" herself. Agnes draws back from David, but finally says that he does not need to worry on her account. The image of her saying this stays with David for years afterward.
David evidently fears that Agnes will marry Uriah simply in the hopes of securing a better life for her father. Given Agnes's selflessness, and her ambiguous response in this passage, this isn't an unreasonable concern.
The next morning, David gets up early and prepares to leave. As he is getting in the coach, however, Uriah appears and informs him that he and Mr. Wickfield have already made up. David retorts that he is at least glad that Uriah apologized, and Uriah says that it is easy to apologize when one is humble. He then says that he "plucked a pear before it was ripe" the preceding evening, but that he is confident that it will "ripen yet." As Uriah leaves, he is smacking his lips as if he were actually eating something.
Although Uriah doesn't mention Agnes by name, it's clear that he's referring to her when he talks about plucking a pear. Combined with his lip-smacking, his remarks are uncomfortably sexual in tone, and further underscore Uriah's villainy by casting him as a predator intent on defiling a respectable, angelic young woman.