As David sits in his room, thinking sadly about the cold welcome he has received, Clara and Peggotty enter. David is unable to explain what's wrong to his mother, and Clara accuses Peggotty of turning David against her. She grows more and more upset until Mr. Murdstone enters and reminds her to be "firm." He then sends Clara and Peggotty downstairs—though not before scolding the latter for mistakenly referring to Clara as "Mrs. Copperfield." Now alone with David, Mr. Murdstone threatens his stepson, saying that he deals with "obstinate horses and dogs" by beating them. He then orders David to wash his face and follow him downstairs.
Mr. Murdstone's emphasis on "firmness"—extreme self-discipline and decisiveness—is in many ways the dark side of the self-control and purposefulness David learns to practice as an adult. For Murdstone, "firmness" is simply a tool to bully and control those around him, often by denouncing any display of emotion as weakness. It's also clearly a tool used to shore up Murdstone's authority as a male head of household, since he uses it specifically to keep women and children in line.
David comes downstairs to hear Mr. Murdstone consoling Clara. Reflecting on this in the present, David says he might have grown into an entirely different person, and even been grateful to Mr. Murdstone, if his stepfather had simply reassured him that he was still loved and appreciated in his own home.
As a coming-of-age story, David Copperfield explores how its protagonist's experiences shape the person he becomes. In particular, the novel repeatedly suggests that family life is critical in determining one’s character, so it it’s unsurprising that David feels this one missed opportunity could have set his life on an entirely different course.
After dinner, Mr. Murdstone's sister, Miss Murdstone, arrives. She is a stern-looking, unattractive, and "metallic" woman, who, upon meeting David, remarks that he lacks manners. By the following morning, it is clear that she intends to stay in the house permanently; at breakfast, she announces that Clara is "much too pretty and thoughtless" to occupy herself with housework, and takes charge of the household keys.
Miss Murdstone's relatively "masculine" appearance and behavior are one way of hinting at her villainy; because nineteenth-century gender roles were so strict, any deviation from the norm might seem suspicious to a contemporary reader. Since Miss Murdstone also greatly resembles her brother, her own masculinity also reinforces the idea that Clara and David are now at the mercy of an especially cruel form of male authority. It's also significant that the Murdstones use Clara's "femininity" (her "prettiness" and "thoughtlessness") to further disempower her in her own home.
Miss Murdstone has been acting as housekeeper for some time when Clara finally objects. She says that she knows she lacks the Murdstones' "firmness"—a quality David describes as "another name for tyranny"—but says that it is nevertheless "hard" not to have a voice in household affairs. Her protests are derailed, however, first by Mr. Murdstone objecting to her description of the house as "hers," and then by Miss Murdstone threatening to leave. Mr. Murdstone scolds his wife for not appreciating his attempts to "form her character," and Clara apologizes and drops the issue. From that point on, however, Miss Murdstone threatens to leave whenever she needs to bend Clara to her will.
Even by the standards of the time, Mr. Murdstone's treatment of Clara is heavy-handed and cruel. It does, however, reveal how vulnerable the position of a married woman was in nineteenth-century England. Clara theoretically ought to have a say in the running of the household; in fact, the domestic realm was supposed to be a woman's area of expertise. Since husbands gained control of their wives' property on marriage, however, Mr. Murdstone is technically correct when he scolds Clara for laying claim to the house: legally, the house now belongs to him.
Time passes, and David continues to be unhappy. Church now frightens him, because of the Murdstones' dour and unforgiving approach to religion. Clara also seems to be growing sickly looking and sad, and David wonders if anyone other than him remembers how she used to look and act.
David has difficulty believing the evidence of his own eyes when it comes to the changes in his mother. Consequently, his hope that someone else might remember what she was like before seems to be a way of shoring up his own perceptions. Given that David generally considers himself an accurate observer of the world around him, his self-doubt here hints at the ways in which the Murdstones have chipped away at his self-esteem.
During this time, David is being tutored by Clara. The lessons terrify David, because Mr. Murdstone and Miss Murdstone are also present and use the sessions as a way of keeping Clara in line. On one particular day, David is especially thrown off by the Murdstones' presence and repeatedly botches his reading. Finally, Miss Murdstone scolds Clara for hinting at the correct answers, and Mr. Murdstone "takes the book, throws it at [David] or boxes [his] ears with it, and turns [him] out of the room." Other days, David manages to make it through his lessons without mishaps, but he is never allowed to enjoy his free time, as Miss Murdstone feels he should always be given work to do.
David's lessons, as well as Miss Murdstone's broader insistence that he be kept busy at all times, are a dark twist on the Victorian emphasis on personal responsibility and self-improvement. In both cases, the Murdstones' emphasis is less on the particular task being completed than it is on the work itself as a way of building character. This is consistent with an idea David repeatedly raises later in the novel—namely, that work is an inherently useful activity because it teaches qualities like patience and discipline. The Murdstones' actions, however, reveal the ways in which this ideology can be abused, or used to justify cruelty.
David's one consolation during this period is the library left behind by his father. He reads these novels voraciously, loses himself in their characters, and even begins to associate the stories with places and objects in his own neighborhood.
Although David certainly isn't thinking of writing as a possible vocation at the time, the time he spends reading as a child paves the way for his eventual career. This is a prime example of how David learns to turn even unhappy and painful experiences to good effect.
One morning, David comes downstairs to find Clara, Miss Murdstone, and Mr. Murdstone already assembled. Mr. Murdstone, holding a cane, defends the wisdom of beating children to Clara, and then warns David that he must be especially "careful" during his coming lesson. David, however, makes several mistakes, causing his mother to become distressed and Mr. Murdstone to escort David from the room. David begs Mr. Murdstone not to flog him and explains why he can't concentrate on his studies. The two struggle, and David manages to bite his stepfather's hand, but this only angers Mr. Murdstone, who beats David "as if he would have beaten [him] to death."
Corporal punishment was fairly routine in nineteenth-century England, and often used as a way of "correcting" children's behavior. In this scene, however, Dickens implies that the effects of such punishment on a child's development are overwhelmingly negative: when Murdstone says that he himself was flogged as a child, Clara questions whether it "did him good." Miss Murdstone quickly silences Clara, but the strong suggestion is that Mr. Murdstone's cruelty and violence stem in part from the cruelty and violence he experienced as a child.
Mr. Murdstone leaves David locked in his bedroom. He remains there, frightened and angry, for the next several days; Miss Murdstone brings him meals and allows him out for evening prayers, but he is otherwise left alone. When five days have passed, David hears Peggotty whispering to him from outside the door. Peggotty reassures David that Clara is not angry with him, but says that he is going to be sent to a boarding school outside London the following day. She further explains that she has been avoiding David in an effort to protect him, but promises to take care of his mother while he is gone. The exchange leaves a lasting impression on David, and Peggotty fills "a vacancy in [his] heart."
Although David never stops idealizing his mother, he recognizes on some level that she can’t protect him from the Murdstones. What's more, her own fear of her husband and sister-in-law prevents her from even comforting her son. As a result, David comes to see Peggotty as a kind of surrogate mother. The fact that he's able to find makeshift relatives in this way is presumably one reason why his troubled home life doesn't have a more negative impact on his development.
Miss Murdstone fetches David from his room the next morning and brings him downstairs, where Clara urges him to "try to be better" in the future. However, she embraces her son before he leaves, over the objections of Miss Murdstone. David is then taken away in a cart driven by Barkis.
As a coming-of-age story, David Copperfield is in many ways about teaching its protagonist to "be better." The Murdstones' cruelty, however, clearly isn't teaching David anything useful.