David says that he has now reached a section of his story that he has been dreading from the beginning. He still dreams about the event in question, and thinks about it whenever there is a "stormy wind, or the lightest mention of a sea-shore." In fact, he says, he does not even need to remember the event, because he can "see" it.
Although recounting his story gives David some measure of control over it, certain events are so traumatic that they can't be neutralized or downplayed. The memories that are about to unfold threaten to disrupt the balance of David's life—in this case, by being as vivid as if they were taking place now. This disruption of the normal order of events is especially threatening to a story like David's, which attempts to present straightforward and optimistic account of his growth over time.
Not long before the ship for Australia is set to sail, Peggotty comes to London to see not only David, but also Mr. Peggotty and little Em'ly. David himself does not see Emily, but he spends a lot of time with the Peggottys, and one evening, Peggotty begins to talk about Ham's kindness and strength. As David walks home that night, he begins to reconsider leaving Ham's message for Emily on the day she will depart, since he thinks she might want a chance to respond. He therefore writes her a letter that same night relaying Ham's message.
David doesn’t speak to little Em'ly at all immediately after her return. Although he suggests that this is out of consideration for Emily's feelings, David may also feel some lingering resentment towards her, having been infatuated with her in the past.
Miss Betsey wakes David up the next morning, saying that Mr. Peggotty has come to see him. Mr. Peggotty gives him a letter that little Em'ly has written and asks him to look it over and give it to Ham, if he feels it is appropriate. In the letter, Emily thanks Ham for his message, saying she will keep it with her until she dies. She has also prayed over it, because when she thinks of Ham's goodness, she thinks of "what God must be." Finally, she bids Ham farewell, saying that she "may wake a child and come to [him]" in "another world," though she isn't sure that God will forgive her. David says that Mr. Peggotty can tell Emily he is delivering the message: in fact, he intends to go for a quick trip to Yarmouth before the ship sets sail for Australia.
Although David Copperfield is (for the time it was written) relatively tolerant of fallen women, it doesn't envision much of a future for Emily beyond endless repentance. Her letter to Ham, for instance, is basically backward-looking and tellingly imagines heaven as a place where she will be restored to childhood—that is, a state of innocence and purity. The assumption, shared by everyone, that it would be inappropriate for Emily to speak to Ham in person also indicates the seriousness of her transgressions.
That night, David takes a coach to Yarmouth. On the way, he remarks to the driver that the sky looks strange, and the driver predicts that a storm is coming. The wind continues to pick up throughout the night, and the sky grows darker and darker, until it begins to rain in "sweeping gusts […] like showers of steel." The weather—particularly the wind—grows even worse the following day, and when David reaches Ipswich, people in the marketplace tell him about trees being uprooted and roofing being torn off. By the time David reaches the coast, the wind is creating massive waves at sea.
The storm that arises as David travels to Yarmouth is a way of foreshadowing impending disaster—specifically, the deaths of Steerforth and Ham. Since Steerforth himself has often been associated with the sea, the storm is also a particularly symbolic way for Dickens to kill the character off: Steerforth dies as a result of his own recklessness and inability to control either his actions or their consequences. The suddenness and violence of the storm also challenges David's confidence in his own ability to plot a course for his life, plunging him into a state of paralyzed depression.
David checks into an inn and then heads toward the beach, where a crowd has gathered, concerned for the safety of boats currently at sea. The size and strength of the waves unnerves David, and he feels as if the whole town will be swept away in a "rending and upheaving of all nature."
To David, the storm isn't just a threat to the physical safety of Yarmouth's residents, but also, symbolically, to his entire life's philosophy, which hinges on rationality and optimism. Even the act of writing a memoir, for instance, assumes that it's possible to trace a logical path from David's childhood self to who he is as an adult. As he describes it, however, the storm disrupts everything that's orderly, turning "all nature" upside down.
Ham is not in the crowd on the beach, so David goes to his house, which he finds shut up. He then goes to the yard where Ham works, where he hears that Ham has gone to Lowestoft to repair a ship but will return the next day. David therefore returns to the inn, where he hears from a waiter that two ships have already sunk, and several others have been spotted in distress. The news deepens David's gloominess: the storm has put him on edge, and he feels uneasy about Ham's absence. David also finds that the storm has disturbed his sense of time and space, and he thinks that he would not be "surprised" to go outside and see someone from his life in London.
One way in which the storm upsets the normal order of things is by confusing David's perception of time so that past and present become difficult to disentangle. This kind of confusion challenges the basic concept of a memoir—especially one like David's, which is already wary of the ways in which the past, in the form of memory, might intrude on the present or influence the future, and therefore takes pains to present a straightforward record of events.
David cannot shake the fear that Ham will drown trying to attempt to return from Lowestoft by sea, so he goes back to see the boat-builder and asks his opinion. The boat-builder assures him that no experienced sailor would go out in such a storm, and David returns to the inn. Meanwhile, the wind continues to pick up and seems to shake the entire building. David finds he can't concentrate on anything, because "something within [him], faintly answering to the storm without, tossed up the depths of [his] memory." He finds it difficult to sleep, first starting awake in a state of "objectless" terror, and then tormented by the noise of the storm. He eventually gets up and goes downstairs to talk to the kitchen staff. A few hours later, he returns to bed and finally falls asleep.
David's premonition of Ham's death, though wrong in its particulars, further adds to the confused sense of time in this passage. This confusion only deepens as the storm stirs up old memories, blurring the lines between past and present. Interestingly, David describes this as the storm speaking to something chaotic already "within him." Over the course of the novel, David has strived to become a collected and purposeful individual who is sure of his goals and can put them into action. The storm, however, threatens to undercut this progress by revealing all the inner tensions and conflicts David has suppressed.
The next morning, David wakes up to the sound of someone knocking on his door, saying there has been a shipwreck involving a "schooner, from Spain or Portugal." David hurries down to the beach to see what is happening, and finds the sea stormier than ever. A man on the shore points him to the boat, which has lost one of its masts and, according to one of the spectators, is in danger of splitting in two. Nevertheless, the people on board are still trying to prevent the boat from sinking, including an "active figure with long curling hair" that David particularly notices. Two men are swept overboard, and David begs some of the other spectators to do something. They explain that a lifeboat was already sent out but couldn’t accomplish anything.
The curly-haired figure turns out to be Steerforth, so the fact that that particular figure attracts David's attention suggests that David has already realized on some level who the man is. His reluctance to consciously admit this parallels his earlier reluctance to acknowledge that it was in fact Steerforth who had run away with little Em'ly, underscoring the connection between the two events. Ultimately, the fact that the same recklessness that led Steerforth to seduce Emily eventually claims his own life serves as a form of poetic justice.
At that moment, the crowd parts, and David sees Ham walking out toward the sea, apparently intending to do what the other spectators have just said is too dangerous—namely, wade out to the wreck with a rope tied around himself. Ham's determined expression reminds David of the look he had when little Em'ly ran away, so David attempts to hold him back. As David is speaking, however, two more men are swept overboard, leaving only the curly-haired figure, and Ham tells David that either his time has come or it hasn't. The crowd then separates David from Ham, and David watches from a distance as bystanders help prepare Ham to enter the water. Meanwhile, the boat is breaking apart, and the man on board waves to those ashore, reminding David of a "once dear friend."
Besides drawing a clear line between Ham's despair at being jilted and his carelessness of his own safety, David's memory of the morning after Emily's disappearance also functions as a subtle hint; in much the same way that Steerforth ruined Emily, he has now wrecked the boat he named after her. David's recollection of a "once dear friend" provides a much more obvious clue to Steerforth's identity, though David himself doesn’t consciously guess the truth at the time.
Ham runs out into the water and is immediately hit by a wave. The men holding the other end of the rope pull him back to shore, and David sees that he is bleeding. Nevertheless, Ham goes back out into the water, nearly reaching the wreck when a particularly large wave pulls the boat under. The men on shore pull Ham back in, and David sees that he is dead. David follows as Ham’s body is brought to a nearby house. Soon, a fisherman asks David to come with him. David guesses that a body has washed ashore, but the fisherman won't tell him whose it is. When they reach the beach, however, David sees Steerforth's body "lying with his head upon his arm, as [David] had often seen him lie at school."
David's response to seeing Steerforth's body is striking, in that he apparently feels only sadness, rather than anger over what Steerforth did to the Peggottys, or even satisfaction that Steerforth has effectively been brought to justice. Instead, David immediately thinks of Steerforth as a young and innocent child—an image that's especially significant given Emily's wish, earlier in the chapter, to be reborn as just such a child. David's response to Steerforth's death reflects the double standard for male and female behavior at the time; whereas Steerforth's death instantly absolves him of any guilt in David's eyes, Emily has to live out the rest of her life doing penance and—in her own estimation—may not be forgiven even then.