In Chapter 56, David must inform Mrs. Steerforth that her son has died. By echoing the scene in which David learned about his own mother's death, Dickens uses pathos to convince the audience what a longstanding toll abuse by someone like Mr. Murdstone can have on a family:
‘My son is ill.’
‘You have seen him?’
‘Are you reconciled?’
I could not say Yes, I could not say No. She slightly turned her head towards the spot where Rosa Dartle had been standing at her elbow, and in that moment I said, by the motion of my lips, to Rosa ‘Dead!’
When David was informed of his mother's death while he was a student at Salem House, Mrs. Creakle too started by saying that she was very ill before clarifying that she really meant "dead." David can hardly get the words out, either. Part of his difficulty, like Mrs. Creakle's, lies in the awkwardness and discomfort in being the bearer of bad news. But whereas Mrs. Creakle had no personal relationship with David's mother, David knew and loved Steerforth. He is struggling to say out loud that Steerforth is dead because he too is overcome with grief for the dead person. Saying it will make it real, both for him and for Mrs. Steerforth. The paralleling of the earlier scene suggests not just that David has grown into an adult who must sometimes deliver bad news, but also that David is remembering the sudden shift in the ground beneath his feet when he learned that his mother had died.
While Dickens's novel is meant to entertain, it is also meant to critique aspects of society that he believes need to change. One thing the novel critiques is the way Mr. Murdstone is allowed to abuse David's family and never face the consequences. It is heavily implied that Clara Copperfield's death was the result of this abuse. Here, Dickens uses pathos to remind the reader what a profound and devastating effect Mr. Murdstone has had over David's life. Even many years on, the feeling of losing his mother remains. Dickens urges the reader not to forget what an injustice it is that this was allowed to happen.