Victorian England believed strongly in the possibility of forging one's own path in life. Men in particular were expected to be active and independent; rather than waiting for events to happen to them, they were supposed to create opportunities for themselves. The presence of the sea, however, is a constant reminder that there truly are forces beyond the control of even the most resolute humans. Besides pointing to the broader limits of human agency, the sea functions as a symbolic threat to the ideal Victorian home that men like David work so hard to establish, and that women like little Em’ly are supposed to work to maintain. As a child visiting Yarmouth, for instance, David associates the sound of the wind and waves with the disasters that have recently overtaken his home life (his mother Clara's marriage to Mr. Murdstone, followed by her death). Relatedly, little Em'ly is both drawn to and afraid of the ocean, and the significance of this becomes clear when she runs away to become Steerforth's mistress, throwing her family into chaos and destroying any possibility of marriage with Ham.
The Sea Quotes in David Copperfield
"I have been sitting here," said Steerforth, glancing round the room, "thinking that all the people we found so glad on the night of our coming down, might—to judge from the present wasted air of the place—to be dispersed, or dead, or come to I don't know what harm. David, I wish to God I had had a judicious father these last twenty years."
"My dear Steerforth, what is the matter?"
"I wish with all my soul I had been better guided!" he exclaimed. "I wish with all my soul I could guide myself better!"
And on that part of [the shore] where she and I had looked for shells, two children—on that part of it where some lighter fragments of the old boat, blown down last night, had been scattered by the wind—among the ruins of the home he had wronged—I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.