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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
CHAPTERS X - XII
Once Clara is dead, the Murdstones fire Peggotty and ignore David. At first it's a relief to him to be left alone, but gradually he's disturbed by his solitude, sensing Mr. Murdstone's anger. (Do you think Mr. Murdstone's grief is a normal reaction? Does it fit in with your image of him?) Peggotty comes to the rescue and takes David to Yarmouth again. Their trip over with Barkis is more comical than ever, with the wagondriver pressing his bizarre courtship of Peggotty. Barkis is not very romantic, crowding next to her on the seat and repeating, "Are you comfortable?", but afterwards Peggotty admits that she's thinking of marrying him. Her reasons are entirely practical-this way she can still be near David and near Clara's grave. Peggotty sees marriage in a different light than romantic Clara Copperfield did.
David seems older; the boat-house looks smaller to him, and his relationship with Emily is coyer, more sexual. Ham, too, clearly has an adolescent crush on Emily. In this charged atmosphere, it seems dangerous to have the conversation turn to glowing praise of Steerforth. David notices with a start how eagerly Emily is listening to it all. Side by side with these fragile, youthful emotions is Barkis and Peggotty's prosaic courtship.
NOTE: DICKENS' USE OF DETAIL
Dickens lists the presents Barkis brings Peggotty. Some-like the earrings or the canary-are typical lovers' gifts. Others are unromantic, like the dominoes and the pincushion. others are totally inappropriate: oranges, apples, onions, pigs' feet, and pickled pork. By lumping these details together, Dickens shows that Barkis is a clumsy suitor, but he also gives a sense of real life, which is often an incongruous jumble.
David and Emily go with Barkis and Peggotty on their wedding trip. David flirts madly with Emily in the back seat, but considering how young he is, this only makes him look sillier than Barkis, who gets married with as little fuss and as much joy as possible. Marriage doesn't change Peggotty much. The very next day she brings David to her new house, to a room she'll always keep ready for him.
Back at the Rookery, David is still neglected. He's conscious that this is a waste of his mind (as was young Dickens when he was kept out of school). Again, books are his only pleasure. But bad as this situation is, worse follows. The narration pauses, while David makes a point of announcing the onset of a period of his life that will forever haunt him.
Dickens' experience in the bootblacking factory scarred him deeply. As he begins to describe a similar episode in David's life, the horror of his own experience rises in his voice. But some readers feel that what happens to David isn't described with enough intensity to justify Dickens' tone of shock. (Compare this, for example, to David's agony over wearing the sign at Salem House.) Maybe Dickens recalled his past with such pain that he couldn't accurately judge the impact of what he had written.
One of the men David had met on his long-ago ride with Mr. Murdstone shows up and hatches a plan with Murdstone to send David to work in the Murdstone & Grinby counting-house. Murdstone claims this will help David improve his sulky temper. David is sharp enough to know that they're just getting rid of him. As he rides away to London, uncomfortable in his stiff trousers, and the landmarks of home disappear, he looks blankly upon his future.
David begins the next chapter by commenting bitterly on how easily he was cast into this awful life. He describes the counting-house objectively. Yet in the same calm, almost sarcastic language, he speaks of his agony, shame, tears. He claims that no words can express that feeling adequately, so he doesn't even try. Without dwelling on this environment any further, he shifts gears to introduce a comic character, Mr. Micawber, a lively mix of shabbiness and pretentious airs. Smiling, friendly, loquacious, he's an immediate bright spot in David's new life.
At the Micawbers' half-furnished house, David meets Mrs. Micawber, who is also friendly, pretentious, and loquacious. She is always nursing a baby in front of David. Like Dickens' mother, Mrs. Micawber tries to keep a school for young ladies but can get no pupils. The Micawbers are hounded by creditors, just as the Dickenses were after they moved to London. Dickens probably drew this all straight from his own life.
David gives an exact description of his finances, telling how he made his six or seven shillings' pay last for a week. (This would have been around two dollars. Although it would have gone further than two dollars would now, it is still far less than minimum wage levels today.) He becomes obsessed with food, probably because he can't afford much and is always hungry. Trudging into restaurants, wandering around the streets, he seems pathetically young and yet old.
NOTE: DICKENS' AUTOBIOGRAPHY
These passages are very similar to an autobiographical fragment Dickens wrote and gave to his friend John Forster. He's probably describing shops he went to and food he could still savor the taste of. This is effective, but a self-pitying, aggrieved, stuffy tone intrudes when Dickens begins to comment explicitly on his suffering. This is probably the attitude that earned Charles, as it earns David, the nickname "the little gent."
Once again, the bitter portrait of child laborers is superseded by welcome comedy in David's description of the Micawbers. David learns how to go to the pawnbrokers for them. When Mr. Micawber is sent to prison for debt (as Dickens' father was), David visits him there. It's a heavy experience for a little boy, but the Micawbers' liveliness makes it comic instead of tragic. Ironically, when Mr. Micawber is released from prison, both Micawbers are wretched, as though they need difficulties to be happy.
David clings to the Micawbers' buoyant spirits like a drowning swimmer to a life preserver. When he learns they are moving away from London, he feels abandoned and desperate. Going over his situation, he makes a decision. But he's learned to be crafty: only after the Micawbers have actually pulled away in the coach does he explain that he's decided to run away to his Aunt Betsey, whom he has imagined often from his mother's story of his birth. He cleverly gets Peggotty to send him his aunt's address plus some traveling money. Because he's conscientious, he finishes the week's work he's been paid for, but he doesn't pick up his next wages.
David has laid his plans carefully, but suddenly everything goes wrong. The shifty young man he hires to take his trunk to the coach-office runs away with his belongings and gets Peggotty's half-guinea away from him as well. David chases him fruitlessly. Nevertheless, he continues on the road to Dover, miserable but determined to carry out his plan. In his place, would you have done the same? What alternatives does he have?