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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
CHAPTERS XVI - XVIII
Like the rest of Canterbury, Dr. Strong's school is a grave, old-fashioned place, and Dr. Strong himself is disheveled and out of touch. His young wife Annie hardly seems to belong there; David at first thinks she's Dr. Strong's daughter. Mr. Wickfield holds an ambiguous conversation with Dr. Strong about finding a position for his wife's cousin Jack Maldon. What does this suggest to you? David doesn't try to interpret this situation. The other schoolboys he meets are merely idealized, happy students-David doesn't really describe them. He's too busy focusing on his reaction to them. His factory experience has set him back in learning, but aged his personality, so he doesn't feel at ease with kids his age. Agnes, however-an odd mixture of young and old herself-is a comforting companion for him.
Next you meet insolent Jack Maldon. He intrudes on the Wickfields' dinner, pressing Mr. Wickfield to find him a job nearby instead of abroad (which Mr. Wickfield seems to prefer, for Annie's sake. Why?). This triggers a note of uneasiness that deepens as, in a melancholy way, Mr. Wickfield asks David to live with them. Even more unsettling is David's conversation with Uriah Heep that night. This scene establishes Uriah's characteristics-his writhing, his fawning, his devotion to his mother, and his favorite word, "umble" (a lower-class pronunciation of "humble"). Future developments are hinted at, with Uriah's talk of becoming a partner and his admiration of Agnes. There's another bit of foreshadowing, too, when David dreams of Heep carrying him and Little Em'ly off in a pirate ship to be drowned.
Dr. Strong's school is an ideal, the exact opposite of Salem House. Dr. Strong is endearing, though absentminded, and girlish Annie Strong is sweet, although she sometimes acts as if she's guilty about something. David gives us a capsule caricature of her silly meddling mother Mrs. Markleham, nicknamed the Old Soldier. Then, in the scene of Jack Maldon's going-away party, Dickens uses his dramatic skills to show us how these characters interact. Jack flirts shamelessly with Annie, while the Doctor smiles vaguely at Mrs. Markleham's crass account of the Strongs' marriage. How do you feel about this marriage? What elements in this scene form your opinion?
NOTE: DRAMATIC DETAILS
David is too young to understand this situation, but Dickens drops dramatic hints. Annie is agitated during her mother's story, and Mr. Wickfield stares at her intently. She won't sing or play cards, but she keeps moving away when Jack Maldon sits beside her on the sofa. As in a movie, the people's actions express their emotions. David notices "something cherry-colored" in Maldon's hand as he rides away. He doesn't connect this with the ribbons on Annie's dress, but you should. Then Mrs. Markleham notices a ribbon is lost, and Annie flushes. It looks damning, and because you're not told anything more definite, you can leap to your own conclusions about what Annie's up to.
After the party, David glimpses Dr. Strong in his study, Annie sitting at his feet with a strange expression on her face. This picture confuses David but he records it carefully, adding suggestively that it will be explained in a later chapter.
David receives a letter from Peggotty, updating him on several old friends, and reminding you of characters that are temporarily offstage. But right now David's more concerned with his new friends. Mr. Dick tells David a troubling story about a man who's been hanging around Betsey's gate, taking money from her. By choosing Mr. Dick to relate this scene, instead of his intelligent narrator David, Dickens gives you a fragmented, mysterious view of it. This dialogue also shows that Mr. Dick is loyal to Betsey, but can't help her when she's in trouble. How does this modify your sense of their household? More cheerfully, David describes Mr. Dick's visits to him at school, showing how he relates as an equal both to the boys and to Dr. Strong.
Another new friend, Uriah Heep, invites David home with him. Hiding behind his slithery humility, Uriah manipulates David, contradicting his polite remarks, turning his words around until David sounds pompous. At the Heeps' house, the bond between mother and son is uncanny. Like Mr. and Miss Murdstone, they skillfully work together in conversation. Somehow they pry all kinds of personal information out of David, until he's rescued almost magically by Mr. Micawber.
Have you ever run into an old friend in a totally unexpected place? Simple coincidences like this help Dickens tie his plots together. This chance meeting will eventually make Micawber a key figure in Uriah's affairs. To some readers it seems preposterous that Micawber shows up in the same town as David, but Dickens claimed coincidences like this were quite common. Whether or not it's realistic, Dickens uses this coincidence to great literary advantage. He juxtaposes two total opposites-secretive, fawning Heep and trusting, self-confident Micawber-to define both their characters.
In this scene, David is in agony, caught between a sensitive fear of his past and shame that being accepted by Heep matters so much to him.
Characters like David, Betsey, Agnes, and Emily have realistic feelings and may change through their experiences. Characters like the Micawbers and the Heeps are one-dimensional caricatures who always behave the same. But this doesn't mean they're boring. The rest of this chapter shows David visiting the Micawbers, and you see all their characteristic gestures, phrases, and themes again. Dickens seems to love making them perform, almost like clockwork, exactly as you'd expect them to. Like some characters on television comedies, they have their own "bits" that they repeat in predictable situations, week after week. Does this make you laugh? Why?
Chapter XVIII is the first "Retrospect" chapter, in which David sums up a period of his life. Here, in present-tense descriptions, he grows up before your eyes-progressing in school, hating girls, getting into fights, having teenage crushes. Agnes is a constant presence, yet he seems to forget her whenever another girl is in the picture. David's lightly mocking tone reminds you, however, that he's reflecting on it as an adult, and now he knows how silly these romantic attitudes were. What does this suggest about how he feels about Agnes?