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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
CHAPTERS XXVIII - XXXI
This installment begins pleasantly, as David has the Micawbers over for dinner. David has learned from experience; this time the dinner is reasonably simple. Although he's still intimidated by Mrs. Crupp and her tricks, he can handle the other servants now. The Micawbers and Traddles are delightful guests. Mr. Micawber expertly mixes the punch, and when Mrs. Crupp's mutton arrives half raw he grills the meat over the fire. Dickens' description of the food is so vivid you can almost taste it, and the gypsy-like gaiety of the meal makes it even better. But then Littimer arrives seeking Steerforth, and a chill quenches the fun. The meat he grills for them doesn't taste nearly as good as it did before. It's also unsettling that Steerforth apparently has vanished. Mr. Micawber regains his spirit enough to make a toast, but as he discusses his prospects, reasonable and hopeful as they sound, you've heard it too often before to believe it. Then the drink takes its effect. Mrs. Micawber lies down in the other room, David blushingly toasts Dora, Mrs. Micawber sings, and everyone gets sentimental. At the end of the evening, David pulls Traddles aside and wisely warns him not to lend Micawber money, but generous Traddles has already done so. Things seem out of control.
When Steerforth bursts in late that night, he's as charming as ever. But this good impression quickly sours, first when he carelessly forgets who Traddles is, next when he says he's been at Yarmouth on an "escapade." He brings a letter from Peggotty which tells David that Barkis is dying, but Steerforth regards this sad news callously. David sees a desperate, doomed look about his friend, and once or twice Steerforth looks at him oddly, silently. What do you think he's trying to tell David? After he's left, David remembers a letter Mr. Micawber slipped him earlier. It's a verbose, dramatic letter, admitting that Micawber is hopelessly in debt. (This spells doom for Traddles, too.) The evening started well, but ends in gloom.
Visiting Steerforth's home the next day, David feels Rosa Dartle watching
him like a vulture. When she gets him alone, she asks piercing questions
about Steerforth's mysterious absences. Later, she also hints that James
and his mother may be heading for a serious falling-out. Suspense and
melodrama build. Steerforth makes an effort to charm Rosa, and she does
soften. She even plays her harp and sings, but her singing is unearthly
and weird (compare it to Dora's doll-like chirping). Late that night,
Steerforth demands a strange pledge from David, as though begging forgiveness
in advance for some wrong he's about to do. David's last glimpse of his
friend is of him lying gracefully asleep, as at school. David ends the
chapter on a note of foreboding, saying that he would never touch Steerforth's
David heads next for Yarmouth, where, at Mr. Omer's, he catches up on the town's view of the Peggottys' lives. Mr. Omer remarks that Emily seems restless, anxious, now that her marriage to Ham is drawing nearer. Thus warned, when David sees Emily at the Barkises', he notices how frantically she clings to her uncle.
NOTE: SEXUAL UNDERCURRENTS
David remarks that Ham has the soul of a gentleman, but is that enough for Emily? You'll have to decide for yourself what the undercurrent of emotion means. Is she frightened by the idea of marriage to Ham? Is she already guilty about Steerforth? Is there something unnatural in her attachment to her uncle? Dickens deliberately leaves you in troubling uncertainty.
Upstairs, David sees the dying Barkis, hugging his money box with his last strength. Though he's a feeble old miser now, as they watch him slip away, he regains his old comic identity-his last words are, "Barkis is willin'!" He dies as the tide goes out, just as Dan Peggotty had predicted. Yarmouth people have an uncanny relationship with the sea.
Remember the string of gifts Barkis bought Peggotty when he was courting? There's another strange conglomeration of objects in Barkis' treasure box, everything from hay and an old horseshoe to money and stocks. The delusions of the man's whole life are collected there, from the child's miniature tea set, to the watch he wore on his wedding day, to the oyster shell he hoped to polish into a pearl. As David remembers how Barkis lugged this box around, pretending it was someone else's, a pathetic portrait of the miser emerges.
David is busy (and a little self-important) in reading the will and helping Peggotty with funeral arrangements. He sees nothing of Emily and Ham, though he hears their wedding date has been set for two weeks away.
David halts now, dreading the memory of the events he's about to narrate; his emotional tone heightens the suspense. Then, in deliberately plain language, he sets the scene of his final night in Yarmouth. After a day of dreamy wandering, David is to meet the Peggottys at the boathouse. When he gets there, it looks cozy. Dan greets David heartily, Mrs. Gummidge moans and groans as always, and Dan, with childish pleasure, lights a welcoming candle in the window for Emily. But perhaps Dan goes on a bit too much about his devotion to Emily, saying he plans to keep the candle in the window even after she's married. He looks up eagerly as the door opens, but it's only Ham. And Ham is dressed in raingear, for a storm is rolling up. Ham gets David outside on a ruse, only to break down crying and announce that Emily has run away.
David frames Ham's anguished figure in his mind like a picture. A moment later, he fixes a picture of Mr. Peggotty's stricken face looking outside and grasping what's happened. Melodrama keeps rising; inside, there's wailing and crying, and Mr. Peggotty looks wild. David reads aloud Emily's passionate, articulate farewell note. Although she seems to hope that her unnamed seducer will make her a lady, she is already condemning her own wickedness and writing herself out of their lives. With a dazed look, Dan demands to know the seducer's name. Ham tells his evidence slowly, shock and suspense building higher, but at last Dan guesses the name: "Steerforth." In a burst of violence, Dan threatens to tear apart Steerforth's boat. He's especially galled by Steerforth's treachery toward his host, and wildly announces that he's going to seek out Emily.
Then, the scene ends on a curious note of grace. Of all people, it is Mrs. Gummidge who knows how to comfort Dan. And David, who's been feeling guilty about introducing Steerforth, finds release in tears. The novel is now halfway through, and the plots have risen to the height of their complexity. From here on, the patterns will start working themselves out.
This might be a good time for you to draw up your own scenario. Select several of the principal characters and predict what might happen to them. At the end, see how your ideas stack up against those of Charles Dickens.