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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
CHAPTERS XXXVIII - XL
As David describes his efforts to learn shorthand, you get a typically Dickensian flight of fancy: the dots, circles, and curves seem to come to life, turning into flies, cobwebs, and skyrockets, maliciously haunting David. To give David practice, Betsey, Mr. Dick, and Traddles play Parliament in David's rooms at night. This scene is a satiric parody of the real Parliament, but what else does it show about these personalities? Would you enjoy being part of this circle of friends?
In contrast to their lively play-acting, David is soon confronted by self-important Mr. Spenlow and cold Miss Murdstone. Miss Murdstone produces David's love letters, which she discovered (thanks to Jip). Though she pretends to be doing her duty, she's also getting revenge on David. Once more she fills the role of the fairy-tale dragon in David's life. Manfully, he admits he was wrong to court Dora secretly, but says he won't stop loving her. Note the indirect quotes of his emotional replies. --
Like Mrs. Steerforth, Mr. Spenlow speaks coldly about how his plans for his daughter do not include David. He accuses David of abusing his hospitality, just as Dan Peggotty accused Steerforth, but without Dan's simple emotion. Is David the seducer or the victim here? Mr. Spenlow's mercenary talk about Dora's inheritance is quite different from Mr. Wickfield's doting on Agnes, but both fathers seem to live for their daughters.
Afterwards, David writes a wild letter to Mr. Spenlow and a desperate note to Miss Mills, but his emotional reaction is a relief in a world of heartless Spenlows and Murdstones. Just then, however, fate does a strange turn. Arriving at the office next morning, David learns that Mr. Spenlow died of a fit on his way home last night. By inventing this plot twist, Dickens may have conveniently gotten Dora's father out of the way, but he makes the sudden death effective. David's mind whirls with conflicting emotions. Most of his grief is selfish-he even feels jealous of death. He sends a note of condolence to Dora, but it's really a bid for her attention.
Ironically, Mr. Spenlow, for all his talk about Dora's inheritance, hasn't even left a will. David is surprised, but Mr. Jorkins and the clerk, Mr. Tiffey, have seen more of the world and know how often men lie about their wills. Spenlow's hypocrisy is revealed even further. In spite of his businesslike airs, he couldn't handle his own affairs, and he died in debt. Penniless Dora must go to live with two maiden aunts. David's only contact with her for a while is through Miss Mills' diary, which she lends him. Underneath the cliches and the coy initials Julia uses instead of names, this diary shows Dora grieving weakly, doting on Jip, and feeling guilty for her father's death. She's not nearly ready to reconcile with David, and he uses fairy-tale imagery again to describe his hopeless case.
After a satirical passage on the shadier aspects of the Commons, David willingly leaves London to handle some business in Dover for his aunt. Stopping in Canterbury to visit the Wickfields, he sees Mr. Micawber at work, and notes his uneasy, secretive manner. Curiously, Micawber makes a suggestive remark about David and Agnes, and David feels a weird shiver of deja vu. This should alert you to the undercurrents of meaning in the conversation that follows. As David tells Agnes how he depends upon her good influence, she remains oddly silent. She firmly reminds him that he should depend on Dora, and she gives him good advice about how to woo Dora. How do you think Agnes is feeling here?
In Dickens' world, people and objects are vitally connected. Notice how this house expresses relationships. Heep's office is a new, raw addition. Mr. Wickfield's office is "a shadow of its former self," many of its furnishings removed by Heep. Uriah has taken David's old bedroom, just as he hopes to take David's place in Agnes' heart.
The Heeps hover over the Wickfields, never leaving them alone, like jailors guarding their prisoners. (David compares them to bats.) Uriah even follows David on his evening walk. When David tries to get rid of him, Uriah coolly explains that he must watch David, as his rival for Agnes. David sounds stiff and pompous-"I am engaged to another young lady," he explains. But Heep is maddening; he refuses to let David hurt his feelings, and yet he subtly accuses and mocks David. Goaded, David insults Uriah openly. Then Uriah tells David the pathetic story of his upbringing in a charity school. How does this make you feel about Heep? Why do you think Dickens put this in here?
At dinner, when Heep tricks Mr. Wickfield into drinking too much and torments him by proposing a toast to Agnes, Heep is too horrible for sympathy. He's pushed too far, and Mr. Wickfield flies into an incoherent rage. (Notice that David quiets Mr. Wickfield by reminding him of the connection between David and Agnes. What do you make of this?) In a dramatic dialogue, Wickfield eloquently denounces Heep, and describes with sorrow how his absorption first in his wife, then in Agnes, diseased his mind. Heep seems flustered, but isn't human enough to feel Mr. Wickfield's pain. David later begs Agnes not to throw herself away to please her father. Her startled reaction again suggests deeper feelings for David. Back in London, when David tells Betsey this, she ponders it gravely. Perhaps she, too, wonders what really lies between David and Agnes.
The mood changes to melodrama as, on a snowy night, David sees Dan Peggotty on the steps of a church. Carrying a little burden, he looks like a mythical figure of the Wanderer, with long, gray hair and a sun-beaten, wrinkled face. Mysteriously, Martha Endell flits through the same snowstorm. She listens outside the door of the inn as Dan tells David of his travels. Dan's simple dialect and emotions make him an effective narrator. Though he's modest about his skills, Dan has been a great detective. Doggedly he followed Emily's trail across Europe, and he came close to finding her at one point. He paints a sentimental picture of the European villagers who helped him along the way. And as he speaks of his forgiveness for Emily, Martha listens intently.
NOTE: EMILY'S SIN
Dan is so forgiving and the people he meets are so helpful that modern readers sometimes lose sight of the severity of Emily's sin by Victorian standards. (Notice how Martha has been cast out; in this scene, she's literally "out in the cold.") Though Emily is living like a lady with Steerforth, it's assumed that he'll never marry her and will eventually abandon her. You may say that she must have loved Steerforth to go off with him, but in Dickens' time that was no excuse. Her letter is full of shame and sorrow, and never speaks of love for Steerforth. Dickens must show that she's repentant and not a creature of lust, because his original readers would have been so scandalized by her behavior.