Although David narrates his story as an adult, he relays the impressions he had from a youthful point of view. We see how David’s perception of the world deepens as he comes of age. We see David’s initial innocence in the contrast between his interpretation of events and our own understanding of them. Although David is ignorant of Steerforth’s treachery, we are aware from the moment we meet Steerforth that he doesn’t deserve the adulation David feels toward him. David doesn’t understand why he hates Uriah or why he trusts a boy with a donkey cart who steals his money and leaves him in the road, but we can sense Uriah’s devious nature and the boy’s treacherous intentions. In David’s first-person narration, Dickens conveys the wisdom of the older man implicitly, through the eyes of a child.
David’s complex character allows for contradiction and development over the course of the novel. Though David is trusting and kind, he also has moments of cruelty, like the scene in which he intentionally distresses Mr. Dick by explaining Miss Betsey’s dire situation to him. David also displays great tenderness, as in the moment when he realizes his love for Agnes for the first time. David, especially as a young man in love, can be foolish and romantic. As he grows up, however, he develops a more mature point of view and searches for a lover who will challenge him and help him grow. David fully matures as an adult when he expresses the sentiment that he values Agnes’s calm tranquility over all else in his life.
Uriah serves a foil to David and contrasts David’s qualities of innocence and compassion with his own corruption. Though Uriah is raised in a cruel environment similar to David’s, Uriah’s upbringing causes him to become bitter and vengeful rather than honest and hopeful. Dickens’s physical description of Uriah marks Uriah as a demonic character. He refers to Uriah’s movements as snakelike and gives Uriah red hair and red eyes. Uriah and David not only have opposing characteristics but also operate at cross-purposes. For example, whereas Uriah wishes to marry Agnes only in order to hurt David, David’s marriages are both motivated by love. The frequent contrast between Uriah’s and David’s sentiments emphasizes David’s kindness and moral integrity.
While David’s character development is a process of increased self-understanding, Uriah grows in his desire to exercise control over himself and other characters. As Uriah gains more power over Mr. Wickfield, his sense of entitlement grows and he becomes more and more power-hungry. The final scenes of the novel, in which Uriah praises his jail cell because it helps him know what he should do, show Uriah’s need to exert control even when he is a helpless prisoner. But imprisonment does not redeem his evil—if anything, it compounds his flaws. To the end, Uriah plots strategies to increase his control. Because he deploys his strategies to selfish purposes that bring harm to others, he stands out as the novel’s greatest villain.
Steerforth is a slick, egotistical, wealthy young man whose sense of self-importance overwhelms all his opinions. Steerforth underscores the difference between what we understand as readers and what David sees—and fails to see—in his youthful naïveté. David takes Steerforth’s kindness for granted without analyzing his motives or detecting his duplicity. When Steerforth befriends David at Salem House, David doesn’t suspect that Steerforth is simply trying to use David to make friends and gain status. Though Steerforth belittles David from the moment they meet, David is incapable of conceiving that his new friend might be taking advantage of him. Because Steerforth’s duplicity is so clear to us, David’s lack of insight into Steerforth’s true intentions emphasizes his youthful innocence. Steerforth likes David only because David worships him, and his final betrayal comes as a surprise to David but not to us.