Dora becomes very ill and is confined to her bed. David misses her company terribly. Agnes comes to visit. As Dora realizes that she is dying, she confides to David that she was too young to be married when she was. David wonders whether it would have been better if they had loved each other as children and then forgotten about their affair. While Agnes is upstairs, the little dog, Jip, whines at the stairs to go up to his mistress. Jip comes to David, licks his hand, and dies in front of him. When Agnes comes down, she says that Dora has died too.
Mr. Micawber, who thinks the move to Australia may be exactly what his family needs, wants to be sure that he arranges the finances between him and Miss Betsey professionally. Mrs. Micawber is very concerned that Mr. Micawber should repair her relationship with her family before they leave.
Agnes, Traddles, David, and Miss Betsey meet to discuss the Micawbers’ finances. Traddles has discovered that he can recover all of Miss Betsey’s money as well as Mr. Wickfield’s. Agnes says she will rent out the house and run a school in order to keep herself and her father financially secure.
David, meanwhile, decides he will go abroad. Traddles reports that Uriah has left town with his mother, and no one knows what has become of him. Arrangements are made to provide for the Micawbers’ debts and raise enough money to get them to Australia. Two days later, Miss Betsey takes David to a hospital and to a funeral. She tells him that her husband has died, and that he will not be a threat to her anymore.
David goes to Yarmouth to deliver a letter from Little Em’ly to Ham so that they may know of each other before Little Em’ly goes to Australia. As David travels, a terrific storm blows into Yarmouth, and the sea and wind rage. A ship from Spain is wrecked off the coast, and David and others go to the beach to watch its fate. The lifeboat has been tried and has failed, and there is no way to help. All the men on board have been killed except one, who is hanging onto a mast in his red cap and waving at the shore. Ham appears out of nowhere, back from a job he has been working on, and insists on going out into the water with a rope around his waist to try to save the last sailor. After a first failed attempt, Ham gets all the way out, but a gigantic wave sweeps the ship under and kills him. The next morning, David is fetched to the beach, where Steerforth’s body has rolled in with the morning tide.
David goes to Mrs. Steerforth and informs her that her son is dead. She is an invalid now and is lying in Steerforth’s room. Miss Dartle is present when David relays the news. She lashes out at Mrs. Steerforth, challenging her right to mourn her son, whom she made the monster he was, when she, Miss Dartle, loved Steerforth so much. Mrs. Steerforth becomes completely rigid and does not recover from the shock of learning of the death of her son.
The travelers bound for Australia meet with those staying behind. They drink and discuss Mr. Micawber’s prospects for success in Australia. David does not tell Mr. Peggotty or Little Em’ly of the tragedy in Yarmouth but instead says that all is well. As they are departing, David asks Mr. Peggotty what should be done about Martha. Mr. Peggotty shows David that Martha is sitting with him on the boat to go with them to Australia.
David travels abroad and eventually settles in Switzerland. He mourns the deaths of Dora, Steerforth, and Ham and begins to feel the weight of his sorrows for the first time. David receives a letter from Agnes and reflects how much he loves her. He resolves not to make any decisions about love or marriage until a full year has passed since Dora’s death. He decides to try to make himself a better man in the meantime.
The most dramatic moment in the novel, the tempest scene in Chapter LV resolves two intertwined plotlines by describing the deaths of Steerforth and Ham. The action of Chapter LV appears particularly vivid because it takes place at sea, whereas much of the rest of the novel consists of conversations that take place at characters’ homes. We witness the action of Chapter LV directly and experience its emotional impact through David, which directs us toward the upcoming emotional resolution of David Copperfield. The tempest chapter brings together the intertwined subplots of the novel, resolving all of them in one fell swoop and enabling us to focus our attention on David for the rest of the novel.
Although the storm is not the literary climax of the novel, it is emotionally climactic and draws us toward the close of the novel with a sense of relief and resolution. When the storm ends, the tone of the narrative changes from high drama to peaceful reflection as David discusses his maturity. David’s narration no longer focuses on Peggotty’s relations, or Steerforth’s relationship, or even David’s relationship. Instead, David himself becomes the subject of the story, and we learn important information about his character, which has developed from naïve innocence to reflective adulthood. For this reason, some critics claim the tempest is the central moment of the book. However, although the tempest chapter provides an important release, that release resolves only incidental storylines. It also takes place well after the climax of the novel, which occurs in Chapter XXVIII, when Steerforth returns from Yarmouth and seals his relationship with Little Em’ly. Additionally, because David is the only character consistently present throughout the entire novel, the ultimate stages of his development are crucial to the novel—without them, the story would be incomplete.
Dora’s death signals an important transition for David, as his infatuation with Dora gives way to the calm, deep love he feels for Agnes. Agnes’s physical and emotional proximity to Dora at the time of Dora’s death foreshadow the important role Agnes will play in David’s life after Dora’s death. In the same way, David’s distance from Dora at the time of her death is symbolic of his distance from her in life. Although David mourns Dora’s illness and passing, we see his maturity in his calm reflection that perhaps it would have been better if he and Dora had never married. In his youth, danger and misfortune cause David to despair and romanticize his situation. His ability to think about Dora’s death reflectively demonstrates that his character has developed significantly since the early chapters of the novel.
The manner of Steerforth’s death mirrors his capricious and self- centered nature. Hanging from the mast of his sinking ship, Steerforth seems as brazen and cocky as ever, boldly waving his red cap at those on the beach. His death, like his life, brings about the destruction of his companions—in this case, Ham. But Steerforth ultimately suffers in death the humiliation that should have been his in life, as his body washes up on the shore and is delivered, without ceremony, to his mother. David mourns the good in his friend until the end, but none of the other characters seem to notice Steerforth’s death at all, with the exception of his family—a signal that Steerforth, despite all his bluster, has been a frivolous and insubstantial character. By allowing Steerforth to die in the midst of a terrible storm, far away from his friends and family, in a moment of brazen vanity, Dickens shapes Steerforth’s death to reflect perfectly what he deserves based on the way he lives his life.