Having returned home, David finds his house much changed. The change upsets him so much that he cries himself to sleep in his new room. His mother comes up to comfort him, but Mr. Murdstone finds them there and reprimands David’s mother for not being firm with her son. Mr. Murdstone dismisses David’s mother into another part of the house and warns David that he will receive a beating if he disobeys or upsets his mother again. That night, dinner is silent and formal, and David finds it very different from the old dinners he used to enjoy by the fire with Peggotty and his mother.
After dinner, Miss Jane Murdstone, Mr. Murdstone’s cruel sister, arrives to stay. She is dark and masculine, with eyebrows that nearly meet over the bridge of her nose. David observes that she is a metallic lady, with metal boxes and a metal purse. Miss Murdstone takes over the household organization, and when David’s mother protests that she can run her own house, Mr. Murdstone threatens her into submission. Whenever David’s mother voices her concern or anger about anything done in the house or to David, Mr. and Miss Murdstone tell her that her “firmness” is failing. They often refer to David’s mother, who is much younger than they, as a naïve, inexperienced, and artless girl who needs their training. David’s mother accepts the Murdstones’ molding of her, apparently because she is afraid of them.
David’s mother continues to conduct his lessons. However, because Mr. and Miss Murdstone snipe at David continuously throughout his recitations, his memory fails him during every lesson. His only comfort is his father’s small collection of adventure books, which David reads over and over in order to bring some friends and pleasure into his life. After one particularly poor lesson, Mr. Murdstone beats David savagely, and David, in self-defense, bites Mr. Murdstone’s hand. As punishment, David is locked in his room alone for five days. At the end of the five days, Peggotty comes to his door and whispers through the keyhole that he is to be sent away.
David rides away with a carrier, Mr. Barkis, who travels between towns carrying people and packages in his cart. As David leaves, Peggotty bursts out of the bushes and gives him a little money, a note from his mother, and several cakes. David is nearly hysterical at being sent away. He shares the cakes with Mr. Barkis, who, on finding out that Peggotty baked them, asks David to tell her that “Barkis is willin’.”
At the inn where David switches to the London coach, dinner is waiting for him under the name “Murdstone.” The waiter tricks David into giving him all his dinner and some of his money as a tip. Because it is a large dinner, David gains a reputation at the inn for having eaten a tremendous amount. The coachman and the other passengers tease David so badly that he does not eat even when they stop later to do so. As a result, David arrives in London very hungry.
In London, David waits for several hours until Mr. Mell, who says he is one of the masters at Salem House, arrives to pick him up. On the way to the school, they stop at a charity home and visit an old woman who calls Mr. Mell “my Charley” and cooks David breakfast. They proceed to the school, where all the boys are on holiday. David is forced to wear a sign that identifies him as one who bites—his punishment for having bitten Mr. Murdstone.
Mr. Creakle, the headmaster, returns to the school and summons David. The bald, reddish Mr. Creakle, who never raises his voice above a whisper, warns David that he will beat him for any misbehavior. David is terrified of Mr. Creakle. The headmaster’s wife and daughter, however, are quiet and thin women, and David supposes that they sympathize with the boys Mr. Creakle terrorizes.
Tommy Traddles, the first boy to return from holiday, befriends David, which helps David befriend the other boys as they return. James Steerforth, the most respected of the schoolboys because of his wealth, intelligence, and good looks, takes David’s money on the pretense of holding it for him. Steerforth convinces David to spend the money on a tremendous banquet, which he splits evenly among the boys in the dorm that night. David considers Steerforth to be his protector and friend but not his equal. David is submissive to Steerforth and refers to him as “sir.”
Although some of Dickens’s characters manage to improve their social class, social hierarchies are extremely powerful in David Copperfield. For example, even though Peggotty loves David and his mother more than anyone else loves them, both mother and son always treat Peggotty as a servant. On the other hand, David reveres James Steerforth, a scoundrel, largely because he is wealthy and powerful. Tommy Traddles, who is kind and gentle to David and shows him much more loyalty than Steerforth, never even comes close to attaining Steerforth’s exalted status. The other boys also naturally obey Steerforth, apparently not because he deserves their respect but because none of them can match the confidence and arrogance that stem from his class status. This social structure that the young students establish continues throughout the novel, as characters judge each other on their class status rather than their merits.
Dickens depicts English social hierarchies as inevitable but acknowledges that they are not ideal. David respects the strict class system, as do most of the secondary characters. David sincerely wishes to seem genteel, enjoys commanding servants about, and draws judgments entirely on the basis of class. Nevertheless, Dickens also shows how the power relations of the class system can be inverted—most notably in the case of the servant at the inn who tricks David into giving up his meal. Likewise, Steerforth is rich yet cruel while Mr. Peggotty is poor yet good-hearted. These two characters demonstrate that Dickens does not believe that class always corresponds to moral status. On the whole, although Dickens recognizes imperfections in the English class system, he does not actively challenge it in his writing.
Although Clara’s failure to protect David is disturbing, the difficult situation of her marriage provokes our sympathy and understanding. Clara does allow her husband and his sister to inflict cruelty on David, which we may find reprehensible. But at the same time, as Mr. Murdstone breaks Clara’s spirit more and more, and Miss Murdstone convinces her that she is a worthless girl in desperate need of reform, we cannot help but pity Clara. David, for his part, never condemns his mother—in fact, he displays unwavering faith in her. Ultimately, as Clara transforms from beautiful and carefree before her remarriage to beaten-down and frightened afterward, her inexperience and good intentions become clear, and she emerges as a sympathetic character.
The books to which David retreats when his life at his house becomes unbearable bring an element of fantasy to Dickens’s novel and fuel David’s sense of romantic idealism. Though David Copperfield as a novel offers a realistic depiction of the harsh aspects of daily existence for women, children, and the underprivileged, David himself often romanticizes his world. He frequently gets wrapped up in a sense of adventure and high emotion. His description of events that happen to him reveals that he sees his love affairs as tempestuous and his escapades as wild and adventurous. David’s vivid imagination is both an asset and a handicap, for it simultaneously sustains him through hard times and subjects him to the treachery of those who would take advantage of a boy’s trusting nature.