School begins, and Mr. Creakle warns the boys that he will punish them severely if they fail in their lessons. He beats David with a cane on the first day. David notices that Traddles gets beaten more than the other boys because he is fat. To cheer himself up, Traddles lays his head on his desk and draws little skeletons on his slate.
Steerforth and David become close when Steerforth, who suffers from insomnia, persuades David to stay up with him at night and tell him the stories David remembers from his father’s books. One day when Mr. Creakle is ill, Steerforth and Mr. Mell get into a fight, and Steerforth reveals that David has told him about visiting an old woman with Mr. Mell at the charity house. Steerforth figures out that the old woman is Mr. Mell’s mother. When Mr. Creakle comes to see what the commotion is, Steerforth tells him about Mr. Mell’s poverty. Mr. Creakle commends Steerforth and fires Mr. Mell, who, as he leaves, shows particular favor to David. Another day, Ham and Mr. Peggotty come to visit David at school. They meet Steerforth and are amused by him.
On the day that David arrives home for the holidays, Mr. and Miss Murdstone are away. David, his mother, and Peggotty have supper and pass an evening the way they used to do before his mother remarried. David’s mother has a new child, and David loves the child dearly. The three laugh about Mr. Barkis’s proposal to Peggotty, and Peggotty vows never to leave David’s mother. Peggotty and David’s mother quarrel briefly over David’s mother’s marriage to Mr. Murdstone. David’s mother argues that Mr. Murdstone is just trying to improve her character. She feels that she should be grateful to him. David observes that Peggotty only provokes his mother so that she might feel better by providing these justifications.
The next morning, David apologizes to Mr. Murdstone for biting his hand. Later, he picks up the baby. Miss Murdstone flies into a rage, telling David never to touch the child again. To David’s surprise, his mother sides with Miss Murdstone. David’s mother observes that her two children have the same eyes. Miss Murdstone shrieks that such a comparison between the wretched David and her knightly brother’s child is utterly foolish. Mr. Murdstone forces David to remain in the company of the adults, even though they never speak to him. Mr. Murdstone says that David’s habit of reading in his room is evidence of his sullenness.
When David’s holiday is over, Mr. Barkis picks him up. As they drive away, David turns around and sees his mother standing in the road and holding up her child to him.
In the middle of the next term, David’s mother dies. The school sends David home, and Mr. Omer, a funeral director and general services provider, picks him up at the coach. Mr. Omer takes David to his shop, where he meets Mr. Omer’s daughter, Minnie, and her sweetheart, Mr. Joram. Mr. Joram builds David’s mother’s coffin behind the shop, and David sits through the day listening to the sounds of the hammer. Mr. Omer tells David that David’s little brother died a few days after his mother. The Omer family is quite jovial, but David sits in the shop with his head down.
When David arrives home, Peggotty greets him and comforts him. Miss Murdstone only asks him if he has remembered his clothes. In retrospect, David admits that he cannot recall the order of all the events around this time, but he describes going to his mother’s funeral with the few people who attend. Afterward, Peggotty comes to him and tells him about his mother’s last moments. She says that his mother died with her head on Peggotty’s arm.
Mr. and Miss Murdstone take no interest in David after his mother’s death. They make it clear that they want him around as little as possible. Miss Murdstone fires Peggotty, who goes home to her family. Peggotty proposes to take David with her for a visit. On the ride there, Mr. Barkis flirts with Peggotty, who asks David what he would think if she married Mr. Barkis after all. David says he thinks it is a wonderful idea.
At Mr. Peggotty’s house, David finds Little Em’ly older and more beautiful than before, though she has become a bit spoiled and coy. Mr. Peggotty and Ham praise Steerforth, whom they have met at Salem House. Mr. Barkis and Peggotty get married in a private ceremony at a church one afternoon while Little Em’ly and David are out riding around. When David returns home, Mr. and Miss Murdstone completely ignore him. David falls into a state of neglect until Mr. Quinion, Mr. Murdstone’s business partner, appears. When Mr. Quinion arrives, the Murdstones arrange for David to go to London to work in the wine-bottling industry.
Mothers and mother figures in David Copperfield represent a safe harbor from the cruelty of the world. They fill this role not only for children but for adults as well. David’s mother offers him emotional support and occasional reprieve from the Murdstones’ cruelty. Peggotty takes on the role of mother figure to both David and David’s mother, as she cares for both of them when they need her help. Many of Dickens’s novels feature orphans who, lacking this important refuge from a cruel world, come across as especially pitiful characters. In David’s case, Peggotty (and later, Miss Betsey) save him from this fate. But until these mother figures are able to help him, he suffers a great deal in losing his natural mother and living with the disadvantages that motherlessness creates.
Although the large cast of secondary characters in David Copperfield may seem overwhelming, these characters serve two important narrative functions: they mark the different phases of the novel and give editorial commentary about the actions of the main characters. Throughout the novel, secondary characters voice general opinions about the events involving the main characters. Because Dickens goes into such great detail in describing the lives of the main characters, the thoughts and actions of the secondary characters provide welcome breaks from the novel’s main plots. The secondary characters also alert us to transitions between the novel’s different sections, for they often appear at critical moments when the emotional intensity of the main plot is at its height. Mr. Omer, for example, appears in order to inform David of his mother and sister’s death. Moreover, the Omers’ happy family life serves as a contrast to David’s sorrow at his mother’s death. In this way, secondary characters not only comment on the novel’s main characters but also provide transitions between the novel’s different phases.
In his vanity, egotism, and pride, James Steerforth acts as a foil for David’s naïve innocence and wide-eyed trustfulness. David worships Steerforth, but this adoration is undeserved. We see that Steerforth’s support of David originates not from kindness but rather from a desire to increase his own importance and control over the other boys. Steerforth’s willingness to manipulate David both contrasts with and highlights David’s willingness to trust Steerforth. The only clue we have that David might suspect that Steerforth is not what he seems is David’s occasional remark that Steerforth did not bother to save him from Mr. Creakle’s punishments. It is clear to us, however, that Steerforth is bigoted and self-centered, especially in his interactions with Mr. Mell. This disparity between David’s perception of his world and our perception of it provides dramatic irony that persists throughout much of the novel.