David sets off on a monthlong journey to Yarmouth, to the home of Peggotty and her family, to decide what profession to pursue. He takes his leave of Agnes and Mr. Wickfield, and Doctor Strong throws a going-away party in David’s honor. At the party, Annie’s mother reveals that Jack Maldon has sent Doctor Strong a letter in which he claims that he is ill and likely to return soon on sick leave. But Annie has received another letter from Jack Maldon indicating that he wants to return because he misses her.
The next morning, David leaves on the London coach and tries to appear as manly as possible. Nonetheless, the coachman asks him to resign his seat of honor to an older man. David spends the evening at an inn, where the waiter pokes fun at his youthfulness and the chambermaid gives him a pitiful room. David attends a play, returns to the inn, and discovers Steerforth in a sitting room. Steerforth is now attending Oxford but is bored by his studies and is on his way home to see his mother. David and Steerforth are happily reunited, and the inn staff immediately treat David with respect.
Steerforth persuades David to stay a few days with him at his mother’s house before going to Yarmouth. Steerforth nicknames David “Daisy,” and the two of them spend the day sightseeing before going to Steerforth’s home. There, David meets Mrs. Steerforth, Steerforth’s widowed mother, and Rosa Dartle, Steerforth’s orphaned distant cousin whom Mrs. Steerforth took in when Miss Dartle’s mother died. Mrs. Steerforth is an imposing, older, more feminine version of Steerforth, and she dotes on her son ceaselessly. Miss Dartle has a scar above her lip from a time when Steerforth, as a child, threw a hammer at her in anger. Miss Dartle views Steerforth’s and David’s words and actions with sarcasm, but both young men are drawn to her.
If anyone had told me, then, that all this was a brilliant game, played for the excitement of the moment . . . in the thoughtless love of superiority . . . I wonder in what manner of receiving it my indignation would have found a vent!
At Steerforth’s, David meets Littimer, Steerforth’s servant, who frightens David because he is so haughty and respectable. David persuades Steerforth to accompany him to Yarmouth to see Ham and Mr. Peggotty again and to meet Peggotty and Little Em’ly. On his way to Peggotty’s, David stops at Mr. Omer’s shop and sees Mr. Omer and his daughter, who is now married to her sweetheart. Mr.
Omer tells David that Little Em’ly now works in his shop. She is a good and diligent worker, but some of the girls in town say she has earned a reputation for putting on airs and wanting to be a lady. David decides not to see Little Em’ly until later, so he continues on to Barkis’s house to find Peggotty.
Peggotty does not recognize David at first, but when she does, she sobs over him for a long time. Mr. Barkis, ill but glad to see David, opens his cherished money box and gives Peggotty some money to prepare dinner for David. Steerforth arrives and entertains Peggotty and David. In retrospect, the adult David muses that if anyone had told him that night that Steerforth’s joviality and manners were all part of a game to him, born from his sense of superiority, David would have dismissed such an idea as a lie. When Steerforth and David arrive at Mr. Peggotty’s house, they find everyone, including Mrs. Gummidge, in a state of high excitement because Little Em’ly has just announced that she intends to marry Ham. After they leave, David delights in the good news, but Steerforth becomes momentarily and inexplicably sullen.
While in Yarmouth, David visits his old home and feels both pleasure and sorrow at seeing the old places. When he returns late from one such visit, he finds Steerforth alone and in a bad mood, angry that he has not had a father all these years and that he is unable to guide himself better. Steerforth tells David that he would rather even be the wretched Ham than be himself, richer and wiser. After they leave, Steerforth reveals to David that he has bought a boat to be manned by Mr. Peggotty in his absence, and he has named it “The Little Em’ly.”
At the inn, David and Steerforth meet Miss Mowcher, a loud and brash dwarf who cuts Steerforth’s hair as they gossip and talk of Mr. Peggotty, Ham, and Little Em’ly. When David arrives at Peggotty’s, where he is to stay for the night, he discovers Little Em’ly and Ham with Martha, a woman who used to work at Mr. Omer’s with Little Em’ly but fell into disgrace and came back to beg help from Little Em’ly. After Martha leaves, Little Em’ly becomes very upset and cries that she is not nearly as good a girl as she ought to be.
The simple life at Yarmouth contrasts starkly with the sophisticated life at Steerforth’s home. At Steerforth’s, characters use their words and actions strategically to produce a desired effect. Littimer, for example, speaks in such a convoluted manner as to be completely opaque, while every one of Mrs. Steerforth’s actions is motivated by her sense of propriety and self-possession. At Yarmouth, on the other hand, characters say exactly what they mean and act out of a desire for harmony with each other. The contrast highlights the class distinction between the two families. The description of the families contributes to Dickens’s overall message that wealth and power do not correlate with good character, and that poverty does not necessarily indicate bad character.
At home, Steerforth reveals that, at heart, he is slick, egotistical, and vain, even though David still continues to deny these tendencies in him. Mrs. Steerforth’s constant doting on her son reinforces these tendencies in Steerforth and make his self-centered nature understandable, if not justified. Though David is unaware of Steerforth’s snobbery, Steerforth belittles David from the moment they meet. Steerforth further demeans David by giving him the nickname “Daisy,” but David still is too caught up in his worship of Steerforth to see anything but his good qualities. Although Steerforth does demonstrate some thoughtfulness at Yarmouth, as when he tells David that he wishes he could be more focused, his self-reflective mood passes as quickly as it appears. David ignores Steerforth’s insults, as well as the fact that Mrs. Steerforth likes David only because he adores her son. Even when Steerforth begins to confide in David about his own insecurities, David views him as a superior being in whom all faults are positive attributes. David’s idolization of Steerforth makes him incapable of seeing the true nature of his false friend, even when Steerforth’s bad side is most exposed.
David attains greater consciousness of romantic love as his character develops. At this stage, David’s feelings of love are still impetuous and adolescent. His frivolous infatuations mirror many of the romantic relationships he sees in his life around him, like that between Annie Strong and Jack Maldon. Although David’s experience of love is not yet as deep as it is later in the novel, he is increasingly aware of others’ romantic relationships. He observes the affair between Jack Maldon and Annie Strong, as well as the unfolding of the love affair between Mr. Orem’s daughter and her sweetheart. As David awakens to romantic love, his narrative focuses more and more on the emotional relationships between characters.