“No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship; compared these henceforth everyday associates with those of my happier childhood—not to say with Steerforth, Traddles, and the rest of those boys; and felt my hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my bosom. The deep remembrance of the sense I had, of being utterly without hope now; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that day by day what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, would pass away from me, little by little, never to be brought back any more; cannot be written. As often as Mick Walker went away in the course of that forenoon, I mingled my tears with the water in which I was washing the bottles; and sobbed as if there were a flaw in my own breast, and it were in danger of bursting.”

This passage is located towards the beginning of the novel after Mr. Murdstone sends David to London to work at a wine bottling factory. As his guardian, Mr. Murdstone can exploit David as factory labor because the boy is too small and dependent on him to disobey. As a result, a young David starves and struggles in a factory instead of returning to school. Many Dickens scholars consider this portion of the novel to be semi-autobiographical because Dickens was forced to quit school to work in a factory after his father was sent to a debtor’s prison—an experience that humiliated and traumatized a young Dickens.

“Because his brother was a little eccentric—though he is not half so eccentric as a good many people—he didn’t like to have him visible about his house, and sent him away to some private asylum-place: though he had been left to his particular care by their deceased father, who thought him almost a natural.”

Here, Betsey Trotwood gives David an account of Mr. Dick’s history. She informs him that Mr. Dick’s brother tried to have him sent to an insane asylum because he was ashamed of his behavior. However, by this point in the novel, David (and therefore the reader) has already met Mr. Dick and it is obvious that he is a kind man whose eccentricities are completely harmless. Dickens comments on society’s unfair treatment of the mentally ill by way of Mr. Dick, who is a gentle man and was undeserving of his brother’s cruelty.

“It’s a poor wurem, Mas’r Davy… as is trod under foot by all the town. Up street and down street. The mowld o’ the churchyard don’t hold any that the folk shrink away from, more.”

Ham Peggotty delivers this line to David when he catches David eying Martha on the streets. Although Martha’s backstory is never explicitly stated, the interaction between Ham and David implies that she was ostracized by her hometown after having a pre-marital affair. Ham’s comment that Martha is “trod under foot by all the town” and his assertion that Little Em’ly should not associate with her illustrates the cruel way that fallen women were treated by polite society.

“I know it’s like me!... I know that I belong to it. I know that it’s the natural company of such as I am! It comes from country places, where there was once no harm in it—and it creeps through the dismal streets, defiled and miserable—and it goes away, like my life, to a great sea, that is always troubled—and I feel that I must go with it!”

David and Mr. Peggotty follow Martha into the London slums in an attempt to question her about Little Em’ly. When they arrive, David narrowly prevents her from committing suicide by jumping into the river. A near-hysterical Martha delivers the above dialogue to David as he restrains her. Her diction is revealing because she refers to herself as “dismal,” “defiled,” and “miserable.” Though it’s not explicitly stated what disgrace has befallen Martha, it’s implied she engaged in a premarital affair, and one can assume that Martha has come to think of herself in such degrading terms because she has been rejected and mistreated by society as a result. Her plight is meant to be representative of the many women who were destroyed after they fell from society’s good graces.

“I had been brought up as virtuous as you or any lady, and was going to be the wife of as good a man as you or any lady in the world can ever marry. If you live in his home and know him, you know, perhaps, what his power with a weak, vain girl might be. I don’t defend myself, but I know well, and he knows well, or he will know when he comes to die, and his mind is troubled with it, that he used all his power to deceive me, and that I believed him, trusted him, and loved him!”

Little Em’ly delivers this line to an enraged Rosa Dartle after Emily has made her way back to London. In her lengthy exposition, Emily explains that she was raised to be “virtuous” like every other young woman, but that Steerforth preyed upon her youth and her naïveté which weakened her defenses to his manipulation. Emily’s plight serves to show that young women could be ruined by a man's sexual misconduct while the man was able to escape completely unscathed.