Summary: Chapter 39: Wickfield and Heep

To distract himself from his troubles with Dora, David goes to check on Miss Betsey’s cottage, which proves to be in excellent condition. He then goes to Canterbury to visit Agnes and Mr. Wickfield. At Mr. Wickfield’s, David finds that Uriah Heep and his mother have taken control. Mr. Micawber has become a tenant at Mr. Wickfield’s house. David sees Mr. Micawber and speaks with him but feels they have grown distant from each other. Agnes persuades David to write to Dora’s aunts to seek permission to visit Dora.

David longs to talk to Agnes in private, but the bothersome Mrs. Heep never leaves them alone. When David tells Uriah that he is engaged to someone other than Agnes, Uriah admits that he asked Mrs. Heep to follow David and Agnes around. Uriah also professes his love for Agnes and his intention to marry her. He reveals that his father taught him to be humble and ingratiating in order to succeed in the world. Uriah observes that, although he is humble, he does have some power.

Later, when Uriah, Mr. Wickfield, and David are alone together, Uriah gets Mr. Wickfield drunk, toasts Agnes, and announces his intention to marry her. Mr. Wickfield becomes hysterical at this suggestion and tells David how much control Uriah has managed to establish over him. Uriah warns Mr. Wickfield to keep quiet and not insult him because he knows Mr. Wickfield’s secret. Eventually, Agnes comes into the room and drags Mr. Wickfield away.

Before David leaves, he and Agnes have a tender parting. Uriah informs David that he has apologized to Mr. Wickfield and that they have made up. Uriah tells David that his sin was bringing up the subject of his marriage to Agnes too soon, but he assures David that it will happen.

Summary: Chapter 40: The Wanderer

Late one night, David runs into Mr. Peggotty, who says that he has been looking for Little Em’ly on the continent. Mr. Peggotty has come close to finding her a few times and has received a letter from her. In all, Little Em’ly has sent three letters containing money to the Peggottys. Mrs. Gummidge has replied to one of the letters, telling Little Em’ly that her uncle misses her terribly and will forgive her if she comes back. While Mr. Peggotty tells David this story, David sees Martha listening at the inn door. Martha disappears, and Mr. Peggotty goes off to a cheap inn where he can stay for the night before he sets off again on his journey.

Summary: Chapter 41: Dora’s Aunts.

Dora’s aunts answer David’s letter and tell him he is welcome to visit in order to discuss his courtship of Dora. Thrilled, David goes to see the aunts, bringing Traddles along to assist him in convincing them. On the way, David asks Traddles to comb his hair. Traddles says that no amount of combing will make his hair lay flat—a family trait that leads his beloved Sophy Crewler’s sisters to make fun of him incessantly.

David meets with sisters Lavinia and Clarissa, who obviously revel in the prospect of overseeing David and Dora’s courtship. They invite him to dinner once a week and tea as often as he likes. David and Dora spend all their weekends together, and she has begun to call him “Doady.” David loves Dora but fails to convince her to learn how to keep house. He objects slightly to the fact that his and Dora’s aunts treat Dora the same way that Dora treats her pet dog, Jip. David notices that even he sometimes treats Dora as a plaything.

Summary: Chapter 42: Mischief

My meaning simply is that whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well . . . I have always been thoroughly in earnest.

See Important Quotations Explained

Mr. Wickfield and Agnes visit the Strongs. Agnes and Dora get along well. Dora is a bit amazed that David loves her considering he has been so close to Agnes for so long. When David takes Agnes home, Agnes assures him that she will never marry Uriah and that, lately, she is happier being alone.

David sees a light on in Doctor Strong’s study and goes in to say goodnight. In the study, David discovers Uriah and Mr. Wickfield with Doctor Strong, who is crying. Uriah has just told Doctor Strong that his friends all suspect the doctor’s wife of cheating on him with Jack Maldon. Uriah forces Mr. Wickfield and David to admit that they have suspected this to be the case. Doctor Strong refuses to doubt Annie. He blames himself for marrying so young and beautiful a woman, who must be unhappy with an old man. After Mr. Wickfield takes Doctor Strong to bed, David strikes Uriah across the face and tells him how much he hates him. Uriah calmly tells David that he forgives him for his outburst. This remark prompts David to feel, for the first time, morally inferior to Uriah.

Over the next several weeks, David observes a growing sadness in the Strong house. Only Mr. Dick, who befriends Annie and Doctor Strong, brings any peace into the house because both Annie and Doctor Strong love him so dearly and because he is such a good friend to them both. David receives a letter from Mrs. Micawber, who writes that Mr. Micawber has become a different man, sullen and greedy, a stranger to his children and short with her.

Analysis: Chapters 39–42

Dickens intensifies the dramatic intensity of David Copperfield by establishing connections between characters who up to this point have been involved only in separate subplots. Prior to this chapter, many of the secondary characters have relationships with David but not with each other. For example, Steerforth and the Yarmouth families do not know each other until this point in the novel, when, suddenly, their subplots intertwine. Dickens’s relation of these subplots to one another deepens our understanding of his characters and heightens the dramatic intensity of their actions. In entangling Little Em’ly and Steerforth, for example, Dickens changes Steerforth’s character weakness from an abstract flaw to a real problem that affects other characters in the novel. Mr. Peggotty’s devastated reaction makes Steerforth’s action more dramatic because it shows the real pain that Steerforth causes.

Uriah Heep emerges as a foil to David, a character whose actions and traits contrast David’s in a way that gives us a better understanding of both of their characters. Uriah’s revelation that he grew up in extreme poverty similar to David’s shows how two people can emerge from the same circumstances in drastically different ways. Whereas Uriah’s poverty has made him manipulative and cruel, David’s similarly harsh surroundings have made him forthright and generous. But Dickens muddles this distinction a bit in the scene in which David strikes Uriah without much provocation. Afterward, David worries that Uriah’s hatred has infected him and feels himself cowardly for allowing Uriah’s behavior to bother him. All the same, the fact that David feels remorse after hitting Uriah shows that he remains a morally upstanding character: when he does something wrong, he feels guilt that a truly evil character would not feel.

Dickens uses the parental figures in the novel to explore the question of how much affection parents should lavish on their children. Just as Mrs. Steerforth’s overindulgence of her son makes him arrogant and self-righteous, Mrs. Heep’s excess of attention instills in her son the belief that he is entitled to more than other people. In contrast, the sincere but distant love that Miss Betsey shows for David and that Mr. Wickfield shows for Agnes gives both David and Agnes security and self-worth without an exaggerated sense of self-importance. In the cases of both David and Agnes, the parent figures correct the children’s faults rather than indulge them—a far cry from Mrs. Steerforth and Mrs. Heep, who throw every material good they can at their children in order to soothe them. Good parents, then, in Dickens’s world, are those who surround their children with love but do not spoil them with more than they need to survive.