Summary: Chapter 15: I make another Beginning

Miss Betsey proposes that David, whom she has nicknamed “Trot,” be sent to school at Canterbury. They go to Canterbury and visit Mr. Wickfield, a lawyer and a friend of Miss Betsey’s. At Mr. Wickfield’s, they meet Uriah Heep, an unattractive young redhead dressed entirely in black and skeleton-like in appearance. Uriah takes them to Mr. Wickfield, who recommends a school for David but warns that the dorms are full and that David will have to stay elsewhere. The adults agree that David can go to the school and stay with Mr. Wickfield until they find a more suitable arrangement. David meets Agnes, Mr. Wickfield’s lovely and charming daughter, who dotes on her father and is his one joy since his wife died. The three dine and have tea together. David rises in the middle of the night and encounters Uriah Heep, whose sliminess so strikes David that he feels the need to rub off Uriah’s touch after shaking his hand.

Summary: Chapter 16: I am a New Boy in more senses than one

At school the next day, David meets the headmaster, Doctor Strong, and his young wife, Annie. Mr. Wickfield and Doctor Strong discuss arrangements Mr. Wickfield is trying to make for Annie’s cousin, Jack Maldon. Mr. Wickfield wants to know whether there is any particular reason that Doctor Strong wants Jack Maldon’s new job to be one that sends him out of the country. Doctor Strong assures him there is not.

David is behind in his studies but quickly catches up. He makes friends with the boys at the school. At home, David speaks with Agnes, whom he finds more and more charming in her devotion to her father. One evening, at dinner, Jack Maldon interrupts the family to say that he hopes he can go abroad as soon as possible. Mr. Wickfield treats him politely but distantly and assures him that there will be no delay in getting him sent abroad. After dinner, Mr. Wickfield drinks heavily, and Agnes and David chat with him and play dominos. Mr. Wickfield offers to let David stay permanently at the house, and David gladly accepts. On his way to bed, David runs into Uriah Heep. Uriah asks him whether he is impressed with Agnes. David notes that whenever he says something that pleases Uriah, Uriah writhes like a snake.

David quickly rises to the top of his class and settles in happily. One evening, he, Mr. Wickfield, and Agnes visit Doctor Strong’s home for a farewell party for Jack Maldon. Annie’s mother is there, and she encourages Doctor Strong to continue to bestow favors on her family members, who are poor and lower-class. Doctor Strong acquiesces to all her demands. When Jack Maldon leaves to depart for India, Annie becomes very emotional. As the coach pulls away, David sees one of her ribbons in Jack Maldon’s hand.

Summary: Chapter 17: Somebody turns up

Peggotty writes to David and tells him that the furniture at his old house has been sold, the Murdstones have moved, and the house is for sale. David tells Miss Betsey of all the news in Peggotty’s letters when she visits him at school, as she does frequently. Mr. Dick visits even more frequently and becomes a favorite of Doctor Strong and the other school boys. Mr. Dick tells David that Miss Betsey recently had a strange nighttime encounter with a man who frightened her so badly that she fainted. Neither Mr. Dick nor David understands the encounter. Mr. Dick reports that the man appeared again the previous night, and that Miss Betsey gave him money.

David goes to tea at Uriah Heep’s house, where Uriah and his mother intimidate David into telling them secrets about Agnes, especially about her father’s health and financial situation. David is very uncomfortable with the Heeps and feels that they are manipulating him. Uriah and his mother both frequently repeat that they are so humble as to be grateful for any attention from David. In the middle of tea, Mr. Micawber walks by the door. On seeing David, he enters. The two of them leave together and visit Mrs. Micawber, who is very glad to see David. The Micawbers are in terrible financial straits again, but they are quite merry over dinner nonetheless.

Summary: Chapter 18: A Retrospect

In retrospect, the adult David recounts several years in Doctor Strong’s school and his two love interests during his time there—a young girl named Miss Shepherd and an older woman named Miss Larkins. David also recalls a fistfight he had with a young arrogant butcher. Eventually, to his surprise, David rose to be the top boy at the school. When he was seventeen, he graduated.

Analysis: Chapters 15–18

The retrospective Chapter 18 marks the end of David’s boyhood and his entrance into the world as a man. Throughout his childhood, David’s character traits remain fairly constant. Although his life changes radically and frequently, often in cruel ways, David remains for the most part the naïve, hopeful boy he is in the first chapters of the novel, when his mother is alive. As David later observes when speaking of Uriah Heep, a miserable childhood can easily turn a boy into a monster. David’s resilience, in contrast, is striking. Nonetheless, for all his pride in his growth, David remains gullible. This innocence lends a freshness to the narrative’s perspective—a freshness that has prompted many critics to label David Copperfield the finest portrayal of childhood ever written. As David grows older, he does remain somewhat simple-hearted and maintains a startling faith in humanity, but his narrative perspective does mature alongside him. David gradually leaves his childhood romanticism behind and looks at the world in more realistic terms, and the novel’s narrative tone reflects this change.

Mr. Dick, who is both a man and a boy, contrasts with the other adult male characters in the novel, who tend to be harsh and gruff. In a story focused on the process of maturation, Mr. Dick is a model of a mature adult who is not jaded by the cruelties of the world. Like Miss Mowcher, who appears later in the novel, Mr. Dick might be described as a young mind in an adult body. Like a boy, he is unable to control his impulses or order his thoughts. Furthermore, as an innocent character, Mr. Dick demonstrates the power of love over cruelty within the moral framework of the novel. Mr. Dick’s love for David and Miss Betsey gives his character moral credibility throughout the novel. In the closing chapters of David Copperfield, Mr. Dick becomes heroic in his own right, demonstrating the supremacy of simplicity and gentleness over cunning and violence. In this way, he shows that craftiness does not signify maturity or adulthood—an important lesson for David as he becomes a man.

At one point or another, each of the admirable adult characters in the story becomes slightly crazy, allowing Dickens to explore the relationship between intelligence and insanity. Miss Betsey’s obsession with donkeys makes her eccentric to the point of madness. Most of the characters consider Doctor Strong’s faith in Annie to be lunatic. Later, Mr. Peggotty’s faith in Little Em’ly leads some to consider him a raving madman travelling the countryside in search of his niece. Although the outside world would dismiss many of Dickens’s characters as insane, within David Copperfield, characters who are crazy are often of high moral quality. This contrast emphasizes Dickens’s rejection of the logic of the external world, which he sees as flawed. In the same way that Dickens rejects class as a marker of a good heart, he likewise rejects sanity as a marker of maturity. Instead, he focuses on the purity of his characters’ intentions and their willingness to follow their convictions.