Of all the characters in the novel, Agnes and Steerforth have the greatest influence over David, but their influences pull in opposite directions. While Agnes represents David’s “good Angel,” his conscience and his dependability, Steerforth urges David to take risks, drink too much, and be critical of the people around him. Agnes represents calm, considered reflection. Her energy is always directed, peaceful, and quiet. Steerforth, by contrast, is noisy, brash, and idle. While Agnes stays at home because her father needs her assistance, Steerforth gallivants all over the countryside pleasing himself. Whereas Agnes encourages David to take the correct path for the sake of morality, Steerforth insists on spending money and commanding servants around at his will. In this manner, Agnes and Steerforth pull David in different directions throughout the novel, forcing him to choose between good and bad.
David experiences his first moral dilemma when Agnes’s influence comes into direct conflict with Steerforth’s. After seeing David drunk at the theater, Agnes suggests that he should shun Steerforth’s company because it makes him do foolish things. This suggestion throws David into a conundrum about which person he should trust. He is not yet mature enough to reject Steerforth’s seductive charisma in favor of Agnes’s quiet, contemplative love. Although Agnes wins his heart in the end, it takes her a long time, and it is difficult for David to free himself from Steerforth’s hold. Only when David gains control of his own emotions does he fully appreciate Agnes and choose her over Steerforth. As we see, Agnes and Steerforth not only exert opposite effects on David but also require him to assert his identity by choosing between them.
Although David has grown since the start of the novel, he continues to be immature, naïve, and unable to control his emotions as he takes his first steps into the adult world. David’s tendency to become obsessed with young women, along with his drunkenness at Steerforth’s dinner party, demonstrate that he does not yet have power over his emotional side. Perhaps the most telling mark of David’s fickle nature is his love affair with Dora, which starts the moment he sees her, quickly develops into an obsession, and remains with him, even though he knows that she is too foolish and frivolous ever to make an appropriate wife. The love affair has many moments of tension, for every time David tries to persuade Dora to be reasonable, she accuses him of being cruel or naughty and makes him leave her alone. Despite these barriers and warning signs, David loves Dora desperately. His willingness to throw himself into such an unrealistic love affair reveals that his emotions are still naïve.