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by Charles Dickens
James Steerforth Timeline and Summary
As a little boy, Steerforth loses his temper with his father's orphaned cousin, Miss Rosa Dartle. He throws a hammer at her face, leaving Miss Dartle with a scar on her lip. As a much older boy, Steerforth meets David at Salem House, when Steerforth is head boy. David's innocence and kindness attracts Steerforth. Steerforth becomes David's social mentor at Salem House. He uses David's pocket money to buy food for all the boys and encourages David to recount the stories he has read for their entertainment. When Mr. Mell scolds Steerforth for mocking him to his face, Steerforth gets Mr. Mell fired. He tells Mr. Creakle that Mr. Mell's mother is in the poor house, and Mr. Creakle gets rid of Mr. Mell. Steerforth reassures the other boys that he plans to write to his mother to get Mr. Mell a job, but we see no evidence that Steerforth does. Steerforth leaves Salem House. At Oxford, Steerforth continue his studies. Steerforth bumps into David by accident several years later. They are both staying at the same inn in London: Steerforth is on his way to visit his mother, and David is on his way to Yarmouth. David and Steerforth start up their friendship again. Steerforth invites David to his mother's house for a few days. Mrs. Steerforth lives with a companion, the same Miss Rosa Dartle whom Steerforth scarred as a boy. Miss Dartle seems obsessed with Steerforth. She spends a lot of her time needling him and trying to provoke him. Steerforth does his best to avoid rising to Miss Dartle's bait. At Mrs. Steerforth's house, Miss Dartle sarcastically taunts Steerforth for believing that the poor have fewer feelings than the rich. Steerforth doesn't seem to notice. After this visit to the Steerforth home, he and David head on to Yarmouth. Steerforth makes nice with the Peggottys, even though in private, he says some pretty critical things about their poverty and Ham's stupidity. However, Steerforth really, really likes Emily. Unknown to David, Steerforth commands his servant, Littimer, to stay in Yarmouth while Steerforth is at Oxford. Littimer is there to pass letters to Emily, and generally to keep Emily's attention on the absent Steerforth. Steerforth decides to buy a boat so that he can keep visiting Yarmouth on his own, without David. He leaves the boat in the care of the Peggottys while he's not around. He calls the boat, "The Little Em'ly." As all of this plotting is going on, David continues to hang out with Steerforth. David gives a dinner party for Steerforth and his two Oxford friends, Grainger and Markham. David gets rip-roaring drunk and humiliates himself in public by making lots of noise at the opera. Agnes warns David against Steerforth and he doesn't listen. David and Steerforth visit Mrs. Steerforth's house again. Steerforth seems to have some foreshadowing of disaster. He asks David to remember him always at his best if the two never see each other again. David protests that he always thinks of Steerforth at his best. Steerforth is touched and moved by David's loyalty. Meanwhile, slowly, Emily is seduced into accompanying Steerforth and Littimer. Emily leaves her fiancé and her uncle to travel with Steerforth. Abandoning England, they travel to Europe together, where Emily starts to pick up foreign languages and generally to enjoy herself. Steerforth is very attached to Emily – for a time. But eventually, Steerforth grows tired of her. Steerforth eventually leaves Emily in the care of his servant, Littimer. To make Emily legitimate in the eyes of society, he offers to let her marry Littimer. Emily refuses, and runs away from Littimer. (We have no news of Steerforth's movements between his desertion of Emily and his own reappearance in Yarmouth.) Steerforth's boat is sailing just off the Yarmouth shore when a huge storm blows in. He tries to get to shore but the sea is too rough. Steerforth drowns. His body washes ashore, where David retrieves it. David takes Steerforth's body to Mrs. Steerforth. David witnesses Miss Dartle blaming Mrs. Steerforth for Steerforth's death because Mrs. Steerforth spoiled him and encouraged his worst qualities.