by Charles Dickens
Steerforth is one of those effortlessly graceful people who turn everything they touch into gold. You know, every school has at least one: the popular kid who seems easily to get whatever he wants. And that's kind of the problem: Steerforth is an energetic guy with nothing to push against or to do with his talents. He's got money and a good family, so he doesn't have to struggle the way David or Tommy Traddles do.
Steerforth is also absolutely not used to opposition, which gives him a sense of entitlement. This leads not only to his own death, but also to the social ruin of Emily and the death of Ham Peggotty. Still, while Steerforth may be bad news, he's also probably one of the most complex and nuanced bad guys in this novel. Steerforth isn't cartoonishly evil the way Uriah Heep, Mr. Murdstone, and Mr. Creakle are evil. But he does terrible wrong in any case. So, we're intrigued!
David meets Steerforth at Salem House. Steerforth is the most popular boy in school, so popular that even sadistic Mr. Creakle doesn't dare to beat him. (One might wonder why, if Steerforth has so much influence with Mr. Creakle, he doesn't prevent Mr. Creakle from viciously beating the other boys. But that doesn't occur to David at the time.) Anyway, David is immediately drawn to Steerforth's handsomeness, charm, and charisma.
This isn't to say that there are no warning signs that Steerforth's moral compass is a bit wonky. David tells us all about Steerforth's contempt when dealing with poor Mr. Mell (further discussed in Mr. Mell's own "Character Analysis").
And then there's the matter of Miss Rosa Dartle's scar. When David and Steerforth reunite by chance at an inn in London when David is 17, Steerforth invites him to stay with Steerforth's mother for a couple of days before they both head over to Yarmouth to visit the Peggottys. Steerforth's mother has a companion, an orphaned cousin of Steerforth's late father: Miss Rosa Dartle. Miss Dartle has a deep scar on her lip. She got this scar when Steerforth was a child. She said something that irritated Steerforth, so he threw a hammer at her face. This is not the act of a generous or good-natured kid.
But probably worst of all is Steerforth's unapologetic lack of sympathy for the poor. On David's first night staying at the Steerforth home in Highgate, Steerforth comments:
[The poor] are not expected to be as sensitive as we are. Their delicacy is not to be shocked, or hurt very easily. They are wonderfully virtuous, I dare say. [...] But they have not very fine natures; and they may be thankful that, like their coarse rough skins, they are not easily wounded. (20.39)
He's talking about poor people as though they are animals, with "coarse rough skins." And that condescending bit about them being "wonderfully virtuous" makes his belief that they cannot be "hurt very easily" even more like a slap in the face.
Steerforth's belief that the poor are basically insensitive foreshadows his own mother's truly nasty treatment of Mr. Peggotty when Emily runs away. Anyway, David willfully refuses to acknowledge that Steerforth means what he says, but Steerforth's later behavior towards to Peggottys proves that he really thinks poor people don't have the same feelings as rich people.
Where Steerforth Goes Wrong
As with Mr. Murdstone's abusive nature, Dickens doesn't let Steerforth's callous indifference to the poor go without an explanation. This is a novel of moral development, so every character's bad actions have to go with some kind of comment on what has gone wrong and how to avoid it.
It's clear that the root of Steerforth's coldness lies in two things: first, his mother spoils him; second, he is too rich. Mrs. Steerforth deliberately places Steerforth at Salem House because she is looking for a headmaster who will feel Steerforth's "superiority" and "bow himself before it" (20.59). In other words, she is so convinced of Steerforth's greatness that she refuses to allow him any discipline at all. No wonder Steerforth has such a sense of entitlement!
Even Steerforth acknowledges that his mother has not been a great parent to him: in one of his dark moods when he first arrives at Yarmouth, he exclaims to David:
I wish to God I had had a judicious father these last twenty years! [...] I wish with all my soul I had been better guided! [...] I wish with all my soul I could guide myself better! (22.20)
Steerforth knows that he has been allowed to do whatever he wants all of his life. This kind of treatment has made him unable to "guide [him]self better" even if he wants to. It's as though he is doomed to seduce Emily because he has no practice at self-restraint or self-denial. Steerforth genuinely seems to believe that he has no choice in his own behavior, because he has never been taught to behave morally.
So, Steerforth has been spoiled by his mother. But he has also been spoiled by his social station. When David and Steerforth meet up again, after David has left Doctor Strong's school but before he becomes a proctor, Steerforth is at Oxford. But he's not interested in his studies and he's not interested in fame. Steerforth doesn't really seem to be interested in anything, which, compared to David's single-minded writing and Traddles's dedication to the law, is a pretty luxurious position to be in.
Steerforth has the financial and social security he needs to do whatever he chooses – which is a problem because he can't figure out what he wants to do. His decision to buy a boat, name it the Little Em'ly, and start this long, convoluted seduction plot really underlines that Steerforth has lots of energy and way too much time on his hands.
If Steerforth had more challenges or if he had a real profession to focus his talents on, he might never have gone bad. The greatest tragedy of Steerforth's life seems to be that, even now, looking back, David can remember how talented and brilliant Steerforth was as a young man. His whole story seems to be one of disappointment: if Steerforth could only have been disciplined and trained as David and Traddles were, Steerforth could also have been a great man.
Why Steerforth Likes David So Much
From the first minute that Steerforth meets David, he seems attracted to David's sweetness. He tells David (and we guess this is a compliment?) that he would totally have been into David's sister if David had one:
"If you had had [a sister], I should think she would have been a pretty, timid, little bright-eyed sort of girl. I should have liked to know her." (6.59)
It's this fascination with David's innocence that leads Steerforth to call David "Daisy" when they meet up again seven years later: "The daisy of the field at sunrise is not fresher than you are" (19.139). Steerforth appears so preoccupied with David's goodness because that is what he lacks. Both Miss Rosa Dartle and Miss Mowcher comment on this as well.
Steerforth regards David as an ideal of goodness, what Steerforth could or should have been if he had been raised differently. Steerforth feels the moral superiority of David's affectionate, sympathetic nature, something Steerforth knows he lacks. Steerforth talks about a nightmare he had of himself as "the bad boy who 'didn't care,' and became food for lions" (22.24). Indeed, Steerforth's premonition proves accurate: he is a bad boy who doesn't care (enough), and he does become food – for the fishes, if not for the lions, since he drowns.
Here we see yet another example, like the Murdstones or Uriah Heep, of a character whose main moral flaw is a lack of affection and sympathy for other people. What distinguishes Steerforth from these other characters is that he knows that he is doing the wrong thing – he attaches himself to David as though David's innocence can keep Steerforth from being quite so bad. But even though Steerforth knows that he's in the wrong, he does it anyway, as though he despairs of his own ability to make moral choices.
This inability to be moral goes to show the power of family and social influences in Dickens's world: Steerforth literally cannot overcome having been spoiled by his mother and his social position. He is doomed by his origins in much the same way that Uriah Heep is twisted by his. (By the way, we get a much more nuanced view of money and morality in Dickens's excellent later novel, Great Expectations. Check out our Shmoop Learning Guide to find out more!)