Study Guide

David Copperfield Chapter 21

By Charles Dickens

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Chapter 21

Little Em'ly

  • Steerforth keeps a servant named Littimer, who is the most respectable and imposing-looking man imaginable.
  • This man brings David the shaving water he continues not to need and helps him dress.
  • Littimer informs David that breakfast is at 9:30.
  • Every morning, David and Littimer have this exact same conversation, and it somehow always makes David feels like a child again.
  • Steerforth instructs David in riding, fencing, and boxing.
  • David continues to feel completely inexperienced, which is fine in front of Steerforth but embarrasses him in front of Littimer.
  • David spends a week at Steerforth's house and is perfectly happy.
  • Steerforth decides to accompany David to Yarmouth to see the Peggottys.
  • Littimer arranges everything for their departure, but does not accompany Steerforth.
  • They say goodbye to Mrs. Steerforth and Miss Dartle.
  • David and Steerforth arrive at Yarmouth and make arrangements for Steerforth to come to the boathouse that evening.
  • They decide to take the Peggottys by surprise.
  • Steerforth makes a weird remark that he wants to "see the natives in their aboriginal condition" (21.23), as though the Peggottys are the subjects of an anthropological investigation.
  • David comments that the Peggottys are part of the lower orders Steerforth was talking about earlier in the visit.
  • Steerforth tells David not to mind his argument with Miss Dartle about the poor.
  • David wants to head off to see Peggotty first, so he gives Steerforth directions to Mr. Barkis's home and they part.
  • As David is walking through Yarmouth, he sees the shop of Mr. Omer, the tailor, who outfitted his mother with her funeral clothes.
  • He stops to say thank you.
  • David sees Minnie Omer, who is now married to Joram the carpenter, and her young son, Joe.
  • Mr. Omer comes in, and David shakes his hand.
  • Mr. Omer doesn't remember David, so David reminds him of a day long ago when they road to Blunderstone together with Minnie and Joram to bury David's mother.
  • Remembering at last, Mr. Omer asks how David has been.
  • David's been fine, as has Mr. Omer, though he's getting old.
  • Mr. Omer further recalls that Peggotty was a servant for Mrs. Copperfield.
  • He tells David that a young relation of Peggotty is currently acting as an apprentice in his shop: it's little Emily! She's learning to be a dressmaker.
  • Mr. Omer informs David that half the women of Yarmouth hate little Emily because she is so beautiful.
  • Minnie adds that that's not the problem; the issue is that little Emily is reaching above her station in life.
  • Little Emily has given them scandal to talk about, which is what has made her the subject of so much gossip.
  • Mr. Omer sticks to his story: it's jealousy because little Emily is so lovely.
  • See, Emily hasn't really become friends with any of the people in the neighborhood, so word has gotten around that she wants to be a lady. She wants to improve her social position above what she was born to.
  • But Mr. Omer says this isn't true – he just thinks that people have misinterpreted her saying that if she were a lady, she would improve her uncle's life.
  • Her reputation isn't great because she's so vain about her clothing and because she is a bit spoiled.
  • Even so, Emily has been a dedicated apprentice – both Mr. Omer and Minnie agree on this – and she's doing well as a dressmaker.
  • David asks if little Emily is in and if he might see her?
  • He glimpses Emily through a window, and she looks as lovely as ever.
  • Mr. Omer invites David to come in and speak to little Emily, but he suddenly feels very shy and backs off.
  • David continues on to Peggotty's house.
  • He finds Peggotty in the kitchen cooking dinner.
  • David knocks, and she answers the door.
  • He smiles at Peggotty, but she doesn't recognize him straight away – it has been seven years since she last saw him.
  • So, David pretends for a bit: he asks Peggotty if Mr. Barkis is at home, and if he goes over to Blunderstone often?
  • Then David asks about a place in Blunderstone called, let's see, the Rookery?
  • And Peggotty suddenly puts it all together: it's David! And they embrace, weeping.
  • She is so, so happy and proud to see him.
  • Peggotty takes David up to Mr. Barkis's room, where Mr. Barkis is laid up with rheumatism (which is a painful swelling of the joints).
  • Mr. Barkis is very happy to see David as well, and they joke about that old message David passed to Peggotty, that Barkis is willing.
  • The old carrier tells David that he is very pleased with his decision to marry Peggotty, because she does indeed do a lot of baking.
  • Mr. Barkis complains of being very poor.
  • He indicates a box underneath his bed, but he tells David that it's full of old clothes. He wishes it were money, but he assures David that it's not.
  • Mr. Barkis tells Peggotty to make David a good supper and offers her some money.
  • But he won't take the money out of his box (which is obviously not filled with old clothes) until David and Peggotty are out of the room. When he is alone, he will crawl painfully out of bed to pull out the box himself, because he's gotten really miserly.
  • David tells Peggotty that Steerforth is planning to come.
  • Peggotty is well-disposed towards him because Steerforth has been so kind to David.
  • Steerforth is so agreeable and good-humored with Peggotty and Mr. Barkis that everyone is delighted.
  • Later on, they head to Mr. Peggotty's boat house.
  • Steerforth and David sneak up to the front door.
  • Everyone inside looks unusually excited, even the generally grim Mrs. Gummidge.
  • Mr. Peggotty looks like he's about to embrace Emily, Emily is blushing and smiling, and Ham Peggotty is holding her hand.
  • Just at this point, David and Steerforth walk in, and Ham Peggotty shouts that it's David.
  • They all shake hands with each other and seem overcome with pride and happiness.
  • Mr. Peggotty is thrilled to see David and Steerforth under his roof and all grown up.
  • The boatman is glad to be able to tell them his great news: that little Emily, whom he has raised as his own daughter, is going to marry Ham Peggotty, who has been her close companion since they were children.
  • Ham is so incredibly filled with joy that he almost falls down when Mr. Peggotty announces their plan.
  • David finds it moving that someone as sturdy as Ham could be trembling with feeling at his upcoming marriage.
  • David is filled with real pleasure at the news of this upcoming marriage.
  • Steerforth shakes hands with Mr. Peggotty and Ham, and then they all call little Emily back in to celebrate.
  • Emily is extremely bashful to start with, but she slowly relaxes under the effects of Steerforth's charm.
  • She laughs at Steerforth's jokes and seems fascinated with his face.
  • Even Mrs. Gummidge starts to cheer up at Steerforth's conversation.
  • Little Emily talks to David about their old adventures on the beach and his devotion to her.
  • David observes that Emily seems to be pressing close to the wall rather than leaning towards Ham, even though he's sitting next to her.
  • At around midnight, they leave. Steerforth goes to a hotel, and David returns to Mr. Barkis's house.
  • As they walk off, Steerforth comments on how lovely Emily is.
  • David adds that he's happy that they happened to arrive just at the news of this marriage.
  • Steerforth thinks Ham seems like kind of an idiot – Emily could do better.
  • David is shocked at this: Steerforth had been so generous and kind with Ham that David can't believe he was thinking bad things about him the whole time.
  • In fact, David decides that Steerforth is trying to pretend he's a worse man than he is.
  • How can Steerforth really have such negative opinions of the poor if he understands them well enough to pass such a pleasant evening with them?
  • Steerforth tells David that he wishes everyone could be as good as David is.

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