Study Guide

David Copperfield Chapter 7

By Charles Dickens

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Chapter 7

My 'First Half' at Salem House

  • The next day after this evening gossip-fest, school starts.
  • Mr. Creakle announces to the boys that they should "come fresh up to the lessons" (7.4) – that they should be fresh and ready for the semester – because he's going to be fresh and ready for punishment.
  • After this little speech, Mr. Creakle comes to see David personally and shows him the stick he uses to beat the boys.
  • Mr. Creakle tells David that, if David's well-known for biting, Mr. Creakle is, too: with his cane.
  • The school master makes similar threats to most of the boys sitting in the schoolroom.
  • Mr. Creakle is a terrible bully, and all of the children cower before him. When he mocks one of the students before beating him, the other boys are so terrorized that they laugh, too.
  • Traddles is a particular target of Mr. Creakle because he is particularly plump, and Mr. Creakle likes whipping the fat kids.
  • Traddles gets caned pretty much every day, but he's still pretty cheerful on the whole.
  • Traddles is also not a snitch: when he gets in trouble for something Steerforth actually does, he never tells the teachers the truth of the matter, and takes what should be Steerforth's whipping for him. For this, Steerforth praises Traddles, and all the boys are in awe.
  • Steerforth walks arm-in-arm with Miss Creakle quite often, which impresses the boys immensely.
  • Even though Steerforth can't (or doesn't) protect David from Mr. Creakle, he does encourage him and compliment David's bravery.
  • The one advantage of Mr. Creakle's cruelty is that David's sign gets in the way of his cane when he wants to clip the kid in passing, so he soon removes it.
  • Steerforth finds out that David has done a lot of reading; he asks David to tell the adventures he's read every night in their dorm room.
  • The one downside to this arrangement is that David is often tired when Steerforth wakes him to tell these stories. David does it anyway, though, because he admires Steerforth and wants his approval.
  • Steerforth is also kind to David, in his way: when Peggotty sends David a care package with a cake, some oranges, and two bottles of cowslip wine, David hands them all over to Steerforth (as is expected of him).
  • Steerforth offers David the wine to drink while he's telling his stories at night.
  • In fact, Steerforth keeps the wine locked up for David, and feeds it to him the last thing at night and the first thing in the morning to keep him healthy.
  • David is moved by Steerforth's attention to his health.
  • These story-telling nights in David's dorm encourage David to survive and to learn – even in the middle of a school basically dedicated to cruelty.
  • Mr. Mell helps David to learn, which David appreciates. It makes David feel bad that Steerforth spends a lot of his time mocking Mr. Mell more or less to his face.
  • One day, Mr. Creakle is sick, and so the boys are more or less free to do what they like.
  • Mr. Mell is supposed to keep order, but the boys are so excited that Mr. Creakle is out that they get a bit above themselves. They dance around him, singing and shouting and laughing at him for his poverty, his poor clothing, his mother – anything they can think of.
  • Mr. Mell suddenly stands up and asks them why they are behaving this way?
  • The boys all stop for a bit because they feel bad.
  • Steerforth is sitting at the back of the room whistling.
  • Mr. Mell tells him to be quiet.
  • Steerforth tells Mr. Mell to shut up.
  • Mr. Mell replies: "Sit down" (7.38).
  • Steerforth answers, "Sit down yourself [...] and mind your business" (7.39).
  • Some of the boys laugh and start clapping, but Mr. Mell looks so angry that they immediately shut up.
  • Mr. Mell tells Steerforth that he's fully aware of the influence Steerforth exerts over everyone at Salem House, but it's still shameful of him to insult a good man for something he cannot help: poverty.
  • Steerforth answers Mr. Mell that he has no right to call Steerforth shameful or mean, because he, Mr. Mell, is just a beggar.
  • At this dramatic moment, when it looks like either Mr. Mell or Steerforth is going to hit the other, Mr. Creakle comes in with Tungay, Mrs. Creakle, and Miss Creakle.
  • Mr. Creakle asks Mr. Mell if he has forgotten who he is addressing.
  • Mr. Mell stutters that he has remembered himself.
  • Mr. Creakle then asks Steerforth what is going on here.
  • Steerforth claims that Mr. Mell has been talking about favorites.
  • Mr. Mell clarifies that no student has the right to use his position as a favorite in the school to humiliate Mr. Mell.
  • Mr. Creakle is outraged that anyone could claim that there is favoritism at Salem House.
  • Steerforth jumps in to say that Mr. Mell has called Steerforth base and mean, and that Steerforth called Mr. Mell a beggar.
  • The boys are all impressed that Steerforth has admitted to this.
  • Mr. Creakle scolds Steerforth for implying that any employee of Salem House is a beggar.
  • Steerforth replies that, even if Mr. Mell isn't a beggar himself, he's near relations with one, which is the same thing.
  • Throughout all of this, David has been standing next to Mr. Mell (where he had been saying his lessons) and Mr. Mell has been patting him on the shoulder reassuringly.
  • (Oh God, this next past is so awful).
  • Steerforth tells the whole school what he finally heard from David: that Mr. Mell's mother lives in a house for poor beggar women.
  • Mr. Creakle demands that Mr. Mell set the record straight in front of the whole school.
  • Mr. Mell answers that, yes, Steerforth is telling the truth.
  • Mr. Creakle wants Mr. Mell to swear that he, Mr. Creakle, never heard a word of Mr. Mell's mother's low social and economic status until this moment.
  • Mr. Mell answers that Mr. Creakle has never asked too particularly, though he must have known Mr. Mell's poor position in the world.
  • Mr. Creakle fires Mr. Mell on the spot.
  • Mr. Mell takes off, but not before telling Steerforth that he can only hope that, one day, Steerforth will feel ashamed of what he has done today (by outing Mr. Mell as the son of a beggar and forcing him to leave the school).
  • Mr. Mell collects all of his things and leaves.
  • Mr. Creakle thanks Steerforth for protecting Salem House's reputation, and the boys applaud (though David feels miserable).
  • Mr. Creakle canes Traddles for crying over Mr. Mell's departure.
  • David feels hugely guilty for his role in Mr. Mell's firing, what with having told Steerforth about Mrs. Mell's poverty.
  • David wants to cry, but he can't because Steerforth keeps looking at him, and he doesn't want to appear ungrateful.
  • Steerforth is very angry at Traddles for crying at Mr. Mell's departure.
  • Traddles says that Steerforth has behaved badly by making Mr. Mell lose his job.
  • Steerforth retorts that he plans to write home and make sure that Mr. Mell gets some money – so there!
  • The boys are all relieved to hear this, and praise Steerforth's actions.
  • Still, late at night, David continues to feel lingering guilt.
  • Eventually, Mr. Mell is replaced by another instructor who Steerforth likes, but who doesn't bother to look after David particularly, the way Mr. Mell used to.
  • One day, David is utterly surprised to hear that he has visitors.
  • He expects that it will be Mr. and Miss Murdstone, and is super nervous.
  • But it isn't!
  • It's Mr. Peggotty and his nephew, Ham.
  • When he sees them, David bursts out laughing, he's so happy.
  • David finally has to wipe his eyes from laughing so hard.
  • The guys are concerned at David's emotional response to seeing them.
  • To cheer him up, Ham tells David that he's grown a lot.
  • David asks after his mother, Peggotty, little Emily, and Mrs. Gummidge.
  • They're all well ("oncommon" (7.108) as Mr. Peggotty says – in other words, "uncommonly well").
  • They bring David some boiled (or "biled" (7.112)) shrimp, lobster, and crab.
  • Mr. Peggotty explains that his sister, Peggotty, wrote to him and told him that, if he's ever in David's neighborhood, he should visit and send her news of David's health.
  • Mr. Peggotty can't write, so he has to have Emily do it for him, but he promises that he will let Peggotty know that David is doing well.
  • David asks more particularly after Emily, who, Ham and Mr. Peggotty both agree, is growing into a woman.
  • Steerforth happens past David and the Peggottys and greets David.
  • David introduces the Peggottys to Steerforth.
  • Steerforth seems very impressive and charismatic to the Peggottys, who are both pleased to meet him.
  • David tells Steerforth that, if he is ever in Yarmouth, he must go and see the Peggotty house, which is built out of a boat.
  • Steerforth approves of a boat-house for two boatmen.
  • The two Peggottys continue to be charmed, and welcome Steerforth to their house if he is ever near their town.
  • Steerforth and David split the shellfish the Peggottys brought among their classmates, but poor Traddles gets sick from the crab. That kid really cannot catch a break.
  • Not much else happens during David's first term at school; the holidays grow closer and closer, and he worries that no one will send for him.
  • Luckily, at last, David finds out that he will spend the winter holidays at home.

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