David is entrusted with the will of the deceased Mr. Barkis, and he prides himself on his ability to read the document and distribute the items in the proper manner. David has found the will in the mysterious box which Barkis carried with him religiously all these years. Along with the will, the box contains "miniature cups and saucers, a horseshoe, a polished oyster shell . . . and almost three thousand pounds." Peggotty is provided for in the will, as is Mr. Peggotty, with David and Em'ly as minor heirs. Only Peggotty, Mr. Peggotty, and David attend the funeral. That evening David goes to Mr. Peggotty's houseboat. Everyone tries to cheer up Peggotty by telling her that she did her "dooty by the departed, and the departed know'd it." Mr. Peggotty lights the candle for Em'ly (as he has done for so many years) and places it in the window. He vows that even after Em'ly is married he will continue to put the candle in the window, "pretending I'm expecting of her, like I'm a-doing now." Ham arrives at the house, but without Em'ly. He draws David, alone, out of the house and weeps as he tells him that Em'ly has run away with her lover. The others, too, learn of the situation, and David reads to them a farewell note she left for Ham. Mr. Peggotty asks who the man is, and Ham cries, "Mas'r Davy, it ain't no fault of yourn — and I am far from laying of it to you — but his name is Steerforth, and he's a damned villain."
Mr. Peggotty announces, "I'm a-going to find my poor niece in her shame, and bring her back. No one stop me! I tell you I'm a-going to seek my niece!" Mrs. Gummidge collects her wits, stops feeling sorry for herself, and, for the first time, takes a mature, forceful interest in handling affairs by talking Mr. Peggotty out of leaving the house that very night. David hears him crying and tells us that "I cried too."
Even though Steerforth has run off with Em'ly, David still thinks of all the favorable things about him; he chooses to think of Steerforth as "a cherished friend, who was dead." Late one night, David is interrupted by the unexpected visit of a tearful and agitated Miss Mowcher, who reveals her part in the plot. She had been tricked into sending communications between Em'ly and Steerforth through Littimer. Now, "suspecting something wrong, she has returned from London. Miss Mowcher believes that Em'ly and Steerforth have gone abroad and vows revenge. "Littimer had better have a bloodhound at his back than little Mowcher," she vows.
The next morning, Mr. Peggotty, Peggotty, and David leave for London, where they decide to visit Mrs. Steerforth. Mrs. Steerforth is quite unmoved by Em'ly's letter and her wish to return a "lady." She states emphatically that her son's marriage to Em'ly is "impossible." If Steerforth returns without Em'ly, she will forgive him; otherwise "he never shall come near me."
Mr. Peggotty takes a little money from his sister to begin his search. "If any hurt should come to me, remember that the last word I left for her was, 'My unchanged love is with my darling child, and I forgive her!'"
Clearly in Chapter 31, David's maturity is becoming more and more evident. In the simple matter of the reading of the will, David feels "supreme satisfaction" that he is the only one able to do this. Yet, at the end of the chapter, he weeps because, for the first time, he is fully aware of the evil nature of the clever Steerforth.
The death of Barkis in the preceding chapter was handled with restraint, but with this "greater loss," Dickens pulls out all the stops with his description of the night, the rain, and the feelings of the family as they realize that Em'ly is gone. This is the climax of the Em'ly-Steerforth plot, or subplot.
Chapter 32 is yet one more example of Dickens' depicting the upper classes as heartless and cruel. The forgiving nature of Mr. Peggotty is diametrically opposed to the cold aloofness at the Steerforth house, where Miss Dartle calls the Peggotty group a "depraved, worthless set." Dickens, probably because of his upbringing, felt that only "simple people" had the capacity to feel deeply and to be sentimental about things.