Summary and Analysis
During his stay at the Steerforth home, David is much impressed with Littimer, a servant there. "He surrounded himself with an atmosphere of respectability, and walked secure in it. It would have been next to impossible to suspect him of anything wrong, he was so thoroughly respectable," David says of Littimer.
Finally, David and Steerforth leave for Yarmouth and, arriving late, spend the night at an inn. The next morning, David goes alone to visit Mr. Barkis and Peggotty. On the way he comes to Mr. Omer's shop, which is now listed as OMER AND JORAM. David goes inside and talks to Mr. Omer, who tells him that Little Em'ly works in his shop as a seamstress and that she mixes well with the other girls — apparently because of her rare beauty and her dream of becoming a "lady."
David calls on Peggotty, who at first fails to recognize him. She takes David upstairs to see Mr. Barkis, now a rheumatic invalid confined to bed. Steerforth arrives a little later, and after dinner, he and David set out for the Peggotty houseboat. As they walk along the shore, Steerforth comments that "the sea roars as if it were hungry" for them.
They arrive just as the engagement between little Em'ly and Ham is being announced. The family is overjoyed, and the jubilant
Mr. Peggotty exclaims that "no wrong can touch my Em'ly." David and Steerforth are welcomed into the celebration, and when Steerforth leaves the Peggotty home, he remarks that Ham is "rather a chuckle-headed fellow for the girl, isn't he?" David feels a shock in this unexpected and cold comment. But, "seeing a laugh in his eyes," he thinks that Steerforth must be joking. "Ah, Steerforth! . . . When I see how perfectly you understand them . . . I know that there is not a joy or sorrow, not an emotion, of such people that can be indifferent to you."
Steerforth replies, "I believe you are in earnest, and are good. I wish we all were!"
During the visit, which lasts for more than two weeks, Steerforth spends a great deal of time boating with Mr. Peggotty, while David visits his old home at Blunderstone. The old neighbors have moved and his parents' graves have been cared for by Peggotty; David feels "a singular jumble of sadness and pleasure" about his early years here.
One evening, David is surprised to find Steerforth in a despondent mood. He does not tell David what is bothering him, but says only that he wishes "with all my soul I could guide myself better." The mood is only momentary, however, and he soon improves his spirits and tells David that he has bought a used boat, renaming it the Little Em'ly. Mr. Peggotty will be the "captain" in Steerforth's absence. David believes this to be evidence of his friend's charity toward Mr. Peggotty.
Later, Steerforth's austere and respectable servant, Littimer, arrives with a letter from Steerforth's mother. Then there is another arrival — Miss Mowcher, a fat, middle-aged dwarf, who is a hairdresser for wealthy families. Steerforth describes Little Em'ly to the dwarf as "The prettiest and most engaging little fairy in the world . . . I swear she was born to be a lady."
Later, David walks back to the Barkis house and finds Ham waiting outside for Em'ly. She is in the house talking to Martha Endell, a girl who once worked with her at Mr. Omer's. Ham explains to David that Martha Endell is a "fallen woman," and because Mr. Peggotty would not want Em'ly to speak to her, she earlier gave the girl a note telling her to meet her at the Barkis cottage. Ham gives Martha some money so that she can go to London, where she is not known. After Martha leaves, little Em'ly sobs, "I am not as good a girl as I ought to be! Not near! Not near!"
Sometimes Dickens' chapters tend to ramble; this is not the case, however, with Chapter 21. Here, he pulls together two strands of David's story — his old friends at Yarmouth and his old school friend Steerforth. Dickens takes the opportunity here to point up the simple goodness of the Yarmouth people, and he once again hints at character flaws in Steerforth.
Chapter 22, in contrast to Chapter 21, is more ambiguous. Although it is not explicitly stated, there seems to be an indication that little Em'ly has entered upon a secret relationship with Steerforth. Steerforth shows some remorse over his behavior, as evidenced by his brooding, but it is short-lived. Em'ly, perhaps seeing in the fate of Martha Endell something of her own possible fate, sobs as Martha leaves. She tells Ham, "Oh, my dear, it might have been a better fortune for you if you had been fond of someone else — of someone steadier and much worthier than me."
There is also an interesting new facet of Steerforth revealed in this chapter when Steerforth tells David that it might have been better for him (Steerforth) if he "had had a steadfast and judicious father." We have seen in Chapter 20 the excessively motherly devotion that Mrs. Steerforth has lavished upon her son; thus, by now, we should be beginning to suspect that Steerforth is not the paragon that everyone in the story believes him to be.