Summary and Analysis Chapters 39-40



Aunt Betsey sends David to Dover to supervise the renting of her cottage, the only possession she has left; she hopes that this responsibility will lift David out of his depression.

David rapidly concludes the business in Dover and continues on to Canterbury to visit Mr. Wickfield and Agnes. At Mr. Wickfleld's house, David talks to Mr. Micawber (now Uriah's clerk) about his new job. David finds that Mr. Micawber is pleased with his new employer and thinks that his work is a "great pursuit." David, however, senses an "uneasy change" in him.

David talks to Agnes about his troubles and how much he misses her advice on matters. He says that he finds it difficult to confide in Dora in the same way because she is so "easily disturbed and frightened." Agnes suggests to David that he write to Dora's aunts and seek permission to visit Dora.

After leaving Agnes, David goes downstairs to see Uriah Heep and Mr. Wickfield. Mrs. Heep is also living there, and David thinks of the Heeps as "two great bats hanging over the whole house and darkening it with their ugly forms." Next day, David takes a walk. He is followed by Uriah, who confides that he fears that David might be a rival for Agnes. David reluctantly tells Uriah that he is "engaged to another young lady," which obviously relieves Uriah. Reassured, Uriah tells David about his education in the London charity schools, where he learned to eat "umble pie with an appetite." Now Uriah is proud to note that he has "a little power."

At dinner, David sees Uriah use this power by suggesting that he hopes to marry Agnes. Mr. Wickfield becomes furious, and David tries to calm him. Uriah becomes frightened that Mr. Wickfield, in his anger, will "say something . . . he'll be sorry to have said afterwards," and tries to return to his "umbleness" again. Wickfield expresses to David his shame over his downward path in life and slowly starts to sob.

Agnes comes in and comforts her father, and they leave the room together. Later that night David makes her promise that she will "never sacrifice herself" for a "mistaken sense of duty." Next morning, as David leaves, Uriah admits that perhaps he has "plucked a pear before it was ripe." But, says the sinister Uriah, "It'll ripen yet! I can wait!"

One snowy night, on his way home from Dr. Strong's, David passes a woman on the street whom he recognizes but cannot recall; seconds later, as he meets Mr. Peggotty, he realizes the woman whom he passed was none other than Martha Endell, the "fallen woman" whom Em'ly had once helped. The chance meeting with Mr. Peggotty takes place on the steps of St. Martin's Church, on a route David took only because of the storm.

Mr. Peggotty shows David various letters which he received from Em'ly, in which she asks for understanding and forgiveness, and indicating clearly that she will never return. The letters also contain money, obviously originating from Steerforth, but Mr. Peggotty vows that he will return every cent of the money if he has to go "ten thousand miles." The last note received bears the postmark of a town on the Upper Rhine, and Mr. Peggotty declares that he is going there now in search of Em'ly. Throughout Mr. Peggotty's story, David sees Martha Endell listening at the inn door. After awhile they part, and the grieving uncle "resumes his solitary journey."


Finally in Chapter 39 Uriah Heep is beginning to show his true colors. His protestations of "umbleness" are now as many as ever, but his account of his early days in the charity school reveals that his "false humility" is an educated policy rather than his personal philosophy. Heep has Mr. Wickfield in his control and intends to keep secret the source of his control.

The pathetic journey in Chapter 40 of the good and noble Mr. Peggotty was the type of scene which Victorian readers loved. Undaunted by hardships, getting along the best way he can, the loving "father" seeks his wayward child to the far corners of the earth. Martha Endell, the tainted symbolic "sister," will be instrumental in saving Em'ly just as she is about to become a prostitute. In this chapter, Dickens once again uses coincidence (fortuitous meetings) to further the intricacies of plot and subplot.