Summary and Analysis
David has written to Em'ly at Ham's request and in the return letter, she asks him to thank Ham for his kindness and bid him farewell. David decides that since he has a few days before the emigrants' ship leaves, he will go to Yarmouth and deliver the note to Ham personally. On the way to Yarmouth a great storm begins to break. He spends the night at the old inn in Yarmouth and during the night the rain and wind grow stronger. David joins the townspeople as they watch the raging sea and then he goes to find Ham, but discovers that Ham is out repairing someone's ship. David returns to the inn and after a fitful night he is awakened by shouts from someone outside his door that a ship is wrecked down on the beach.
He rushes to the scene and sees the schooner being battered to destruction by the wind and waves. One mast is broken off and the sailors onboard are trying to cut that part away. Several of the seamen are washed overboard to their death and only a single, curly-haired man remains alive on the foundering vessel. David then sees Ham running through the crowd on shore and knows that he is going to try to reach the ship. David attempts to restrain him, but Ham has some men tie rope around him and he swims out to the wreck. Ham never makes it aboard, however, for a huge wave breaks up the ship. When they draw in the rope, Ham is dead. Ham's body is carried to a nearby house, and David stays there until a fisherman comes and tells him to look at the other body that has washed ashore. It is that of Steerforth. "I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school."
David realizes that his feelings for his friend have never really changed; he has always loved and admired Steerforth no matter what he has done. David knows that it is his responsibility to tell Mrs. Steerforth of her son's death and to return the body for burial. It is some time before Mrs. Steerforth realizes that David is reporting her son's death. Rosa Dartle then launches a vehement attack on Mrs. Steerforth, blaming her for the misfortune, and proclaiming her own love for Steerforth. Mrs. Steerforth goes into a state of shock, and Miss Dartle begins to cry and tenderly tries to comfort her.
The most outlandish coincidence of all occurs in this chapter, but the description of the storm overshadows everything else, and one almost forgets the improbability of Steerforth's appearance because the climax is so startling. In Chapter 56, Dickens resolves the entire Steerforth story — Steerforth is dead, not as a direct result of his dissolute habits, but as if Nature had taken a hand in exacting payment for the harm he has done; Rosa Dartle is revealed as an embittered, rejected worshipper of Steerforth, whom she had continued to love unrecognized and unrequited ever since their childhood; Mrs. Steerforth, already an invalid, is reduced to shock by the news of her son's death — another instance of Dickens' penchant for visiting poetic justice on undeserving characters.