Chapter XIX: I look about me, and make a discovery
David graduates from Dr. Strong's school. Unsure as to what profession to pursue, he decides to visit Peggotty's family in Yarmouth in the hope that his thinking will become clearer there. When he is saying goodbye to Agnes, she asks him if he has noticed a change in her father. David says that he has noticed that Mr. Wickfield is drinking more, and that whenever he is most under the influence of alcohol, Uriah summons him on business. Agnes remarks that at these times, Mr. Wickfield becomes aware that he is unfit to do business, which depresses him.
Dr. Strong throws a tea party in David's honor. While David is there, Mrs. Markleham says that Jack Maldon has written to Dr. Strong complaining that he is ill and wants to return to England. Dr. Strong cheerfully says that he is happy to find alternative arrangements for Jack if it should prove necessary. During this conversation, Annie seems embarrassed and remains silent, and Mr. Wickfield observes this. Mrs. Markleham further reveals that Annie has had a letter from Jack, which implies that he wants to return to England because he is missing her. David suspects that Annie may be in love with Jack.
David leaves for Yarmouth on the coach. He tries to appear grown-up, but the effect is spoiled when the coach driver makes him give up his seat, which he has booked, to an older man. When he disembarks at an inn in London, the waiter treats David like a child.
In London, David goes to the theatre to see a play. On returning to the inn, he is overjoyed to meet Steerforth. Steerforth is studying at Oxford University, but is bored with his studies and is on his way to visit his mother. Steerforth asks a waiter which room David has been given, and on hearing that it is a poor one, insists that David be given a better one. The same waiter who previously treated David patronizingly is deferential when he realizes that he is with Steerforth. Steerforth nicknames David "Daisy."
Chapter XX: Steerforth's home
David accepts an invitation from Steerforth to stay for a day or two at his mother's home in Highgate, London, before going on to Yarmouth. David meets Mrs. Steerforth, a proud lady who dotes on her son and welcomes David on the grounds that he likes him, too. Rosa Dartle, Mrs. Steerforth's former companion and a distant relative of the family, also lives at the Steerforth home. Around thirty years of age, she is dark-haired, with an old scar on her lip. Rosa never says what she means directly, but talks in a mixture of hints and questions that are superficially innocent but are in fact barbed, bitter and sarcastic. When Steerforth talks patronizingly of Mr. Peggotty's family as "that sort of people," Rosa questions him as to his meaning, and reveals that Steerforth believes that such people have "not very fine natures" and are "not so easily wounded" as more refined, higher-class people. Rosa sarcastically pretends to be grateful to be educated on the subject.
Steerforth tells David that it was he who made the scar on Rosa's lip. As a boy, he became exasperated with her and threw a hammer at her.
Mrs. Steerforth talks to David about her favorite subject: the wonderful qualities of her son. She says that she chose to send him to Mr. Creakle's school because of Mr. Creakle's recognition of Steerforth's superior nature.
Chapter XXI: Little Em'ly
The character of Steerforth's servant Littimer is introduced. In appearance, he is "a pattern of respectability" in manner, he is softly spoken and deferential.
David invites Steerforth to accompany him to Yarmouth, to visit Mr. Peggotty and Ham, and to meet Little Em'ly and Peggotty. David calls in at Mr. Omer's shop and learns that his daughter, Minnie, is now married to her sweetheart, Mr. Joram. Mr. Omer says that Little Em'ly is working for him as his apprentice; she is an accomplished worker, but many of the local girls are angry with her for wanting to be a lady and having ideas above her station in life.
David goes to visit Peggotty. Peggotty does not recognize David at once, but when he tells her who he is, she bursts into tears and cries over him for a long time. Mr. Barkis is very ill, but is even more avaricious than before. He waits until Peggotty and David are out of the room before extracting money from his secret hoard to give to Peggotty to buy dinner.
Steerforth arrives to meet Peggotty, and charms her and Mr. Barkis. From the retrospective point of view, David says that if anyone had told him then that Steerforth's delightful manners were just a game played in order to establish his superiority over others and to win what was worthless to him, only to discard it in the next minute, he would not have believed it. David continues to idolize Steerforth.
David and Steerforth arrive at Mr. Peggotty's house to find everyone excited by the news that Little Em'ly has agreed to marry Ham. As the evening progresses, David notices how avidly Little Em'ly listens to Steerforth's stories, and how she draws away from Ham.
After David and Steerforth leave Mr. Peggotty's house, David expresses his delight in the forthcoming marriage. Steerforth makes a derogatory comment about Ham, which surprises David, as Steerforth has appeared to enjoy everyone's company. David replies that he knows that Steerforth perfectly understands and sympathizes with the feelings of these good-hearted folk, and that he admires Steerforth for it. Steerforth remarks that David is a good person, adding, "I wish we all were!"
Chapter XXII: Some old scenes, and some new people
Steerforth spends much of his time in Yarmouth apart from David, making himself popular among the local fishermen and going out sailing with Mr. Peggotty. David revisits his old home. He feels sad at what he has lost, but happy that he has such good friends as Peggotty, Steerforth, and Betsey. When he returns to Mr. Peggotty's house, he finds Steerforth sitting by the fire in sullen and angry mood. Steerforth laments, "I wish to God I had had a judicious father these last twenty years! . . . I wish with all my soul I had been better guided! . . . I wish with all my soul I could guide myself better!" He adds that it would be better to be Mr. Peggotty or Ham than to be himself, "twenty times richer and twenty times wiser," and to be a torment to himself.
After they leave the house, Steerforth tells David that he has bought a boat, which he has named The Little Em'ly. Mr. Peggotty will use it in his absence. David praises Steerforth for his generosity to Mr. Peggotty, which embarrasses Steerforth. Steerforth says he plans to leave Littimer (who has come to Yarmouth) behind him to fit out the boat after he leaves Yarmouth.
Steerforth and David encounter Little Em'ly and Ham. They notice that a poor haggard-looking woman is following Little Em'ly at a distance.
Steerforth and David go to dine at an inn, where they meet a dwarf, Miss Mowcher, who cuts Steerforth's hair and gossips with him about her wealthy clients and Little Em'ly.
When David returns to Mr. Peggotty's house, Little Em'ly is talking to a young woman called Martha. Martha used to work with Em'ly at Mr. Omer's shop but she has now fallen into disgrace and is begging for Em'ly's help. Em'ly asks Ham to give Martha some money so that she can go to London, where no one knows her. After Martha leaves, Little Em'ly bursts into tears and says that she is not so good a girl as she ought to be. She says that she wants to feel more thankful than she is for Ham's love.
Analysis of Chapters XIX-XXII
Uriah is seen gradually ensnaring Mr. Wickfield. He calls upon Mr. Wickfield to make business decisions when he is most drunk, thereby convincing Mr. Wickfield that he is unfit for business. Far from being humble, Uriah is only interested in controlling others for his own ends.
This theme of covert manipulation is taken up in the plotline in which Steerforth visits Mr. Peggotty's house. Though he effortlessly charms everyone there and acts the part of a friend, his real feelings are a cold-hearted contempt for Mr. Peggotty's family, and his real motivation is to seduce Little Em'ly.
This outcome is prefigured in David's visit to Mrs. Steerforth's house. In contrast with the simple and straightforward communications of Mr. Peggotty's family, in which members express love and support for each other, and mean what they say, Mrs. Steerforth and Rosa Dartle are neither straightforward nor loving. Mrs. Steerforth is a haughty and proud woman who only condescends to welcome David because he likes her precious and spoilt son: in common with her son, an ulterior motive underlies her manner. Rosa Dartle is an exemplar of indirectness. She is utterly unable to say what she means, indulging instead in a charade of blistering sarcasm. She questions Mrs. Steerforth and her son about their thoughts and opinions with an affected innocence, revealing their dishonorable motives and then feigning gratefulness for their assistance in educating her. The irony lies in the fact that Rosa, far from needing education from the Steerforths, sees their natures all too clearly and, in an ironic roundabout way, points out their faults.
The most truthful aspect of Rosa lies not in what she says but in the livid scar on her lip. Steerforth admits that he inflicted this wound. Symbolically, this suggests that Rosa has long been in love with Steerforth, who has wounded her horribly. She has responded to this hurt by becoming bitter and twisted.
Unlike Rosa, David remains blind to Steerforth's vain and dishonest nature. Even when Steerforth patronizes David and begins scheming to seduce Little Em'ly, David ascribes fine motives to Steerforth that he does not possess. Particularly ironic is David's naeve assumption that Steerforth's purchase of the boat is an act of generosity to Mr. Peggotty, when, in fact, Steerforth is planning to carry off Mr. Peggotty's adopted daughter. Dickens points the reader to David's youthful naivety and Steerforth's insincerity, and foreshadows the plotline involving Steerforth and Little Em'ly, by having the adult David reflect on Steerforth's ability to charm the Peggottys. David comments, "If any one had told me, then, that all this was a brilliant game, played for the excitement of the moment...if any one had told me such a lie that night, I wonder in what manner of receiving it my indignation would have found a vent!"
Little Em'ly potential fate is also foreshadowed in the cautionary tale of Martha, Em'ly's former workmate who has fallen into disgrace. Though the nature of Martha's disgrace is not spelled out, there is no doubt that Dickens implies that she has become a prostitute. Both Martha and (to a lesser extent) Little Em'ly are examples of the undisciplined heart, in that they hold their bodies and their hearts too cheap and bestow them on unworthy recipients. Little Em'ly recognizes this in her impassioned lament that she has failed to appreciate Ham's steady love, but, like Steerforth, she proves too weak to rein in her wayward impulses.
Steerforth does have a moment of self-reflection when he tells David that he regrets lacking the guidance of a father, but the moment soon passes and he does not act on the promptings of his conscience.
Dickens's portrayal of the servant Littimer is heavily ironic and is used as a foreshadowing device. His quality of respectability is referred to so insistently that the reader cannot help but wonder just how respectable he really is. The child David, of course, takes Littimer's respectability at face value, but the irony that builds with each mention of the term suggests that Littimer's inner nature may turn out to be very different from his outward manners.