Chapter XXIII: I corroborate Mr. Dick, and choose a profession
David decides not to tell Steerforth about Little Em'ly's emotional reaction to Martha's visit, as he feels that she did not intend to reveal as much as she did.
During the coach journey home, David receives a letter from Betsey asking him what profession he has decided on. Betsey suggests that he might train to be a proctor, a kind of attorney. David asks Steerforth for his opinion. Steerforth says that he might as well become a proctor as anything else, though he describes the profession in disparaging terms as a sort of "monkish attorney" who specializes in obscure disputes over wills, marriages, and ships. David decides to follow this profession.
David arrives in London and meets Betsey. He tells her that he is ready to train as a proctor, but is concerned about how much money the training will cost his aunt. But Betsey says that David is her adopted child and that she takes pride and pleasure in looking after him, particularly as she was not happy when she was younger.
The next day, David and Betsey set out to visit Mr. Spenlow and Mr. Jorkins in the Doctors' Commons, where proctors have their offices and where David is to train to be a proctor. On the way, Betsey is approached by a man who looks like a beggar. After sending David to a nearby place to wait for her, she gets into a hackney carriage with the man. David thinks that this must be the mysterious man of whom Mr. Dick spoke. When Betsey reappears, she asks David not to ask her about the incident. He notices that almost all of her money has vanished from her purse.
David and Betsey arrive at Mr. Spenlow's offices. Mr. Spenlow agrees to employ David as his clerk. Mr. Spenlow says that his fee will be a thousand pounds. He claims that he is not at all mercenary but that his partner, Mr. Jorkins (who does not appear), is strict on such matters. David later finds out that Mr. Jorkins is a mild man who keeps in the background of the business. His only role seems to be to provide a figure of ruthlessness upon which Mr. Spenlow can draw to frighten employees and clients into submission.
David goes with Betsey to rent lodgings from a landlady called Mrs. Crupp. Betsey tells David that she trusts that his life from now on will make him firm and self-reliant.
Chapter XXIV: My first dissipation
David is happy with his new independent life, but he misses Agnes. Wondering why Steerforth has not been to visit him, he goes to enquire at Mrs. Steerforth's house. Steerforth is away visiting friends, but Mrs. Steerforth and Rosa Dartle entertain David by talking constantly in praise of Steerforth. Steerforth eventually arrives, and David invites him and his friends to his lodgings for a party. David goes to great lengths to provide a lavish spread of food and drink. The guests arrive and they all eat dinner. David smokes and gets drunk for the first time, and then, feeling ill, he goes with his guests to the theatre. There, he meets Agnes, who advises him to go home. He does so, and Steerforth puts him to bed.
Chapter XXV: Good and bad angels
The next day, David is suffering from a hangover. He receives a letter from Agnes asking him to meet her, which he does. Full of repentance for his condition the previous night, he tells her that she is his good angel. Agnes warns him that Steerforth is his "bad angel," and that he has a negative influence on David. David rebels against her advice, but finds that his image of Steerforth is somewhat disturbed.
Agnes tells David that Uriah is forcing her father to make him a partner in his law firm. She adds that Mr. Wickfield is completely in Uriah's power. Though Agnes is worried about this situation, she has counseled her father to accept the partnership on the grounds that it may lighten his load of responsibility. She asks David to be friendly to Uriah and not to antagonize him.
At a dinner party at the house where Agnes is staying, David encounters Tommy Traddles, a friend from Mr. Creakle's school, Salem House. Traddles is studying to be a lawyer. Uriah hovers close to David and Agnes at the party, and later accompanies David home. Uriah tells David that Mr. Wickfield has been imprudent. Uriah adds that if anyone else had been in his place, he would by now have Mr. Wickfield under his thumb and Mr. Wickfield would be in disgrace.
Uriah confides to David that he loves Agnes, and hopes that she may come to love him out of gratitude for the assistance he is giving to her father. Uriah asks David to keep this secret and not to "go against" him in this matter.
When it is time to go to bed, Uriah points out that the boarding house where he is staying will be locked up, and he asks David if he can sleep on the floor in front of his fire. David reluctantly agrees, but is so revolted by his presence that he orders Mrs. Crupp to air his room the next day.
Chapter XXVI: I fall into captivity
David worries about how far Agnes will take her devotion to her father - implying that she may marry Uriah to remove the weight of caring for her from her father.
David slightly mistrusts Steerforth now, and feels grateful that he is not with him.
Mr. Spenlow invites David to his home and introduces him to his beautiful daughter, Dora, and her companion, who turns out to be Miss Murdstone. David falls in love with Dora at first sight. Miss Murdstone takes David aside and suggests that they both put aside their past differences and behave as if they were distant acquaintances. David replies that he feels that she was cruel to him and his mother, but he agrees to her suggestion.
David meets Dora in the garden. As he converses with her, he grows even more infatuated.
In the weeks that follow, David buys expensive clothes in the hopes of seeing - and impressing - Dora. When he does meet her, he worries afterwards in case she does not care for him. Mrs. Crupp notices that he is miserable, and guesses that he is in love. She tells him to cheer up and find some pastime to distract him.
Analysis of Chapters XXIII-XXVI
Dickens creates vivid pictures to manipulate the reader's response to his characters. Some commentators have linked this skill to the fact that this novel, like many of Dickens' works, was originally written to be serialized. The more colorful and caricatured a character was, the more likely it was that the readers would remember him or her when they read the next episode. One example of a vivid picture is Uriah lying in front of David's fire, "his legs extending to I don't know where, gurglings taking place in his throat, stoppages in his nose, and his mouth open like a post-office." Dickens here calls upon the reader's senses of sight and hearing, and, in David's concern to have his room aired after Uriah has slept in it, even that of smell. Another memorable picture is that of Uriah sitting on the roof of the coach in which he and Agnes are returning to Canterbury. Uriah, serpent-like and devilish, becomes "her evil genius writhing on the roof, as if he had her in his clutches and triumphed."
In this section, Dickens satirizes that part of the legal profession that is called the Doctors' Commons when he has Mr. Spenlow point out that the best kind of business was a disputed will, as the argument could be drawn out at great length. Also, because the expenses would come out of the estate at the end of the case, there was seldom any concern about keeping the proctor's fee low. Dickens also emphasizes that the job of proctor was able to keep a man in comfort with very little in the way of hard work, and that proctors operate as a clique, sending the same case round and round a small group of courts all run by the same legal practitioners. Dickens portrays proctors as a group of people whose concern is for themselves, not their clients.
David is approaching adulthood but his perception of people is as yet immature. He is still mesmerized by Steerforth's charm and fails to see that he is vain and self-seeking. While David trusts him so much that he asks his advice on a career, Steerforth is contemptuous of the profession of proctor that David is considering, but nevertheless advises him to follow it. The implication is that Steerforth does not care enough about David to give him considered advice. In fact, Steerforth is a negative influence on David, leading him into a night of dissipation that leaves him poorer and sicker than before.
While David idolizes Steerforth, he is blind to the fact that Agnes loves him, and even blinder to the fact that she would be an extremely suitable partner for him. Agnes, unlike Steerforth, has David's interests at heart and is genuinely concerned by Steerforth's influence over him. But David consigns her to the role of sister, and instead, falls in love with Dora, who is superficially enchanting but woefully unsuited to the role of his wife. Like David's mother, Dora is still a child, whose failure to control her snappy little dog Jip foreshadows her future failure to manage her household and her marriage.
The superficial nature of David's relationship with Dora is shown in his concern with parading in new, expensive and uncomfortable clothes in order to impress her. Clothes make the outward appearance, not the inner man, and Dora appears not to be very interested in David's real nature. Indeed, she seems to be more interested in relating to her dog than to David. Agnes, in contrast, sees David at a low point, when he is drunk, ill, and behaving embarrassingly at the theatre. She does not judge David, but sees clearly what is going on in his life, counsels him with love, and invites him to confide in her as she confides in him. Agnes treats David as her equal and behaves as his equal, unlike Dora, who takes the role of child with all the adults in her life - her father, Miss Murdstone, and David.
In spite of Dora's childlike nature, however, Dickens does not underestimate her power. The title of Chapter XXVI is "I fall into captivity," and as soon as David meets Dora, he is as if under a spell: "She was more than human to me. She was a Fairy, a Sylph, I don't know what she was - any thing that no one ever saw, and every thing that every body ever wanted. I was swallowed up in an abyss of love in an instant." He is "a captive and a slave" and loves her "to distraction," that is, to the point of madness. These images show David's idealization of Dora, and the loss of his own identity and freedom in his love for her. His relationship with Dora is divorced from reality, which bodes ill for the practical requirements he has of a wife.