Chapter VII: My "first half" at Salem House
It is the beginning of the school term. Mr. Creakle warns the boys that if they fail to do well, he will beat them - an activity he seems to enjoy. Then he beats David. Traddles is beaten more than anyone else, because he is fat. Traddles cheers himself up by drawing skeletons on his slate.
Steerforth continues to protect David from everyone except Mr. Creakle, and David adores him uncritically. Steerforth suffers from insomnia, and asks David to stay up with him at nights and tell him stories he remembers from his father's collection. David feels flattered to be asked, though he gets very tired from the missed sleep.
Steerforth treats Mr. Mell with contempt, which grieves David because Mr. Mell has helped him. One day in class, Steerforth insults Mr. Mell over his poverty, calling him a "beggar," and a quarrel breaks out. Mr. Creakle enters and intervenes. Steerforth justifies himself by announcing that Mr. Mell's mother lives on charity in an almshouse. Mr. Creakle takes Steerforth's side and fires Mr. Mell on the basis that he "mistook this for a charity school." David feels terribly guilty, as it was he who told Steerforth about Mr. Mell's taking him to visit an old lady at the almshouse to eat breakfast; Steerforth then worked out that the old lady must be Mr. Mell's mother.
Traddles weeps in sympathy for Mr. Mell, for which Mr. Creakle canes him. When the boys are left to themselves, Traddles challenges Steerforth, saying that he has hurt Mr. Mell's feelings and lost him his job. Steerforth is dismissive about Mr. Mell's feelings, and says that he is going to ask his mother to send Mr. Mell some money. He claims that he did what he did for the other boys' sakes. The boys cheer Steerforth.
Mr. Peggotty and Ham visit David at the school. Steerforth arrives, and David proudly introduces him to his visitors. Steerforth charms them, and Mr. Peggotty extends an open invitation to him and David to visit him in Yarmouth.
Chapter VIII: My holidays. Especially one happy afternoon
The vacation arrives, and David sets out for home. Mr. Barkis, the carrier, asks David to tell Peggotty that he is still waiting for an answer to his message about his being willing.
David reaches home, and is delighted to find his mother with a new baby boy. Clara and Peggotty are overjoyed to see David, and the three are able to enjoy their reunion the more as Mr. and Miss Murdstone are out. They all have their dinner around the fire, as in the old days.
David reminds Peggotty that Mr. Barkis wants a reply to his proposal of marriage. Clara, who now looks frail and thin, anxiously asks Peggotty if she intends to leave her in order to marry. Peggotty reassures Clara that she will never leave her.
Peggotty suddenly thinks of Betsey Trotwood, and wonders whether, if she were to die, she would leave David anything in her will. Clara thinks this a ridiculous idea, as Betsey never forgave David for being a boy.
Peggotty and Clara quarrel about the Murdstones. Peggotty does not conceal her dislike of Miss Murdstone, but Clara accuses Peggotty of being jealous because Miss Murdstone has taken over the housekeeping. Clara says that Miss Murdstone is acting with the best intentions, because she herself is too thoughtless to manage the house. She feels that she (Clara) ought to be thankful to Mr. Murdstone, for taking such pains to improve her. David reflects that Peggotty provoked Clara in order to make Clara justify her marriage and feel better about it.
The next morning, David asks Mr. Murdstone's forgiveness for biting him. Miss Murdstone only asks how long the school vacation is and counts the days until David leaves again. Later, David picks up the baby, and Miss Murdstone screams and turns faint at the danger she supposes the baby to be in. She forbids David ever to touch the baby again. When Clara mentions that the baby's eyes are like David's, Miss Murdstone angrily insists that they are not at all similar. David notices that if Clara or Peggotty act lovingly towards him, the Murdstones take offence, so he keeps to his room, where he reads books - only to find himself rebuked by Mr. Murdstone for his sullen, withdrawn behavior.
David is relieved to go back to school. As the carrier's cart takes him away, his last memory is of his mother standing alone at the garden gate, holding up her baby for him to see.
Chapter IX: I have a memorable birthday
During the next school term, David is summoned to Mr. Creakle's room, where Mrs. Creakle breaks the news to him that his mother has died and that the baby is likely to die too. He is sent home to attend her funeral and is collected by Mr. Omer, the funeral director. Mr. Omer takes David to his shop, where David meets Mr. Omer's daughter, Minnie, and her lover, Mr. Joram. Mr. Omer measures David for his mourning suit. Mr. Joram is making David's mother's coffin, and David sits listening to the nails being hammered in and wondering at the family's cheerfulness.
Mr. Omer takes David home, where he finds Mr. Murdstone in silent grief and Miss Murdstone busy at her writing desk. Neither shows any concern for David. Only Peggotty, who watches over Clara's body much of the time, comes and sits with him before he goes to sleep. After the funeral, Peggotty tells David that Clara was unhappy and unwell for some time, and became frailer after having the baby. Clara died blessing David, and with her head on Peggotty's arm. The baby died a day later, and was buried in his mother's arms.
Chapter X: I become neglected, and am provided for
The Murdstones ignore David, and it is clear that they do not welcome his presence. David learns that he is not going back to school. Miss Murdstone fires Peggotty, who plans to stay with her family in Yarmouth until she decides on a longer-term plan. Peggotty invites David to come with her.
Mr. Barkis collects David and Peggotty and takes them to Yarmouth, where they are met by Mr. Peggotty and Ham. Peggotty asks David what he would think if she married Mr. Barkis. David says it would be a very good idea.
They reach Mr. Peggotty's house. Little Em'ly comes home from school looking, as David thinks, even prettier than before and almost a woman. Mr. Peggotty and David discuss Steerforth admiringly, praising his handsome appearance, generosity and friendliness to David. Em'ly listens with fascination.
Mr. Barkis visits every day with a present for Peggotty. One day, Mr. Barkis and Peggotty take Little Em'ly and David and drive to a church. They get married while Little Em'ly and David wait in the cart. David kisses Little Em'ly and declares his love for her, but Em'ly only laughs coyly and calls him "a silly boy." Mr. Barkis drives them all back to Mr. Peggotty's house, and then leaves with Peggotty for their new home. David is sad to feel that he has lost Peggotty, but takes comfort in the thought that he is living in the same house as Little Em'ly. Next day, David goes to stay for a night at Peggotty's house, and Peggotty promises that she will always keep a room for him.
When David returns home, the Murdstones continue to ignore him. He is seldom allowed to visit Peggotty, nor is he allowed to make any friends. When he finally manages to visit Peggotty, he learns that Mr. Barkis, though good-hearted, is a miser who keeps a secret box of money under his bed.
Mr. Quinion, Mr. Murdstone's business associate, comes to visit Mr. Murdstone, and the two men discuss David. Mr. Murdstone tells David that he has arranged for David to go to London, to work in the wine bottling business of which he is a part owner.
Analysis of Chapters VII-X
Dickens continues to satirize the abuses of the school system. He suggests that Mr. Creakle actively enjoys beating the boys, and does so for no good reason. The most absurd aspect of Mr. Creakle's sadism is that it is counterproductive, ensuring that no boy learns much. As the adult David reflects: "I believe our boys were, generally, as ignorant a set as any schoolboys in existence; they were too much troubled and knocked about to learn; they could no more do that to advantage, than any one can do anything to advantage in a life of constant misfortune, torment, and worry."
Dickens' portrayal of Steerforth is laden with dramatic irony. David feels proud that Steerforth asks him to stay up at nights with him and tell him stories, as if Steerforth is doing him the favor, and not vice versa. David feels tired from the lost sleep, but it does not occur to him that Steerforth is behaving selfishly - a fact that the reader sees clearly. Steerforth's immorality is, again, clear to the reader when he persecutes Mr. Mell and is responsible for his losing his job. Such is Steerforth's charm that he convinces all the boys that he was acting only for their sake. The boys, including David, uncritically believe him and adore him all the more. The reader, on the other hand, sees that Steerforth is self-seeking and cares only to extend his own power over the boys.
Mr. Creakle and Steerforth at school, and the Murdstones at home, occupy the role of persecutors, with David and his mother as victims. While the persecutors are portrayed as having few redeeming features and deserve little sympathy, it is evident that the victims to some extent acquiesce in their ill treatment. This is more understandable in the case of David and the other boys, who are afraid of Mr. Creakle and mesmerized by Steerforth; they are, after all, only children. It is perhaps less forgivable, and more frustrating, in the case of Clara. Clara is an adult, albeit one who has been nicknamed "Baby" by Betsey because of her childlike nature. Yet she allows the Murdstones to trample over her feelings and rights, and those of her son, David: "for I very well know that I am a weak, light, girlish creature, and that he is a firm, grave, serious man." Clara has made a compact with the Murdstones: they treat her like an irresponsible child, and she acts like one. What does she get out of such an arrangement? A clue lies in Clara's excuse for Miss Murdstone's robbing her of any power in her own house: "she wishes to spare me a great deal of trouble, which she thinks I am not suited for, and which I really don't know myself that I am suited for ." Clara is able to remain a child, and to avoid responsibility.
To say that Clara is partly responsible for her victimized state is not to exonerate the Murdstones. Though Clara is far too mild and affectionate to accuse the Murdstones of any persecution, it is clear that just before her death, she recalls that there is another way to treat a child-woman like her. She tells Peggotty that David's father was kind and considerate to Clara, "and told her, when she doubted herself, that a loving heart was better and stronger than wisdom, and that he was a happy man in hers." Dickens shows that being in a position of power over the weak comes with responsibilities. David's father is an example of a person who embraces those responsibilities, whereas the Murdstones, Mr. Creakle, and Steerforth abuse them.
Mr. Copperfield's attitude to Clara recalls Betsey's emphasis on the importance of equality in relationships. In fact, Mr. Copperfield could easily have controlled and stifled his wife, as Mr. Murdstone does, because he was the stronger partner. But he chooses to give equal value to her ability to love as he would to wisdom. Thus, inequalities in relationships can be overcome by love, compassion and respect on the part of the stronger partner towards the weaker one.
A major theme of this novel is that of mothers and mother figures. In Dickens' eyes, a mother provided protection and love to her child. He idealized the role of mothers almost to the point of sacredness, as can be seen from David's heartfelt response to seeing his mother breastfeeding her new baby, in a classic Madonna-and-child picture. The evil of the Murdstones lies largely in their severing of the bond between David and his mother, and in their casting Clara in the role of a child; as a child herself, Clara is too weak to protect another child. In contrast, the saintliness of Mr. Peggotty lies largely in his adopting two orphans, Ham and Little Em'ly, and fulfilling the mother role for them.
Fortunately for David, he has a surrogate mother in Peggotty. Peggotty, a stronger character than Clara, resists the influence of the Murdstones and retains her protective and loving role towards David - though as a servant in the Murdstones' house, she has limited power to exercise it. Nonetheless, the very fact of Peggotty's constant love and support helps David through his hard life at the school and with the Murdstones, and means that he is not utterly bereft of a mother figure after the death of his mother. In the future, Betsey Trotwood will take over Peggotty's role as the caring mother figure in David's life.