Chapter LIII: Another retrospect
Dora is dying, and David feels terribly alone without her company. She asks to see Agnes. Dora tells David that she believes that she married too young, and that perhaps it would have been better if they have loved each other as boy and girl, and then forgotten each other. She feels that if she had lived longer, David would have tired of his child-wife.
Agnes arrives and goes upstairs to see Dora, leaving David alone with Dora's dog, Jip. Jip whines to go upstairs, licks David's hand, and drops dead at his feet. Agnes enters with the news that Dora has died.
Chapter LIV: Mr. Micawber's transactions
A grief-stricken David decides to go abroad for a time. Mr. Micawber makes arrangements to pay back Betsey's loan. All the Micawbers are studying farming in preparation for their new life working the land in Australia. Mrs. Micawber thinks that when her husband becomes financially successful there, her family will be reconciled to him.
Traddles reports that without the influence of Uriah, Mr. Wickfield has improved, and that Mr. Dick has been helping him sort out his affairs. Traddles says that he can recover all of Betsey's and Mr. Wickfield's money. Traddles discusses with Agnes how they will live if Mr. Wickfield winds up his business, and Agnes says that she plans to rent out their house and run a school.
Traddles says that Uriah has left town with his mother, and that no one knows where he is. Traddles believes he acted not so much out of avarice, but hatred for David. Betsey arranges with Traddles to pay Mr. Micawber's debts.
The next day, Betsey takes David to the funeral of her husband, who died in hospital. Before he died, he repented his treatment of Betsey and asked to see her; she had gone and spent time with him.
Chapter LV: Tempest
David writes to Little Em'ly, reporting the message that Ham gave him for her. Little Em'ly writes back to David with a message for Ham, thanking him for his kindness to her and bidding him farewell, as she is soon to sail for Australia. David goes to Yarmouth to deliver the letter in person to Ham. While David is traveling, a terrible storm blows up. By the time he arrives, the sea's waves are threatening to swamp the town. Ham is not among the anxious people waiting near the beach for the return of their loved ones. His house is shut up, and David learns that he has gone to a nearby town.
At the inn where he is staying, David is woken with the news that a ship from Spain has been wrecked off the coast. David goes to see it. As he watches, the ship begins to break up and its men are swept into the sea. The lifeboat has been sent out an hour previously, but could do nothing. Only one man remains on deck, clinging to the mast and waving a red cap. Ham arrives and, with a rope around his waist, insists on going out into the water to save the man. Just as he reaches the ship, a huge wave engulfs him and the ship. The men use the rope to draw him in, but he is dead.
Ham's body is taken back to his house. There, David learns that a body has been washed ashore. David goes to the beach, and sees that the dead man is Steerforth.
Chapter LVI: The new wound, and the old
David still thinks of Steerforth at his best. He volunteers to take Steerforth's body to his mother's house and break the news to her. When he arrives, he learns that Mrs. Steerforth is now an invalid and confined to her room. David goes to see her, and finds that she is occupying her son's room. Rosa Dartle is with her. David tells them of Steerforth's death. Bitterly, Mrs. Steerforth asks Rosa if she now feels that Steerforth has now made atonement to her. Rosa lashes out furiously at Mrs. Steerforth, accusing her of pampering her son's pride and creating the monster who disfigured her for life. Rosa says that she herself loved Steerforth better than his mother ever did.
Mrs. Steerforth goes rigid with shock. Rosa hurls a curse at David and, taking Mrs. Steerforth in her arms, bursts into tears. David leaves, and later learns that Mrs. Steerforth has not recovered.
Chapter LVII: The emigrants
David goes to visit the Micawbers and Mr. Peggotty, as they are preparing to leave for Australia. David and Mr. Micawber agree that the news of the deaths of Ham and Steerforth must be kept from Mr. Peggotty and Little Em'ly for the time being.
Since Mr. Micawber's unmasking of Uriah, Uriah has several times had him arrested. Mr. Micawber had been obliged to obtain advances on his wages when he was employed by him, and Uriah is demanding repayment. One of these arrests takes place before the Micawbers embark on their ship, but Betsey has arranged to pay each of the debts as it becomes due, enabling Mr. Micawber to be released.
David asks Mr. Peggotty what is to become of Martha. Mr. Peggotty indicates a woman who is helping Mrs. Gummidge with Mr. Peggotty's luggage; it is Martha, who is to accompany Mr. Peggotty and Little Em'ly to Australia.
As the ship pulls away, David sees Little Em'ly at Mr. Peggotty's side.
Chapter LVIII: Absence
David travels through Italy and settles in a valley in Switzerland. He is oppressed with sorrow at the loss of Dora, Steerforth, and Ham. One day, he receives a letter from Agnes. She writes that she is prospering and that she trusts that David will turn his suffering to good. He feels the sadness lift from his mind, and realizes how much he loves Agnes, but resolves that he will wait a year after Dora's death before making any decisions. In the meantime, he will try to become the fine person that Agnes believes him to be.
He makes many friends in the valley, and writes a story, which Traddles publishes. His health, which was not good when he left England, is restored. He reflects that he foolishly threw away Agnes's love in his boyhood, and it was the dim awareness of this that made him feel as if he lacked something during his marriage to Dora. When these thoughts first come to him, he feels that he has a chance to cancel out the mistakes of the past, and marry Agnes. But as time passes, he convinces himself that it is too late, and that he has deservedly lost her.
Having spent three years abroad, David returns to England.
Analysis of Chapters LIII-LVIII
The storm has been referred to as the novel's climax, but in fact it hardly qualifies, since it only resolves two plotlines (Steerforth's and Ham's) that are incidental to the main character (David) and his plotline (David's maturation). However, the storm is an extremely important element in the story. It marks a transition point between the emotional conflicts and turmoil that precede it and the calmer, more reflective section that follows. The section before the storm focuses mainly on the plotlines involving supporting characters, and things that happen to David that are more or less outside his control; the section after the storm focuses mainly on David and his inner growth. Thus the storm is a catharsis or purification of emotional disturbances that had grown out of control: in particular, Steerforth's undisciplined nature and Ham's grief.
It is fitting that Steerforth should meet his end in a storm at sea. Throughout the novel, he has manipulated and controlled other characters, causing chaos in their lives. The storm is a force of nature that he cannot control and which has no respect for those aspects of his nature that keep other people in thrall, such as charm and good looks. In a moment of poetic justice, the chaos that he caused rebounds on him, and destroys him.
Even in his death, however, Steerforth's selfish nature is apparent. He is the last man alive on his ship, after the other men have been swept to their deaths, and his waving his red cap at those on the shore almost seems like an arrogant boast. Also, though he is only seconds from death, he has not yet finished his reckless destruction of the lives of others, in that Ham dies trying to save him.
Ham's death is, like Steerforth's, a release of a sort. According to Mr. Peggotty, since Little Em'ly left, Ham has been placing himself in harm's way. When he goes into the sea to try to save Steerforth, a huge wave comes, and "he seemed to leap up into it with a mighty bound ." Though this is not quite suicide, Ham is certainly meeting death halfway.
After the storm and the departure of the emigrants, the story is free to focus on the main character, David, and his maturation. Dora's death is instrumental in this process. Dora's childish and undisciplined nature mirrored David's childish and undisciplined infatuation with her. After she is dead, David's quieter, more mature love for Agnes has room to blossom. His sorrowful feeling that he has left it too late to be with Agnes is a vital part of his deserving her: he needs to recognize the harm he has done in throwing away her love, and he must feel repentance for it, before he has the right to offer her his heart.
The manner of Dora's death is significant. In a moving death scene, Dora finally comes of age. With shining honesty, she tells David that she married too young and that he would have tired of her if she had lived longer. The fact that Dora dies in Agnes's arms rather than David's emphasizes the distance that has grown between the married pair and symbolizes Dora's blessing on Agnes as her successor. The fact that we later find out that Dora has explicitly given her blessing to David's marrying Agnes is almost incidental, as it has already been shown symbolically.