Chapter XXXI: A greater loss
Mr. Barkis has hoarded a small fortune during his lifetime, and leaves Peggotty a generous sum. He also leaves some money to Mr. Peggotty. David uses his training as a proctor to execute the will.
The adult David interrupts his narration to say that he fears to tell what happened next, as it is too painful to recall. He persuades himself to go on with his story only because whether he writes about it or not, he cannot change the outcome.
David arrives at Mr. Peggotty's house, where Mr. Peggotty, Peggotty, and Mrs. Gummidge are expecting Ham and Little Em'ly. Ham arrives, without Em'ly. A distraught Ham says that Little Em'ly has run away, and is heading for such disgrace that it would be better for her if she were to die. Ham shows David a letter from Little Em'ly saying that she will never return home, unless the man she is with makes her a lady and brings her back. She writes that she is wicked, that she does not deserve Ham's love, and that they must all forget her. Ham reveals that the man with whom Em'ly has run away is Steerforth.
Mr. Peggotty vows to search for Em'ly, throughout the world if necessary. David feels terrible guilt that he introduced Steerforth into the family. Everyone is in tears.
Chapter XXXII: The beginning of a long journey
David still loves Steerforth, though he recognizes his unworthiness and knows that they will never renew their friendship. Mr. Peggotty tells David that if he should ever meet Steerforth, he will kill him. He plans to begin his search for Little Em'ly in London. Mrs. Gummidge promises to stay and look after the house and keep it ready in case Little Em'ly returns.
David is sought out by Miss Mowcher, who is in great distress over the part she unknowingly played in Little Em'ly's fate. When David expresses surprise that she is upset, she launches into a speech defending herself against popular prejudice, saying that it is not her fault that she was born a dwarf and that she has to affect a tough manner in order to survive in the world. She explains that Littimer told her that it was David who was in love with Little Em'ly. Littimer convinced her that Em'ly was in danger from David, and that Steerforth was trying to warn Em'ly of this. Thus, Miss Mowcher was persuaded to carry a letter from Steerforth to Little Em'ly, which marked the beginning of their affair.
Miss Mowcher says she hopes that David believes her, advising him never to "associate bodily defects with mental." David says that he does believe her, and that they were both innocent instruments of Steerforth.
The next day, David and Mr. Peggotty travel to London. They visit Mrs. Steerforth. Mr. Peggotty gives her Little Em'ly's letter to read, and asks her if Steerforth is likely to keep his word and marry Em'ly. Mrs. Steerforth is unmoved by the letter and says it is out of the question for her son to marry a girl who is socially so inferior to him. She hints at her willingness to offer Mr. Peggotty money in compensation, but he refuses. Then, in an angry outburst, she voices her fury against her son, saying that he must get rid of Little Em'ly if he ever hopes to be forgiven. David realizes that Steerforth and his mother are alike in their unyielding spirits.
Mrs. Steerforth dismisses Mr. Peggotty and David. As they are leaving, Rosa Dartle reproaches David for bringing Mr. Peggotty to the house. Rosa calls Steerforth corrupt, but says she cares nothing for Mr. Peggotty or his "common niece."
Mr. Peggotty sets off to look for Little Em'ly.
Chapter XXXIII: Blissful
Upset over Little Em'ly, David takes refuge in his love for Dora. He walks round and round her house, without ever daring to call in.
David brings Peggotty to London to prove Mr. Barkis's will at the Doctors' Commons. There, David and Peggotty come across Mr. Murdstone, who is getting a new marriage license. Peggotty reproaches Mr. Murdstone for driving Clara Copperfield to an early grave, but Mr. Murdstone replies that it was David's fault, for being hostile towards him and thereby upsetting his mother.
Mr. Spenlow invites David to a picnic to celebrate Dora's birthday. During the picnic, David grows jealous of another man who pays much attention to Dora, and he deliberately flirts with another girl in revenge. At one point, he walks away from the party in a sulk, but Dora's closest friend, Julia Mills, makes him and Dora reconcile. David and Dora spend the rest of the picnic together. On the way home, Julia tells David that Dora is soon coming to stay with her, and that he is welcome to call on them.
The next day, David visits Dora and declares his love for her. They become engaged. The adult David reflects that he has just noticed a similar ring on the finger of his daughter, which brought back painful memories of Dora.
Within a week of getting engaged, David and Dora quarrel, and Dora returns his ring. Julia, who has suffered great love disappointments herself, again makes them reconcile.
Chapter XXXIV: My aunt astonishes me
David writes to Agnes to tell her of his engagement. The very thought of Agnes has a soothing effect on him.
Traddles visits David and tells him about his sweetheart, Sophy, who is one of ten children and lives in Devon. Sophy appears to look after her whole family, educating the youngest children and keeping the eldest girl, "a Beauty," in good humor. Their mother is paralyzed.
Traddles tells David that Mr. Micawber has changed his name to Mortimer to avoid his creditors, and he does not go out until after dark. Bailiffs have seized the furniture of both Mr. Micawber and Traddles, since Traddles lent Mr. Micawber his name to obtain credit. Since then, Traddles has seen his furniture for sale in a pawnbroker's shop. He asks Peggotty to take his money and buy them back for him, since the pawnbroker would overcharge Traddles. Peggotty agrees, and they all go to the shop to fetch the furniture.
On returning to his apartment, David is amazed to see Betsey and Mr. Dick there, with all their belongings. Betsey tells David that she is financially ruined, and has arranged for her cottage to be rented out.
Analysis of Chapters XXXI-XXXIV
The foreshadowings regarding Steerforth and Little Em'ly are resolved in Steerforth's abduction of her. This catastrophe is the making of Mrs. Gummidge. Until this point, she was sunk in self-pity, barely thinking of others. But once the main object of her love, Little Em'ly, is taken away, she undergoes a transformation, becoming a strong and supportive friend to Mr. Peggotty. Critics have pointed out that Mrs. Gummidge is unique among the characters in the novel, in that she develops markedly, starting out as a weak character and ending up a strong one.
The other characters do not develop significantly; David does mature, but he does not change much, retaining his essential innocence throughout. The key to many of the characters is in their names, which define them consistently throughout the novel: Mr. Murdstone's name invokes murder and tombstones; Rosa Dartle is as sharp as the first syllable of her surname; and Mr. Spenlow is reluctant to spend any money, using his business partner as an excuse for his mean habits. Agnes's name derives from the Latin for 'lamb', 'agnus,' and she has qualities of meekness and gentleness associated with that animal; the name also has connotations of Christ, who is known in Latin as 'agnus dei' or the lamb of God.
The force that makes Mrs. Gummidge change is suffering. While Dickens portrays suffering as a potentially transforming or maturing influence (as in David and Little Em'ly), he shows that it can also have destructive effects, as in Rosa Dartle and Julia Mills, who are both to varying degrees damaged by love disappointments. Rosa differs from Julia in that while Rosa has become selfish and vindictive through her grief and anger, Julia's experience has made her determined that others should not suffer as she did, and so she makes the effort to reconcile David and Dora. Betsey is similarly motivated, concerned that David shall not cause misery to himself and others by unwise choices of relationships, as she herself and Clara Copperfield did.
Dickens uses foreshadowing to hint at the eventual fate of David and Dora's relationship. The fact that he spends hours walking around her house but not daring to call on her demonstrates his comment that he relates primarily to her as an idea, as a being who is beyond the merely human. This is an image that may be disturbed by the reality of actually interacting with her. Dora's dog attacks David whenever he gets near her - representing another obstacle to getting to know her. David's feelings are to a great extent protective of her, showing that he does not view her as an equal, but as a needy child. The couple manages to quarrel even during their short engagement, which Dora breaks, requiring Julia to reconcile them. Dora's words in her letter to David bode ill for their marriage: "our love had begun in folly, and ended in madness." David refers to the "agitation" that he feels during his courtship of Dora; he is "moon-struck," a word commonly used of lunatics; and he gets madly jealous on their outing together.
David's fragile relationship with Dora is contrasted with his relationship with Agnes. While his feelings for Dora are described in terms of agitation and madness, he views Agnes as his "refuge?and "best friend." David is still too emotionally immature, or "blind" (as Betsey puts it in Chapter XXXV), to see that these qualities point to Agnes's suitability for him as a wife.