David stays to help Peggotty settle the affairs of her husband, and he finds that the man’s hoarding paid off for his wife. She has a large inheritance. Ham arrives alone, although he was expected to arrive with Little Em’ly. Ham tells everyone that Little Em’ly has run away, leaving a letter begging everyone to forget her. The letter also professes her love for her uncle and claims that she will not come back unless the man she has run away with makes her a lady. Ham then tells David, upon his request, that it was Steerforth who ran away with her. Ham repeatedly says, however, that he does not blame David for the affair. Mr. Peggotty then swears that he will go out, find Little Em’ly, and bring her back.
The next morning, Ham asks David to take care of Mr. Peggotty, who is still shaken up by the whole situation. Shortly before David and Mr. Peggotty set off to find her, David has an encounter with Miss Mowcher, who is extremely remorseful. She believes that she set off the whole chain of events leading to Emily’s disappearance, for she delivered a letter from Steerforth to the girl, thinking it was from David. She repeats that she is very sorry but hopes that David will not trust her any less than he would trust a normal-sized woman. She then climbs down from the stove from which she was speaking to David and leaves. David says that his opinion of her has greatly changed.
Mr. Peggotty suggests that they go first to see Mrs. Steerforth, and David agrees. Mrs. Steerforth rants on and on that the whole situation is Little Emily’s fault--and Mr. Peggotty’s as well, for raising her. Miss Dartle also blames David because he introduced Emily and Steerforth. Mr. Peggotty then decides to go off alone to find Emily, and he tells David that if David should find her first, he should tell her that he loves her and has forgiven her.
This whole time, David has continued to miss Dora dearly, especially walking through her neighborhood. But he will not dare to visit her. He takes Peggotty to Doctors’ Commons to settle her affairs at the office of Mr. Spenlow. There, they run into Mr. Murdstone, who is getting his new marriage license. Peggotty shouts at him, accusing him of causing the death of David’s mother, and it takes much of David’s efforts to restrain her. As they are leaving, Mr. Spenlow invites David to Dora’s birthday party.
David is very excited and happy to see Dora at the party, but another man is paying special attention to her. David makes every effort not to appear jealous. Dora’s friend, Miss Mills, reconciles David and Dora, and soon they are secretly engaged. As an adult, David muses, this was the happiest he has ever been, and now seeing a ring on his own daughter’s finger similar to the ring he gave Dora brings back painful memories.
David immediately writes to Agnes upon his engagement. The memory of her beautiful eyes and calm demeanor soothes him to the point of tears.
He is soon cheered up by a surprise visit from Traddles, who tells him more about his fiancée, Sophie. Sophie is the fourth of ten children and is the main caregiver of the family. Traddles also tells David that the Micawbers are in financial difficulties once more, to the point that Mr. Micawber had to change his name to Mortimer. Traddles asks Peggotty to buy the Micawbers’ coffee table and flower pot from the pawn shop so that Mr. Micawber is not overcharged when going back for it. However, Traddles also swears not to loan any more money to the Micawbers, for he is now devoted to his fiancée and to supporting her. When they arrive home from the pawn shop, they find Miss Betsey at the door with all of her things. She is very nice to Peggotty, whom she calls Barkis, but she reveals to David that she has lost everything due to poor business decisions.
Upon hearing the news, David’s first emotion, although he knows it is selfish, is sadness. David feels sad because he is now poor and will not be able to provide Dora with everything she wants. Moreover, his aunt does not approve of his devotion to her, telling him that this particular romance is pointless. After a sleepless night during which he mulls over his aunt’s criticisms of Dora, David goes to Mr. Spenlow and tries to cancel his apprenticeship. Mr. Spenlow, however, will not refund any of the money that Miss Betsey paid to allow David to start.
On the way back home, David runs into Agnes, who has heard of Miss Betsey’s troubles and comforts him. She also tells him that Uriah and his mother have moved in with her and Mr. Wickfield and that the house has been miserable because of it. She suggests that David get a job as a secretary for Dr. Strong, who is looking for someone to help with his dictionary. Mr. Wickfield and Uriah then go over to David’s household, where Uriah is poorly received and even scolded by Miss Betsey.
Emily’s disappearance with Steerforth is one of the most significant events in the novel. She has given up her stable, peaceful life with a loving fiancé. Apparently she is attempting to increase her status and become a lady.
The differences in the reactions of the two affected families reveal the moral differences between the two. None of the Peggottys, not even Ham, blames David or even Emily for the disappearance. The Steerforths, however, refuse to place even a little blame on their own son, instead blaming David and Emily for almost everything.
Miss Mowcher adds an interesting angle to the situation. As a rather unattractive and abnormally short person, she does not have the beauty that other characters such as Steerforth possess. This situation makes it even easier to dislike her for passing that note to Emily. Miss Mowcher shows true remorse, however, and this episode reveals her gentle soul.
On the positive side, we again have David’s and Dora’s relationship, which advances to the next level during these chapters. Their getting engaged represents another step towards happiness in David’s life. He even interrupts his story, looking back, to say how happy he was during that time of his life. Sadly, he foreshadows the unhappy ending of that marriage by saying how much it hurts him to remember it. That is, despite the happiness he felt, the older David continues to recognize his undisciplined heart. Perhaps he should have taken to heart the warnings of Miss Betsey that their relationship was pointless. The younger David simply chooses to ignore such warnings, instead focusing on how happy he feels with his fiancée.
David tells Agnes the news as soon as he is engaged, and the younger David is troubled by bittersweet memories as well. The fact that her memory brings him to tears shows just how much he cares for her, although he has not realized the extent of his feelings for her yet. Soon, she continues to care for him by comforting him upon hearing of the financial troubles of his aunt and by suggesting a job for him with Dr. Strong. But her news that the Heeps have moved in with her and her father is very unsettling, showing the growing strength of Uriah’s character.
For his part, Traddles is back once more with his fiancée. This is another indication of just how happy and content his character is. Due to his engagement, he has become more financially responsible, at least in that he stops lending money to the Micawbers. Such investments in them, everybody ought to know by now, are for nought. The Micawbers are in such dire straits that they have had to change their last name. This name change is more than just an escape from creditors and an indication that they are running away from their problems; it is also a symbol of their becoming further distanced from reality.