As David is walking past the Steerforth residence one afternoon, he is summoned to speak with Miss Dartle. She is extremely cruel to him and constantly wishes death upon Little Em’ly. It turns out that she has information about Emily, which is related to David through Littimer. Littimer describes how she was admired in all of the countries to which Steerforth brought her, and Littimer states that she mastered all of the languages quite easily. As the story goes, however, Steerforth grew tired of her and left her in Naples, and she was furious when she found out he had left her. Also, she became even more hysterical when Littimer proposed to her, and soon she escaped from the house. As David is leaving, he speaks to Mrs. Steerforth, who actually is quite kind to him.
David then goes to find Mr. Peggotty. He tells Mr. Peggotty about the information he has acquired. Mr. Peggotty feels as though Little Em’ly is alive but too ashamed to return home. He suggests this because she did not leave entirely of her own accord. He and Mr. Peggotty decide that they will recruit Emily’s friend Martha to help find her. They find Martha in a crowded area and follow her out, waiting to talk to her in a more private place.
David and Mr. Peggotty realize that Martha is about to drown herself, and they stop her from doing so just in time. She is miserable. She chides herself for having such an awful heart. Mr. Peggotty’s soothing words eventually calm her down, however, and she agrees to help them find Emily and hopes that she can be good for her friend this time. They follow her for a little while as she searches but then decide to part, leaving Martha to search one way as they search another.
David returns home fairly late to find the door open. He hears his aunt in the garden talking to a man, the same man who bothered her before. He is obviously trying to get money out of her. He does not leave until Miss Betsey has broken out into indignant tears. David glares at him as he leaves. He asks his aunt if she wants him to talk to the man. Surprisingly, his aunt confides in him that the man is actually her husband. Her husband is not dead after all, and he continues to extort money from her. She then tells him not to tell anyone about this revelation.
As for David, his domestic life has not improved by this point. Dora has refused to learn how to keep the house better. When he tries to change this quality of hers, she gets upset and refuses to listen to him. Thus, in order to keep her happy, David stops trying to change her. He believes for a while that perhaps a baby will make her more mature and want to be a good housewife. Unfortunately, after she becomes pregnant the pregnancy does not last, and soon afterward, Dora becomes ill. She is still beautiful and happy, but she can no longer walk or use her legs.
David receives a letter from Mr. Micawber describing the poor situation that he and his wife are in this time. The letter begs David to meet with him to discuss the situation. Traddles, it turns out, has received a similar letter from Mrs. Micawber. The two meet with Mr. Micawber, and they soon find out that he has experienced additional financial ruin attributed to Uriah Heep, who apparently cheated him in a business deal. The recollection of this fact produces such a passion in Mr. Micawber that David is afraid he will die of such strong emotions. But Mr. Micawber eventually composes himself and asks that David and his aunt meet him and his wife the following week.
Soon it has been several months since Mr. Peggotty’s and David’s encounter with Martha. Mr. Peggotty mentions that Martha came to him not long ago and told him not to leave London under any circumstances, although she did not say why. One evening, Martha runs to fetch David and Mr. Peggotty. Mr. Peggotty is not home, so she leaves a note. She then brings David to an apartment complex in a bad neighborhood and leads her up to Emily’s room. However, Miss Dartle is already there. She abuses Emily, mocking her and spitting words at her with strong hate and passion. David does not intervene, however, because he wants to let Mr. Peggotty do that. Mr. Peggotty eventually comes and takes Emily back to his home.
The cruelty of Miss Dartle, both at the beginning and at the end of this section, is astonishing. She is taking her rage out on David and Emily while still refusing to acknowledge that her cousin Steerforth was probably the most to blame. Her cruelty is mirrored in Steerforth, who had no problems abandoning the girl whom he had convinced to run away with him. Emily, according to Littimer, apparently was becoming a lady, learning to communicate easily and being admired wherever she went, although it is not clear how trustworthy Littimer’s account is, given his feelings in the matter. Mrs. Steerforth, in contrast to Miss Dartle, has finally begun to accept that Steerforth is not the perfect son that she imagined him to be.
The direction of the novel appears to be changing in this section. David and Mr. Peggotty find Martha, and Emily is found not long afterward. Indeed, the ability of David and Mr. Peggotty to find Martha and save her from the brink of death foreshadows their discovery of Emily and their ability to pull Emily back from the edge of emotional despair. Sure enough, they rescue her from the raging clutches of Miss Dartle. Who alerted her so that she managed to beat David to her hideout?
Readers finally see a weak side of Miss Betsey when David finds her conversing with a stranger in the garden. This man, her ex-husband, causes her to break down in tears. This is the first real sign of weakness that we have seen in this woman. Moreover, it is revealed that she has endured extortion from him for a long time.
By now, however, Dickens has made Miss Betsey so beloved that we might see her ability to keep this secret as a matter of strength. Still, her husband’s manipulation is strongly repulsive, and we are led to want to see justice for her against her husband. Miss Betsey was doing fine on her own. She has no need for a man in her life, and the man who is in her life, usually at arm’s length, makes her life much worse instead of better.
This relationship provides a strong contrast to the feelings that David and Dora had at the beginning, but we see the stresses in this marriage and wonder how much longer it can last. Although David is still in love with Dora, he is starting to wish that she had better domestic skills, or at least that she would try. The pregnancy is an immature shot at getting her to mature. Its actual failure is a symbol of the relationship’s failure. Moreover, it foreshadows Dora’s imminent demise and, sure enough, her health begins to rapidly deteriorate.
The expected betrayal by Uriah Heep has once more put the Micawbers in danger. Hopefully it finally has brought Mr. Micawber to his senses. Uriah certainly has crossed a line at this point, presuming that Mr. Micawber’s account is true. In the case of the Strongs, Uriah had only come close to but had not actually ruined the marriage. In the case of the Micawbers, however, he had actually ruined them. David’s promise to bring his aunt to meet with the Micawbers is a sign that better people are getting ready to fight back, now that Uriah has gone too far. This is yet another sign that the direction of the novel is turning toward resolution.