David goes to Steerforth’s house to let Mrs. Steerforth know of her son’s fate. The poor woman is now handicapped and spends her days lying in her son’s old room. She never recovers from the shock of David’s news. Miss Dartle lashes out at her just as she did with Little Em’ly. She claims that Mrs. Steerforth raised her son to be the cruel, insensitive boy that he was and, therefore, has no right to be sad at his death. Miss Dartle is hysterical at this point, declaring how much she loved poor Steerforth. David takes his leave of the house, followed only by Mrs. Steerforth’s sad moans.
All of the people who are headed to Australia meet one last time with those who are staying behind. David does not tell Mr. Peggotty or Emily about the deaths of Steerforth and Ham but pretends that everything is well. Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, reunited with their children, hope for success in the new land. Before the boat departs, David asks about Martha, and Mr. Peggotty reveals that she is going with them to Australia. The boat sails away, and David watches Mr. Peggotty, with Emily by his side, moving gradually out of sight.
David finally leaves, too, and travels around continental Europe, eventually settling in Switzerland. For the first time, his true sorrow regarding the deaths of Steerforth, Ham, and Dora hit him, and he is in a constant state of misery. His only bright spot is Agnes, and he recalls how much he loves her. He finds himself very weak in comparison to her and does not believe that he is worthy of her. In fact, he opines that she will never be his.
David returns to London in autumn and first goes to visit Traddles, who has married his fiancée at last. Although he is not a famous lawyer quite yet, he is very happy in his current situation. David also runs into Mr. Chillip from his youth, who mentions that he is now living next door to Mr. and Miss Murdstone, who have already driven Mr. Murdstone’s second wife to death. David then returns to Miss Betsey’s home, where Mr. Dick and Peggotty live as well. He asks about Agnes and if she is seeing anyone, and his aunt replies that she only has one true love--but will not say who it is.
The next day, David goes to visit Agnes. He sees that Mr. Wickfield has been nursed back to health and that his house is calm and peaceful once more. David confides his true feelings to Agnes, but these declarations seem to disturb her.
David and Traddles later receive invitations from Mr. Creakle, the former master of Salem House and current prison magistrate, to visit the prison in which he works. The first inmate they encounter is Uriah Heep, who was thrown in jail for trying to cheat the Bank of England. Uriah actually is happy with his stay in prison and says that it has worked so well in changing him that he wishes everyone could go to prison for correction. They also encounter Littimer, who attempted robbery but was caught, surprisingly, by Miss Mowcher.
Agnes and David remain very close, but David is constantly tormented by the knowledge that she truly loves someone else. When he finally confronts her, she breaks down, and he realizes that he is the person whom she loves. The two get married very quickly and have three children. They are visited by Mr. Peggotty, who informs them that everyone in Australia is doing well. Mr. Micawber is even a magistrate. After this visit, however, they never see Mr. Peggotty again.
The last chapter of the novel is a summary of the present time, giving news about all the characters as David is penning the novel. Miss Betsey, Peggotty, and Mr. Dick all live with him, old but still doing well. Mr. Dick continues to work on his Memorials. Dr. Strong and Annie are happily married, as are Traddles and his wife. Traddles is now a successful lawyer. Mrs. Steerforth and Miss Dartle still fight all the time. Finally, David and Agnes are very happily married, with David very loyal and devoted to the woman who has been his source of strength for almost his entire life.
Upon the death of Steerforth, we see a final breakdown of all of those who have represented the highest class of society. Mrs. Steerforth is consumed by shock, and Miss Dartle is consumed by her rage, again throwing the responsibility at everybody but her beloved cousin. We have seen a big difference in how the upper class Steerforths and the lower class Peggottys have handled loss. This is Dickens’ lesson that those of the upper class are not necessarily better off, morally or emotionally, than those of a lower class.
The scene in which the Peggottys, Martha, and the Micawbers depart for Australia is an interesting one, again invoking the sea as a vehicle for change. This time the characters are being borne off to another world, where they all will have a second chance at living their lives. Australia is emblematic of freedom, a wild place very far away. In a way, these characters are receiving life or being reborn.
Although it takes a few more years, David finally recognizes his love for Agnes, who finally admits that he is the one she loves. Thus, David finally reaches the happiness he has been striving for during just about his entire life. This is the positive side of poetic justice. Indeed, in the end, all of the characters receive their just rewards. Uriah, for example, ends up in jail but is happy with the moral changes that being there has made in him. His victims have already been made whole. Littimer, Steerforth’s arrogant servant, also has been prosecuted for stealing after being caught by none other than Miss Mowcher, who now gets to be a hero. On the negative side, Mrs. Steerforth and Miss Dartle constantly make one another miserable.
Other good characters are rewarded, as well. Traddles, for example, marries his fiancée and earns a successful career. Miss Betsey, Peggotty, and Mr. Dick get peaceful lives with the ones they love, and David and Agnes marry. Mr. Peggotty, Emily, and the Micawbers have made the most out of their lives in Australia. It is the happiest ending that Dickens could produce.
There has been much sadness and anxiety in this novel, but Dickens has made everything right in the end. The memories of pain, even if they do not seem strong in the others, remain strong in the older David as he writes, despite his happiness with his new family. David tells a story that seems very reliable, pain and all. In writing, he has purged himself of some of the sorrow he has experienced in his life; his memoir is complete. Perhaps Dickens benefited in a similar way.