Chapter IV: I fall into disgrace
Clara finds David crying, and blames Peggotty for turning him against Mr. Murdstone. As Clara comforts David, Mr. Murdstone arrives and tells her to be firm with him. David sees that she is compliant to her new husband, seemingly because she is afraid of him. Mr. Murdstone dismisses Clara and Peggotty and threatens David with a beating if he does not fall into line. The adult David reflects that a kind word would have made him love Mr. Murdstone, but no such word came.
Mr. Murdstones cruel sister, Miss Jane Murdstone, arrives to live at the house. She is dark-haired, like her brother, and her heavy eyebrows almost meet over her large nose. She brings with her some hard black boxes, and carries a steel purse in “a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm like a heavy chain, and shut up like a bite.” She greets David with the cold pronouncement that she does not like boys.
Miss Murdstone takes control of the household, in spite of Claras protest that she and Peggotty have managed perfectly well until now. Mr. Murdstone silences Claras objections with accusations that she is being ungrateful. He believes that she needs to be trained in “firmness,” a quality she lacks. Clara humbly begs forgiveness from Mr. and Miss Murdstone.
David notices that his mothers carefree beauty is being worn away by the influence of the Murdstones. Though Clara teaches David his lessons, the Murdstones dominate the sessions with their oppressive criticism of both David and Clara. David, who has always been able to do his lessons easily, becomes so nervous that he cannot remember them. David becomes sullen and alienated from his mother. His only refuge is a collection of his fathers books.
One day, when David is being particularly slow in remembering his lessons, Mr. Murdstone beats him. In self-defense, David bites his hand. The Murdstones keep him locked in his room for several days. On the last night of his confinement, Peggotty whispers to him through the keyhole that he is to be sent away tomorrow to a boarding school near London. She tells him that she loves him and promises to take care of Clara.
The next morning, Clara tearfully tells David that she forgives him for biting her husband, but that he must try to be a better person. David feels bitter that the Murdstones have convinced his mother that he is wicked. David is taken away by horse and cart.
Chapter V: I am sent away from home
A crying David is taken away by the carrier, Mr. Barkis, in his cart. As the cart leaves, Peggotty bursts out of a hedge and hugs David. She gives him some cakes and a purse containing money folded in a loving note from his mother, before running off. David gives Mr. Barkis one of his cakes. On hearing that Peggotty baked them, and that she does all the cooking in the house, Mr. Barkis asks David to write and tell her that “Barkis is willing.”
Mr. Barkis takes David to an inn, where he is to have dinner and catch the stagecoach for London. His dinner is waiting for him in the name of Murdstone. The waiter tricks David into giving him most of his dinner. When David reveals that he is on his way to a school near London, the waiter gloomily says that that is the school where a boy died from having his ribs broken during a beating. Then the waiter tells David a hard-luck story that makes David leave him some of his money as a tip. The coachman and other passengers believe that David has eaten the huge dinner by himself, and they tease him about his supposed gluttony to such an extent that David cannot muster the courage to eat anything else on the journey. He arrives in London very hungry and disembarks to find that no one has come to meet him. After some time, a man called Mr. Mell arrives to collect David. He is one of the masters at the school. On finding out that David is hungry, Mr. Mell takes him to eat breakfast at a charity home, where he knows one of the old woman residents.
Mr. Mell takes David to the school, Salem House. It is quiet, as all the boys are on holiday. The place is dirty and smells unwholesome. David finds a placard with these words written on it: “Take care of him. He bites.” He thinks it must refer to a dangerous dog, but Mr. Mell tells him that he is to wear it on his back as a punishment for biting Mr. Murdstone.
Chapter VI: I enlarge my circle of acquaintance
Mr. Creakle, the headmaster, returns to the school after his vacation. He is an ugly, angry-looking man with thick veins on his forehead, who always speaks in a whisper. He summons David and threatens him with dire consequences if he misbehaves. Mr. Creakles wife and daughter are with him, and seem frightened of him and sympathetic to the boys. David asks Mr. Creakle if he might remove the placard before the boys return, but he bursts out of his chair as if to attack David, and David runs off in terror.
The boys return from vacation, and David is teased about the placard as expected. He meets James Steerforth, a good-looking boy who has the reputation of being a leader. Steerforth treats David sympathetically but takes his money from him, “to take care of,” and talks David into spending it on food and drink for a nighttime feast for all the boys.
David learns that Mr. Creakle is as ignorant as he is cruel, and knows nothing “but the art of slashing” with his cane. There is only one boy on whom he dares not lay a hand, and that is Steerforth.
Steerforth promises to take care of David. David admires him greatly, and calls him “sir.”
Analysis of Chapters IV-VI
The introduction of Miss Murdstone follows Dickens caricaturing pattern in this novel of defining his characters by a few strong details of appearance and manner. The fact that Miss Murdstone looks like her cruel brother and carries hard metal boxes and a steel purse in “a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain,” tells us all we shall ever need to know about her. She is a “metallic lady,” hard, cold, and rigid in nature.
Animal imagery is also used to convey the cruel, predatory nature of the Murdstones:
David says, “the influence of the Murdstones upon me was like the fascination of two snakes on a wretched young bird.” Another example of animal imagery is Mr. Murdstones black dog (Chapter III), which tries to attack David and foreshadows Mr. Murdstones persecution of David in the schoolroom. It is noteworthy that David fights back during his beating by biting Mr. Murdstone, thereby behaving like an abused dog, but it is Mr. Murdstones treating him like a dog that led him to this.
The Murdstones repeated insistence on “firmness” while they engage in this domineering and brutal behavior towards Clara and David lends an ironic undertone to the word and loads it with added significance. Repeated use of a word or phrase in a certain context is one of the ways in which Dickens satirizes his characters individual manners and the societal manners of the time. Firmness, for example, was a much-praised masculine virtue in Victorian times, and Mr. Murdstone claims it with pride, yet without doubt, it was often used to justify a multitude of sins, such as abusive practices meant to keep women and children in their (inferior) places. Dickens widens his critique of Mr. Murdstones brutal treatment of David to show how such abuse was common in society as a whole, by making Mr. Murdstones brutality follow David to school. Here, Davids status as a bad dog is confirmed by his having to wear a placard with the warning, “Take care of him. He bites.” David is not alone in his victimhood: Mr. Creakles wife, daughter and staff are clearly frightened of him and are cowed into allowing his cruelty to go unopposed. Dickens shows how the faults of individual men (Mr. Murdstone and Mr. Creakle) are sanctioned and institutionalized into social systems – in this case, schools.
Dickens further satirizes abuses within the school system by showing the dirty and unhealthy conditions of Salem House. He also shows that Mr. Creakle, far from entering the schooling profession out of any vocation to pass on knowledge, is an ignorant man who is only in the job for the money (and possibly for the sadistic pleasure of beating children), after failing in the hops business. The fact that Mr. Creakle treats only one boy with respect satirizes the all-powerful role of money in Victorian society: Steerforth escapes beatings not for humane reasons, but because his family has money.
Davids role in the novel thus far has been as an innocent victim of others malpractices. He is the victim of the Murdstones; of the waiter at the inn and his mocking fellow passengers; of Mr. Creakle; and finally, of Steerforth, whose opportunism is the more insidious for being covered by a veneer of charm and caring. By making David so helpless and innocent, Dickens reinforces the injustice of his abusers behavior.
Chapter IV: I fall into disgrace