top of page

4 of Water - James Steerforth


Little Em'ly; James Steerforth.


David Copperfield

    James Steerforth was the most popular boy at David Copperfield's school – so popular and influential the sadistic professor Mr. Creakle never beat him. Steerforth's ease and charm immediately endears him to the young David, who puts the older boy on a pedestal. Steerforth is one of those tony boys whose grace and wealth induce a sense of entitlement, and who – never compelled to do anything and meeting no opposition – wander aimlessly.


 Some years after school, David introduces Steerforth to the Peggoty family in Yarmouth. Steerforth takes an immediate interest in Daniel Peggotty's unworldly and nubile niece, Little Em'ly. Steerforth sets about a long convoluted seduction plot which involves buying a boat and naming it Little Em'ly, reflecting just how much energy and free time he has on his hands. Steerforth is a bright and talented young man; spoiled rotten by his mother, indulged by his peers, and excused due to his station by society, Steerforth's rudderless lack of discipline leads directly to indulgence and debauchery.


 Lacking innocence and integrity himself, Steerforth is drawn to it in others. He nicknames David “Daisy” and imagines for him a sister, speculating: “I should think she would have been a pretty, timid, little bright-eyed sort of girl. I should have liked to know her." Steerforth knows his actions are those of an ego-centric cad, but cannot or simply does not care to alter course. Just as his cavalier defilement of Little Em'ly wipes away the idyllic world of the Peggottys, so he leaves little more than disillusionment and disheartened dreams in his wake. Indicative of this is the betrayed, broken-hearted Ham Peggotty, who dies attempting unsuccessfully to save the drowning Steerforth.


 David's love and admiration for James Steerforth amounts to idolization. As David Copperfield is a novel in the form of a memoir charting the maturity of a man, David's deification of the aristocratic Steerforth is instructive - a lesson in the perils to the underclass in venerating the nobility. David's worship of Steerforth is a directive from the author to steer clear.


 Looking closer, we see that David glimpsed the true nature of Steerforth but chose to look the other way. David was not only infatuated with Steerforth, but also with Emily. As early as his days at Salem House school, David associated Emily's budding sexuality with Steerforth's strength and charm. The girl had always wished to lead a life of adventure as a “lady”, and the charismatic Steerforth promised her entrée to both. Emily is too good to be trifled with, and David is too good to trifle; Steerforth, then, supplies David – albeit unconsciously - with a surrogate of his own prohibited affections for Emily. The angelic Agnes warns David about his “bad angel”, and Steerforth himself numerous times hints unambiguously of his dastardly intent. Even Miss Mowcher is explicit via her aptly named game of Forfeits: “I love my love with an E, because she's enticing; I hate her with an E, because she's engaged. I took her to the sign of the exquisite, and treated her with an elopement; her name's Emily, and she lives in the east”. To this, as if living in another world, David says nothing. Clearly, Dickens has taken considerable pains to show us that David refuses to see what is so plainly before him.


 Taken further, Dickens brings David's submerged unconscious desires to the surface and gives them life. Just as David “wished” Emily's seduction, so he “wishes” Steerforth's death. The degree of guilt he feels at Emily's disgrace exceeds his surface responsibility, and to purge himself David smothers Steerforth internally:


 “I never had loved Steerforth better than when the ties that bound me to him were broken. In the keen distress of the discovery of his unworthiness, I thought more of all that was brilliant in him, I softened more towards all that was good in him... Deeply as I felt my own unconscious part in his pollution of an honest home, I believed that if I had been brought face to face with him, I could not have uttered one reproach... I felt, as he had felt, that all was at an end between us. What his remembrances of me were, I have never known - they were light enough, perhaps, and easily dismissed - but mine of him were as the remembrances of a cherished friend, who was dead.”


 The great storm at Yarmouth which ensues is as the manifestation of David's soul. Along with the hapless Ham - an orphan like David and surrogate of his "good angel" side - David's subconscious causes the death of Steerforth, as surely as Dickens through the abreaction of fancy brings it consciously to pass with his pen.


Shorthand : dissipated past – such promise – a dissatisfaction the things of this world cannot assuage - high-handed - base apathy – too handsome – disabuse - excesses of all kinds – no discipline – no bearing – false idols – idle class - eidolon – self-seeking ingrate – in short: visionary insight.

bottom of page