James Steerforth: Character Analysis in David Copperfield

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      James Steerforth was the head boy at the Salem House School. He was good looking and at least half a dozen years senior to David. He was reputed to be a good scholar. He was the favorite of Mr. Creakle and for certain reasons, he enjoyed freedom from punishment. But his engaging manners made him a prime favorite. He befriended David throughout his stay at the Salem House. David always looked up to him as a hero. He dropped out of the story after David's leaving the school until David returns to London some years later. He visited Mr. Peggotty's house at Yarmouth with David. He had been welcomed by Mr. Peggotty and liked by Mr. and Mrs. Barkis. He eloped with Emily, Mr. Peggotty's niece (who had been engaged to Ham) and later deserted her. He was drowned near Yarmouth.

Artificial Creation for the Century Reader

      In Steerforth, Dickens tried to represent his conception of a young man endowed with every advantage of wealth and natural gifts, but ruined by the indulgence and foolish admiration of a proud and over-fond mother ("Whom I have gratified from a child in every wish"). He cannot be considered a well-drawn character, possibly because manners and ideas have changed since the early nineteenth century The twentieth-century reader is apt to regard him as a somewhat hard to explain, for even after the Emily affair, David seems to regard him with a sort of lingering admiration (even if mixed with other feelings), rather than with the disgust and loathing most of us feel for his merciless deception.

Privileged Position at Salem House

      There are sufficient indications in his youth as to what sort of man he will make. He enjoys a privileged position at Salem House, where he spends David's pocket money for him, gets special consideration from Mr. Creakle and shows a snobbish devilry towards Mr. Mell, whom he taunts for his mother's living on charity and causes him to be dismissed. Significantly he asks David, "You have not got a sister; have you?"

      The students should re-read the last paragraph of Chapter VI, describing a picture of Steerforth. Later on Steerforth has, apparently; no intentions of entering on a career and such ability, as he has activity, boldness, and a power of adapting himself to the society he is in, and pleasing others by a superficial show of camaraderie, he uses for his own selfish, heartless and unscrupulous ends. We know what Emily's fate will be as soon as she disappears. In his way; Steerforth is as repulsive as Uriah Heep; they are very different figures, but both are solely concerned with the satisfaction of their own ego and are quite heartless with regard to the consequences of this on others. Steerforth's final loathsome step is the attempt to palm Emily off on to Littimier, a villain willing to take her.

Conscious of his Own Defects

      Chapter XXII shows that Steerforth is conscious of his own defects. Steerforth knows that he has been allowed to do whatever he wants all of his life. This kind of treatment has made him unable to "guide himself better" even if he wants to. It's as though he is doomed to seduce Emily because he has no practice at self-restraint or self-denial. He seems to believe that he has no choice in his own behavior because he has never been taught to behave morally. He has been spoiled by his mother.


      Steerforth cannot be considered a realistic character somehow even in the limited meaning of the word as applied to Dickens's work.

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