Steerforth has treated a friend of David’s terribly, but he wants to be remembered as he was before. He needs people to think well of him.
Steerforth is a childhood friend of David’s that he met at school. Friend is not the right word for their relationship. David was more of a follower of Steerforth’s. He worshiped the boy, because he was an impressionable youth and Steerforth seemed invincible.
David foreshadows the disastrous relationship between Steerforth and Emily Peggotty early on.
I was almost tempted that evening to tell Steerforth about pretty little Em'ly, but I was too timid of mentioning her name, and too much afraid of his laughing at me. (Ch. 7)
Ironically, he told Emily’s family that Steerforth was a good person, because David had a very idealistic view of the boy. He hero-worshipped him. David had a very difficult time at school, and when he told stories about school to Pegotty, Steerforth would have seemed like the hero.
I told them what a hard master Mr. Creakle was, and they pitied me very much. I told them what a fine fellow Steerforth was, and what a patron of mine, and Peggotty said she would walk a score of miles to see him. (Ch. 8)
Much later, after David grows up, he runs into Steerforth again. When David visits Steerforth’s mother, she comments about how the school wasn’t the proper place for him, because he had a tendency to domineer over everyone he felt his inferior, and soon became “the monarch of the place” (Ch. 20). David, however, does not hold this against him.
I knew that, knowing the fellow. And yet I did not despise him the more for it, but thought it a redeeming quality in him if he could be allowed any grace for not resisting one so irresistible as Steerforth. (Ch. 20)
Steerforth’s mother comments that he is quite devoted to Steerforth, and David acknowledges it. She notes the new nickname Steerforth has given him, “Daisy” which implies that he is “young and innocent” (Ch. 20). This is the heart of the matter. Steerforth needs to feel superior to others, but he also needs their adulation. He needs to feel that David adores him.
When David gets to know Steerforth as an adult, he still admires him. He sees the adult version of him, but he also sees that he is rich, carefree, and self-assured. He finds the opportunity for “admiring him more in a thousand respects” (Ch. 21). David doesn’t see what he really is, or what he really does. He is selfish, and he uses people. He always has. The way he uses Emily, and uses David to get to Emily, is the worst example of this. He takes advantage of David’s innocence (and Emily’s), and their friendship.
Steerforth has one instance where he seems to feel regret, but it comes out almost like self-pity.
'I wish with all my soul I had been better guided!' he exclaimed. 'I wish with...
all my soul I could guide myself better!' (Ch. 22)
David is completely confused, and does not take it as a red flag at all. He just sees it as completely unlike Steerforth. It is a crack in his armor. In a fit of honesty, Steerforth admits that he is “never contented” (Ch. 22), and compares his life to that of the simple fisherman. David thinks to himself:
Never more, oh God forgive you, Steerforth! to touch that passive hand in love and friendship. Never, never more! (Ch. 29)
For a Victorian girl to face the scandal of going of unmarried with a man was a tragic thing. It would mean the end of her life figuratively. This is why she is forced to go to Australia, where she can start fresh. It is a symbolic death and rebirth. She could not marry or live an honest life in England after being disgraced.
Steerforth told David, “Think of me at my best!'” (Ch. 56), but he says there was no need. He always did. He worshipped Steerforth. Yet with the incident with Emily, David buried his hero. He learned to grow up. He also learned that sometimes our heroes are not what we build them up to be. Everyone has faults, and no one can stay on the pedestal we put him on. The truth is that David was naïve, and immature. His childhood stunted his emotional growth, and when he met Steerforth again, older, he did not see the signs. If he had, he could have prevented the tragedy.
The tale of Steerforth and Emily is a cautionary one. Unlike the sweet story of Barkis and Peggotty or the sad one of Dora and David, this one is almost cliché. The innocent girl running off with bad boy was common enough in Victorian fiction. It serves to underscore David's naiveté in all matters of emotion and love. He does not see through Steerforth's façade and realize the kind of man he really is, and he doesn't predict what Emily will do. This doesn't make what happens his fault, but if he had been more aware, he could have helped prevent what was about to happen.