‘Great Expectations’ was written by Charles Dickens in the Victorian times. At that time, reader extremely enjoyed gothic concepts. Dickens had to leave school and work as a young child as his father was sent to debtors’ prison. The young Charles must have found this confusing and difficult. Great Expectations puts forward many of the feelings of hopelessness and lack of control that Dickens may have felt as a child. Pip, who is a very small boy deserted by his family and neglected by those who are left to care for him, represents Dickens as a child. The title ‘Great Expectations’ insinuates that the novel is about the high hopes about Pip’s life or future. ‘Great Expectations’ was serialised, where two chapters were published every week. This meant that Dickens had to ensure the readers stayed interested. He did this by engaging the reader on different levels – plot, characterisation, language etc. Dickens used a variety of techniques and ended most chapters with cliffhangers.
Chapters one to eight of Great Expectations are significant in the development of Pip’s character; many of his later decisions have their roots in earlier events. One technique Dickens uses in ‘Great Expectations’ to help engage the reader in this book is the strong characterisation of each character. Pip is the main character. His name suggests a little bit of something, an insignificant and useless part of a greater thing; representing his character. Dickens does this with many names. Two examples are “Mr. Pumblechook” and “Mrs. Hubble”. In addition, Dickens takes on the persona of Pip.
This device makes it hard not to like and have sympathy for Pip. It creates an emotional involvement of the reader with Pip. Furthermore, Dickens uses a lot of detail to describe his characters. The amount of detail written just to describe one character in the novel gives the reader a good image of the characters personality and looks. For example in the start of chapter two, “My sister, Mrs Joe Gargery, (…) knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me (…) She was tall and bony, and always wore a coarse apron”. All this detail (and more) gives the reader a good indication of Mrs Joe Gargery’s personality and physical appearance. Words like ‘hard and heavy hand’ imply that she is a tough woman with a powerful position in the house. The fact that she beats her husband and Pip further stresses the point that she has a lot of power. In addition to this, Dickens tells us that she “always wore a coarse apron” and is “tall and bony”. The extra detail gives the reader a stronger image of Mrs Joe Gargery.
Dickens evokes sympathy for Pip from the very beginning of the story. He the mentions the ‘authority’ of his sister, he then describes the tombstones of his family in immense detail. At this point, the reader starts to believe that Pip’s family have all, (in a sense), deserted him, and are infact more significant to him than any living person is. Even though as the narrative develops we see that, this cannot be true. These events evoke much sympathy for Pip, a sympathy that allows the reader to continue to believe in him. Dickens has used pathetic fallacy to evoke an atmosphere of desertion and oppression, as Pip tells us that the graves have given him his impression of what his mother, father, and siblings had been like. This engages the reader as empathy for Pip keeps the reader connected to Pip, increasing the interest.
Moreover, Great Expectations is written in the first person, as though events from long ago are being remembered. The writer takes on the persona of the main character, Pip. This device makes it hard not to like and have sympathy for Pip on at least some level, even when he falls into snobbery and denies his true friends later in the novel. The complex relationships between the characters draw in the reader. The reader becomes emotionally involved with the characters from Pip’s perspective due to the fact it is a first person narrative from Pip’s point of view.
Another technique that Dickens uses to help engage the reader in this book is the gothic setting. The gothic setting intrigues the reader; it plays on the readers’ awareness and expectations of genre. An example of a gothic element is found in chapter one. “Ours was the marsh country (…) I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard”. Also ‘overgrown’ suggests that the churchyard has been abandoned and not cared for. This is similar towards the readers’ feelings towards Pip, and the reader can feel a connection between Pip and the churchyard. Furthermore, Pip draws ‘self awareness by placing himself firmly in a dreary, bleak landscape that seems to go on forever. This is another gothic element as it is a gloomy, grotesque, and mysterious setting with an atmosphere of degeneration and decay; further emphasising the abandonment of the churchyard. The reader expects anticipation and the descriptions of abandonment and neglect – and the gothic elements add this. Dickens’ descriptions are very detailed and they create the atmosphere of a gothic setting. In his time – the Victorian Age, gothic elements were incredibly popular.
Alternatively, a technique that Dickens uses to help engage the reader is the structure and plot. He uses chapter endings, for example, the first chapter ends as it begun… Pip is a frightened little boy in a huge uncaring landscape, deserted by family and friends and tormented by strangers. We cannot help but care what happens to him and we are firmly sympathetic. Perhaps the young Dickens felt like this when his father was removed from the family to the debtors’ prison. In addition, at the end of chapter two, “opened the door (…), and ran for the misty marshes”. This is a cliffhanger because we do not want Pip to be caught stealing, as he takes the food to the convict. It is important that Dickens used cliffhangers to help engage the reader because, ‘Great Expectations’ was serialised and Dickens would have wanted to keep the readers constantly engaged so that as a result his story would sell.
Simultaneously, Dickens also used varying sentence structure to create anticipation and tension. He used long sentences for a detailed description, which would create an image in the readers head or play on their feelings and manipulate them. This would create the atmosphere. On the other hand, he used short sentences to show sudden events and dialogue. This creates tension as it happens unexpectedly. This, in turn, helps to engage the reader.
A different technique that Dickens used to make ‘Great Expectations’ successful is the use of universal themes, i.e. crime and violence. For example in chapter two, Pip’s sister “applied tickler to its further investigation”. The above quote shows that Dickens used violence – a universal theme. The theme of desertion echoes throughout the narrative, and we cannot help but sympathise with the small child whose earliest memories are of desertion and intimidation. This is evident as in the first chapter we find out that his parents have died. This makes us – the reader – want to sympathise with Pip. Dickens also used crime as theme. For example in chapter five, “oaths were being sworn, blows were being struck (…) both were bleeding and panting, and execrating and struggling”. He does this to add excitement to the story and influence his readers to continue reading the novel. Dickens used universal themes as everyone on the planet has experienced them and understands them; hence the term ‘universal’. For Dickens, common themes would mean that it would become easy for the readers to be able to sympathise with the characters, especially Pip, which would consequently mean an engaging experience for the reader.
Humour was another technique used by Dickens in ‘Great Expectations’ to help engage the reader in the story. It was used to break the tension. This was effective because when the tension was built up again it was more apprehensive and effective. One example of this is “Tickler was a wax-ended piece of cane, worn smooth by collision with my tickled frame”. This suggests that Pip was beaten so much with the cane that it smoothened. Victorians would have found this funny however if this novel was written at present, the readers would think that it was harsh and violent. This quote also has a rhyme to it, which makes it more memorable. This also engages the reader, leading to an attention-grabbing and engaging story.
Dickens included characters dialogue to help engage the reader in ‘Great Expectations’. In chapter 2, Mrs Joe says, “You’ll drive me to the churchyard, betwixt you”. This Dialogue makes the novel more interesting because it adds variety to the tone and atmosphere. Further still, the dialect gives a sense of reality to the story. Accordingly, this helps to engage the reader. Dickens included both first person and third person throughout the story. This was because a book written in the third person only, becomes tedious. Having dialogue also teaches us more about the characters and the way they speak. From the quote, we can see that Mrs. Joe is speaking informally because she says, “betwixt” which is colloquial speech for “between”. We learn more about the characters personality when dialogue is included. This is evident as the above quote shows that Mrs. Joe is undervaluing and underrating Pip. Furthermore, it makes the novel more interesting so the reader is likely to continue reading. Not only this, the dialogue sentences are generally short; this compliments the description.
In conclusion, Dickens uses different devices to help engage the reader and make them want to read on. These include strong characterisation, descriptive setting, varying structure and plot, universal themes, comic relief and use of dialogue. These devices complement each other whilst building tension and anticipation successfully. This is how Dickens engages the reader. Universal themes are used because everyone understands them and they can sympathise with the characters. This way the reader can understand Dickens’ message on the crime system and put it into practice.
Dialogue and colloquial speech is used to create a sense of reality and this way the readers can relate to themselves. Humour is used to break the tension before the story gets too tedious which, therefore, ensures that the readers are entertained and engaged. Strong characterisation is used to make the reader develop an emotional involvement with the characters. The emotional involvement creates a complex, absorbing relationship between the reader and the characters. This makes the reader want to find out what happened next and keeps the reader constantly engaged. Overall, all the devices that dickens uses only help to engage the reader. Dickens’ uses the perfect mix of language devices to engage the reader. They cannot engage the reader on their own, just like a group of bricks put together will make a house. A brick on its own is no good.