Charles Dickens was one of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century. He wrote all his books to educate people but also for entertainment. He published Great Expectations in 1861; the book was set in the 1830s. The main character in ‘Great Expectations’ is a boy called Pip. In the book there are many parallels between Pip and Charles Dickens. Pip goes through many desperate experiences and emotions just as Dickens had himself. Life in the nineteenth century was very hard for the poor. Healthcare was very poor so disease and infant mortality was very high. Dickens emphasizes this at the start of the novel in the graveyard through Pip. Pip has lost all his brothers who died when they were in their infancy. Only he and his sister lived. Capital punishment was very high. People were being hanged and whipped publicly for minor crimes. Dickens campaigned against this.
He brings his concept for these injustices into the novel where Pip goes to see Mr Jaggers. He sees that Mr Jaggers is willing to use false witnesses just to get money. Pip is asked by a man to give him a tour of the execution areas as hangings were public entertainment at the time. One of the things Dickens is famous for is his skill to write about crime and death in an effective way having worked as a clerk in the laws office. In this essay I will explore how Charles Dickens writes about crime and death and the effect it has on the reader. The narrative starts with Pip describing the graveyard. This gives the reader the message that the novel may be disturbing and has a very serious theme of death. As soon as the story starts the word ‘tombstone’ is used. This is associated with graveyards. Graveyards are directly linked to death so it is an ideal place to start the story.
Throughout history death is seen as shocking but Dickens makes death sound very matter of fact. When Pip is talking about his dead brothers, he says their names as though he is reading a shopping list? Pip makes death sound like something that just happens and we have to deal with it. Pip’s brothers died at birth or before the age of three because of the high number of diseases and poor maternity care at the time. Yet Pip does not seem at all upset that his parents and brothers are dead. Research has shown me that fifty percent of children died in infancy in the 1830s. So in a way Pip is lucky that he did not die when he was in his infancy.
Dickens introduces Magwich quite early in the story. Convicts are directly linked to crime. Charles Dickens uses imagery to describe the convict as ‘a man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head’. This description allows the reader to make a picture in their head about what the convict looks like. It is disturbing and links with our natural tendency to find criminals frightening.
Dickens uses the weather to create tension and fear. He makes the weather fit in with what is happening in the novel. The sky is described as ‘a row of long angry red lines’. The use of the colour red is very effective. Red is colour that is associated with love and flowers. However the sky is described as ‘long angry lines’. The word angry suddenly suggests the red represent blood, fear and anger. Dickens makes the weather seem like a scary criminal out to get Pip. This use of personification makes the reader feel like the sky is closing in on Pip in the same way a criminal does when cornering its victim.
On the marshes, Pip sees a gibbet. A gibbet was a frame used to hang criminals as a public warning. ‘It gave me a terrible turn’ writes Pip. The gibbet is made all the more eerie by being described as ‘standing alone on the horizon’. This makes Pip very frightened to see the gibbet because he is about to steal food and a file from his house. Pip thinks that he may end up on the gibbet because of his crime because at the time it was possible to be hung for stealing.
After Pip has stolen the food and the file in chapter three he goes back to the graveyard. When Pip is on his way to the graveyard he comes past a signpost. Pip has always seen this sign post. It has always been on the marshes but Pip’s guilty conscience makes him see the signpost differently. Dickens describes the signpost as ‘devoting him to the Hulks’ which were ships where convicts where kept before being transported to Australia. Here the signpost is personified to look like a person pointing its arm towards the Hulks telling Pip to go that way because he has stolen a pork pie and a file.
Charles Dickens uses the weather to fit in with how Pip is feeling. Dickens says ‘the mist is heavier’. This fits in with the way Pip feels because the mist is associated with confusion and makes everything seem as though they are running after Pip because he can’t see well in the mist. He could be said to be lost in another two senses literally because he cannot find his way and morally because he cannot stop thinking about the crime he has committed.
Conscience can also affect the atmosphere of crime and death. Pip’s guilty conscience is making him very paranoid. Charles Dickens says that the gates talk and say ‘a boy with somebody-else’s pork pie! Stop him!’ It is like the gates are opening up and telling Pip to go in so they can capture him. But gates can’t talk, it is Pip’s guilty conscience which is making him very paranoid and making him feel like everything is out to get him.
On the marshes, Pip again seems guilt ridden when he comes across a black ox. The ox had white markings like a cravat on its neck. People in the nineteenth century were into religion. People took religion seriously and everyone was expected to go to Church on Sundays. Pip’s paranoia makes the white cravat seem like the white band a priest wears. This has an effect on the reader because the reader feels like the ox is telling Pip that God has seen what he has done and that he will be punished.
In chapter three Dickens uses the weather to attack both Pip and the convict. The convict is on the marshes shivering which is showing that the cold is making the convict sick and the readers are made to feel sympathy for him. That sympathy is enhanced in chapter five when the convict takes the blame from Pip.
The coldness is also having an impact on Pip. In chapter three the wind makes Pip feel as if he has shackles on his legs. Dickens here tries to relate to the convict who is ‘as the iron was riveted to the leg’ of the convict. Pip’s guilt is making him feel like he is tied up because he stole from his family. Also coldness is something that cannot be brushed away and that can be linked to Pip’s feelings because he feels as if there is no way he can get away with what he has done.
The weather makes Pip feel like a convict. The wind makes Pip feel as if he has shackles on his legs. Dickens here tries to relate to the convict who is ‘as the iron was riveted to the leg’ of the convict. Pip’s guilt is making him feel like he is tied up because he stole from his family.
In chapter eight, an air of discomfort and gloom is created immediately. Pip says he feels, ‘…not at all at my ease’ as soon as he arrives at Satis House. This only helps to make the reader feel uncomfortable. The outside of Satis House is made to look like a prison. The house has ‘iron bars’ which are rusty, indicating neglect. This is perhaps a warning about the neglect we will find inside the house. Many windows had been walled up just like a prison and the bricks are old as if the building would break at any minute.
When Pip approaches the front door, he sees the door has ‘chains’ on it. This makes the reader feel as if the people inside are trapped and have perhaps committed a crime. The chains give the feeling that no one is able to get out of the house and no one can get in.
When Pip is walking through the dark corridors of Satis House it feels as though he is walking in a tomb. All the corridors are dark with no light except for the candle Estella is holding. This frightens Pip and he says ‘I would have cried out if I could’. He feels alone and afraid and the reader sympathises with him.
As Pip follows Estella into Satis House, he notices everything in the house has stopped. He sees a brewery in the courtyard but ‘no was brewing was on in it, and none seemed to have gone on for a long time’. He also noticed that all the clocks have been stopped to twenty minutes to nine. There is a great nothingness about Satis House which subtly makes the reader think about the nothingness of death.
The mention of the brewery is very ironic. Breweries are used to make alcohol. When alcohol is made it is like a new substance is made just like birth. The fact the brewery hasn’t been used for a long time is like saying that the brewery is dead just like the atmosphere of the house.
When Pip sees Miss Havisham he is taken aback. He sees she is an old woman wearing a wedding dress. People get married when they are young so it is very unusual to see someone with white hair wearing a bridal dress. Her dress is compared to ‘grave clothes’. She has ‘sunken eyes’ and has ‘shrunk to skin and bone’. This gives the impression that Miss Havisham is actually a living skeleton. She can be compared to as a waxwork at a fair. This has an effect on Pip and the reader because it seems that Miss Havisham is dead or is about to die.
Miss Havisham was meant to marry her fianc. The room Pip goes to have a cobwebbed wedding cake and Miss Havisham is half dressed. Her boyfriend never turned up and it is as though the moment she found out she died and all the life around her froze for eternity.
Miss Havisham says that she has ‘never seen the sun’ since Pip was born. This is shocking to think that someone would shut themselves out from the sun. It suggests that Miss Havisham is in a tomb and if she was exposed to any sunlight, her body would disintegrate to dust. ‘I have often tho since, that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust’. This reminds the reader if a mummy.
When Miss Havisham is talking to Pip, she touches her heart and says it is ‘broken’. This suddenly makes Pip remember about the convict and what he said about pulling his heart out and frightens him. Two main characters in the book have mentioned hearts, one of the most functional parts of the body. Without it the body cannot work.
Charles Dickens again uses the weather to describe how Pips feels. Pip is confused and frightened about the atmosphere at Satis House. He says that ‘the cold wind seemed blow colder’ at the courtyard of the house than it did outside the gate. The wind is colder in the courtyard which gives the reader the impression that the house is not happy and that everything is very dull and as cold as death.
In chapter twenty, Pip goes to see Mr Jaggers. The atmosphere Dickens creates is immediately gloomy. The office is lit by a broken skylight. Pip describes the view through the skylight, ‘…distorted adjoining houses looking as if they had twisted themselves to peep down at me through it’. This makes the reader feel as if Pip is trapped in the room for committing a crime. Public punishment was very popular at the time and Dickens personifies the houses to make them feel as though they are watching Pip suffer because he has committed a crime.
Pip doesn’t meet Mr Jaggers in person until the end of chapter twenty but from the sinister description of his office the reader can make an image in their head of what Mr Jaggers looks like. His chair is described as having ‘rows of brass nails around it, like a coffin’. Pip sees that the back walls are greasy from clients’ shoulders. This makes Mr Jaggers seem like a vampire who sits in his coffin all day and scares his clients who then back away in fright.
In the nineteenth century many criminals were hung. After they were hung the casts of their heads were often hung on people’s walls as decoration. Mr Jaggers has two death casts on a shelf in his office. Pip describes the cats as ‘two swollen faces’. This makes the reader wonder if Mr Jaggers if related to criminals. It also tells the reader that most people were in some way related to criminals because people were forced into crime in order to survive. Pip overhears Jaggers and it is clear that he is happy to use false witnesses which show how corrupt the law was. It shows that many people were probably hanged after having an unfair trial.
All through the story Charles Dickens uses imagery to portray how criminals look. In chapter twenty, Pip sees many of Mr Jaggers’ clients. Most of his clients have committed crime. One client is described as ‘murderous looking’ and another has a ‘black eye’. Here Dickens is trying to get the message across that all criminals were in some way injured. This makes the criminals more threatening and dramatic because it’s like they have gone through injuries but it doesn’t bother them one bit.
Great Expectations was written intended for the rich. Charles Dickens didn’t like the injustice of the working class and wanted things to change. He knew that only the rich could change things so he wrote Great Expectations intended for them.
Great Expectations was published in monthly instalments in newspapers. Newspapers were only read by the rich because they could afford it and at the time only rich people could read. Dickens achieved a lot through his books. Soon after Great Expectations was published public hangings stopped. All through the book Pip goes to the same places as Charles Dickens. Just like his author, Pip was born in Kent in a working class family. He went to London and became rich just like Dickens. Dickens was born into the working class. His father couldn’t fend for his family and ended up committing crime.
His father was caught and sent to jail. Dickens shows how hard life was for the working class and how people were forced into crime in order to survive through Pip. Charles Dickens creates an atmosphere of crime and death by using many different techniques. He personifies the weather to make an atmosphere even gloomier. He is very careful about what setting he uses to fit in with what is happening in the story. Charles Dickens also uses imagery to make the reader make a picture in their head of what is going on. Overall Charles Dickens was a great writer who has changed a lot through his effective way of writing about crime and death. He changed so many things and also provided entertainment to the people of the nineteenth century.