How Important is the Setting in “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens? Essay Sample

How Important is the Setting in “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens? Pages
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The settings Dickens creates are vital to Great Expectations, as these fictional locations are host to the bulk of the plot’s drama, and help convey the mood of the section and its characters to the audience. The novel was written as a series of weekly instalments and so needs to grab the reader from the very start in order to keep them reading the episodes. These settings were often used in order to assess Pip’s ever increasing maturity and unpredictable moods, along with the other character’s moral values. Throughout the novel, the setting, amongst other devices, is used in order to make the readers see Pip in a ‘good light’, stopping them from losing interest and keeping their interest in the novel, even when Pip is snobbish and obnoxious.

The first setting of the novel reveals the humble upbringing of the narrator, Pip, in the cold, misty marshes of the east of England. Dickens uses this setting in order to create tension, keeping the reader interested in the story, and warning them of the events that would shape Pip’s expectations, whilst also using the setting to reflect the mood of Pip. This setting is important to the novel, as it symbolises everything that Pip is trying to escape from by becoming a gentleman. For this reason, the setting is perhaps purposely detailed to such an extent that the reader is bombarded with so much imagery that they feel it must have been so violently disliked by Pip in order to go to such lengths in order to avoid it. It is only after Pip has come to terms with himself that he is able to return to these misty marshes that shaped his character,

Throughout the first chapter, the setting is used in order to promote sympathy for Pip, as these early emotions felt by the reader for him are vital later in the story. The opening details of Pip’s many deceased relatives creates the idea of Pip being alone in this world, with no-one to love him. Also, the fact that he is visiting his relatives on his own also promotes the idea of lonorism and isolation about the audience, “As I never saw my mother or my father”. The repetition of the phrase “dead and buried” is included by Dickens to emphasize Pip’s situation, and to create a sense of foreboding. This coupled with his age and the way in which he speaks of his lost relatives helps contribute to the audience’s understanding of and feelings towards the character.

The descriptions used in this chapter are written in huge blocks, and often in the same sentence. This gives the idea of a provoking place, as if the author seems to be rushing in order to fit all of his invention in. The blocks, long as they are, are detailed and thorough. Colour is worked into the descriptions, and is a vital tool to creating the right atmosphere in order to set the tension and describe the location of the chapter. Cold colours are used not only to describe physical objects, but actions too, “After darkly looking at his leg…” “…the sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed”

Death is used by Dickens in the chapter in order to remind the reader of Pip’s relatives, and also to create a thick layer of tension over the whole scenario, in order to prepare the reader for the introduction of the escaped convict, Magwitch. Once the sinister meeting between the two characters is over, the convict is described as “eluding the hands of dead people,” as though he is living in the shadow of death, and that his outlook is bleak.

The churchyard is described as bleak and “overgrown with nettles”, creating a hostile atmosphere. A multitude of negative words are used in order to describe the churchyard itself, all in the semantic field of death and fear, “dead and buried”, “dark flat wilderness”, “savage lair”, “afraid”. The author uses long list like sentences with no verbs to shock the reader, and to make sure the description stands out.

The weather is also used by the author in order to add atmosphere to the chapter. The mists and uncertainties of the marshes can be compared to the element of mystery about both Pip and Magwitch. “The sky was just a row of angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed”. This powerful picture of sunset mirrors the feelings of Pip about the illicit meeting between him and the convict. The inclusion of red conveys to the reader Pip’s fear of the whole situation, whilst the darker clouds are included to reflect the sinister undertones of the conference.

Throughout the first section of Great Expectations, the convict is repeatedly described as having the same physical features and behaving similarly to a dog. This cunning use of similes and metaphors works well, and the reader is given a low opinion of the character, associating him with canines, and always thinking of him as a lesser being than Pip, “… (he) limped and shivered and glared and growled,” There is an instant contrast created by this and Pip’s behaviour, supremely polite and mature for his age, “‘Yes, sir’ said I; ‘him too; late of this parish.'” He ends every sentence said to the convict with ‘sir’, and even goes as far as saying good night to the man that has just threatened his life. This immediate difference creates immense sympathy for Pip, as though he does not yet know what has befallen him, or who he should be wary of in society.

This first major setting is described by Dickens as bleak and raw, suggesting that the church yard is bad, and only negative events may happen here. Pip’s fear of the convict creates sympathy for him, whilst the physical strengths of the convict and Pip are juxtaposed, much like the overall picture of both characters, Pip as one of good, whilst Magwitch as one of evil. These stark contrasts create humour as well as sympathy for Pip, encapsulating the reader in the novel.

Throughout chapter 8, Dickens uses his creative ability in order to describe an environment saturated with decay and age, making the house mirror Miss Havisham.

Dickens uses subtle events and remarks in order to give both the brewery and the house as a whole an ever increasing sense of ruin and decay. He uses the weather, “The cold wind seemed to blow colder there, than outside the gate,” This subtle change in temperature immediately conjures a sense of increased danger and foreboding about the whole complex, as though a ghost, maybe even of Miss Havisham’s freedom, haunts the place, unable to escape. “…a shrill noise in howling… like the noise of wind in the rigging of a ship at sea.” Once this picture of a phantom has been implanted into the reader’s mind, it is underpinned in the same sentence by the connotation of ships. As the reader puts these two products together, they are reminded of the convict, his escape, and his nights spent in the marshes.

When Pip enters the Manor House, the idea of the passages being dark, and lit only by solitary candles, coupled with Pip’s fear for the place, puts the reader in mind of a place far different from a large, estate like property. “…the passages were all dark, and that she had left a candle burning there.” This darkness increases the foreboding Pip is experiencing, limiting his vision severely. This inability to see more than a few feet in front of him creates a mystery in front of him, as though each step is a step further into the unknown, a bit like his expectations later.

When Pip meets Miss Havisham, one of his first observations is that everything that should be white, and indeed, once was, is now “faded and yellow”, as though the dye in the fabric, much like Miss Havisham herself, has rotted, and lost its colour. “I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow.” This demonstrates the age at which everything in the house is, backing up Dickens’ point, that everything in the house is decrepit and old, much like Miss Havisham, showing that nothing good will come of her, and that Pip’s love of Estella cannot flourish in a dead environment such as this.

This setting is used to show that a person’s wealth does not make them a good person; highlighting that Pip is currently a good person, strong at heart with high moral values, even though he does not, at this point, possess great personal physical wealth.

The setting of chapter 39 is potent with description also, and uses many devices in order to convey the location accurately, appealing to the senses. The author, as in the previous chapter, once again uses the weather in order to create an atmosphere that mirrors the action of the chapter, and also the moods of the character. Repetition is also used in order to emphasize the weather, and to suggest that there is no escape from the outside world, no matter how hard Pip tries. The chapter also implies that Pip’s mood is like the weather, unpredictable and powerful, “the lamps in the court were blown out… the lamps on the bridges and the shore were shuddering”. The external influences of the chapter, the weather and his benefactor, will always be there. “It was wretched weather; stormy and wet, stormy and wet; mud, mud, mud, deep in all the streets.” Further repetition is used later on in the chapter in order to illustrate Pip’s mundane and bored mood.

Dickens goes further in his description of the weather, and conveys the seemingly never-ending bad weather as “a vast heavy veil… driving over London”. This metaphor is not just describing the weather as being dark and overcast, but also conveys Pip’s mood regarding the weather, one of gloom and depression, as the word ‘veil’ connotates to the reader a picture of a funeral, perhaps of Pip’s innocence and longing to know for sure his benefactor. The use of this imaging could also link to the coming of the convict, and his need to stay hidden, away from the law. This phrase demonstrates the period of the book, as veils are no longer worn to attend funerals.

As with chapter 8, the author uses the light, or rather lack or light, to intensify the mood, with the main character to which the reader is now so attached, not being able to see more than a short way in front of him. Pip being unable to see might also be a precursor to his innocence and inability to see his future, or who his benefactor is, “…from the darkness beneath”.

This chapter’s setting reveals Pip’s depression, showing him as fearful and exhausted at guessing the origins of his expectations. He realises his life is based on a lie and stolen money, with him receiving money from the very source that he has gone to great lengths to avoid. The chapter creates sympathy for Magwitch due to his tireless work for Pip, and his uncharacteristic show of emotions, “Yes, Pip, dear boy, I’ve made a gentleman on you! It’s me wot done it!”

Great Expectations has highlighted several things for me as a contemporary reader. The extent of which poverty was spread around the country was not known to me until I read Dickens’ work, neither was the penitential system. After conducting research, it is now clear that life in prison was not even remotely like free life, as it is now. Prisoners were often banished and deported to Australia, unable to return or see the ones they loved. The prisons were at one point so swelled that ships were used to house convicts. For these reasons, it is now clear why Magwitch thought so much of Pip for helping him.

There are several main themes of the novel, an example of this is that money cannot buy happiness and that just because someone is not the same class, they are not inferior, and, in the case of the characters of Great Expectations, often have higher moral values. The setting contributes to these main themes as when Pip’s fortune is thrusted upon him, he lost his close friend Jo, and never really got the same connection with Herbert.

Also, the reader is informed of the country’s radically different penitential system of today. The use of hulks, decommissioned warships, to house convicts, or even deport them is mentioned. The physical reduction of Magwitch, a streetwise, rough and ready convict to nothing more than a scarred wreck is documented, “When a man’s alone on these flats… he hears nothing all night, but guns firing, and voices calling.” Capital punishment is also featured in the novel, “… a gibbet, with some chains hanging to it which had once held a pirate.” From these simple hints, it is obvious why Magwitch is slowly losing his sanity.

This use of such graphic description gives the reader a true sense of reality in Dickens’ creation, as though the rich locations were indeed a reality. It is this sense of trusting reality created by Great Expectations that its readers love. Without such powerful descriptive mastery, Dickens’ work would be nothing more than a set of mediocre novels, not a collection of thought provoking classics.

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