Great Expectations – the Mount Everest of literature – was written by Charles Dickens in the 19th century. As expected with a Dickens novel, each and every thing that appears within this book is described in overwhelming detail. I am focussing specifically on two factors, which influenced greatly in the book’s success: character and setting.
Charles Dickens grew up in an England that was rapidly transforming. Unfortunately, this led to a significant proportion of the population living in appalling conditions and working in dangerous factories. Because of this, the poor had to steal food, money and anything else in order to sustain their lives. Dickens uses the facts of this industrial revolution by fusing them into Great Expectations to form the foundations of his settings and characters.
Humour can sometimes be considered as an unhelpful device when it comes to writing novels. However, Dickens uses it in a subtle yet somewhat noticeable way, specifically during the opening chapters. The first passage of the book creates a funny and mellow atmosphere, “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip.” Ironically, the first chapter continues with the mention of death and negative emotions whilst taking place in a churchyard and the marshes. In chapter two, we are presented with a strangely humorous relationship. Stereotypically, the man is in control of his wife and tends to lead the family. However, Pip’s sister, Mrs Joe Gargery, is very much the leading lady in her marriage, and Joe tends to let her be, “she’s been on the Ram-page, this last spell, about five minutes, Pip. She’s a coming! Get behind the door, old chap, and have the jack-towel betwixt you.” Joe Gargery is very much the comedy character, as he seems to be ‘off the ball’, which Pip notices, “I always treated him as a large species of child, and as no more than my equal.” Although he is not a significant character within the book, he adds a contrast to the intensity of the chapters he features in.
Dickens uses contrast very effectively to portray character and setting; particularly with Miss Havisham, Estella and Satis House. Satis translates to satisfactory: logic says that the house should be satisfying. However, it “was of old brick, and dismal, and had a great many iron bars to it.” It almost seems as if the allotment represents a prison, “Some of the windows had been walled up… There was a court-yard in front, and that was barred.” When the “young conductress” appears, the reader is somewhat surprised. A “beautiful and self-possessed” girl is the last thing anybody expects to be living at the “empty” house. Miss Havisham was dressed in “rich materials” with “bridal flowers in her hair” and “bright jewels”. These clothing features correspond to beauty and youth. However, Miss Havisham was “the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see.” Similar to the house, the potential of being appealing and graceful was there, but it had rotted away and was lost. The dullness of the house and Miss Havisham emphasises the elegance of Estella through contrast.
Speech is primarily used for two different reasons in fiction: moving along the storyline or to add to the description of the character. Dickens uses dialogue to add significant information to the character’s current emotions. Great Expectations is written as an autobiography of Pip. Therefore there is little speech of Pip himself. However, the lines he does say tend to tell us something important. In chapter one, Pip’s speech suggests he is frightened, “Pray don’t do it, sir.” He only stutters a few words in each of his passages which adds to the sense of panic, “Pip, sir”, “There, sir!” Similarly, in chapter two when Mrs Joe Gargery is shouting at Pip, he has a lack of speech and always speaks as if he is on the defensive, “You did.”, “I don’t know.” However, later in the same chapter, Pip shows elements of confidence and uses longer lengths of speech, “I wonder who’s put into prison-ships, and why they’re put there?” Once again, in chapter eight, Pip feels inferior to Miss Havisham, and appears afraid, “Pip, ma’am.” , “No.” When Pip becomes a gentleman in the later stages of the book, he speaks a lot more and with confidence, “She lived and found powerful friends. She is living now. She is a lady and very beautiful. And I love her!” Pip’s speech emphasises his personality transformation as the book progresses. We come to see that not only did Magwitch’s money enhance Pip’s financial state; but also enhanced his social confidence.
Love and relationship is clearly present in many forms in Great Expectations. However, the most notable romance is between Pip and Estella. In chapter eight, when the two are still children, it is evident that Pip has a crush on Estella through his ‘love struck’ dialogue, “‘I should think I could miss’ said I, in a shy way” as well as his continuous compliments, “I think she is very pretty.” However, she does not return the flattery. In chapter fifty-nine – when the two have both grown up – the love interest is still clear to see, “Glad to part again, Estella? To me, parting is a painful thing.” Although Estella remains resistant to announce her feelings for Pip, she does drop a few flirty hints, “Be as considerate and good to me as you were, and tell me we are friends.” Although Dickens does not tell us if they officially get together, one would assume they do.
Charles Dickens uses adjectives, similes and other descriptive devices to their full potential to create brilliant passages of description, which bring his settings to life. Instead of being blue, “the sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed.” He describes the wind at Satis House as “a shrill noise in howling in and out at the open sides of the brewery, like the noise of wind in the rigging of a ship at sea.” And the marshes as “dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it.” His overwhelming description is key to the realism of his settings, and – especially with the marshes – we can begin to match them with different emotions because of what they symbolise. The marshes and the churchyard symbolises evil and hatred by using phrases such as “devil”, “cut my throat”, “terror”, “red” and “anger” And, as expected, Mrs Joe Gargery’s home uses description and events which suggest security and homeliness, “bread-and-butter”, “companionship”, “manners.” The description of Satis House almost makes it seem like a prison ship, “cold wind”, “ship at sea”, “rustily barred” which emphasises the loneliness and colour-drained atmosphere.
In conclusion, I think that character and setting are the two most vital factors used by Charles Dickens in order to project the story of Great Expectations onto paper. His in-depth descriptions help us visualize his settings whilst his speech and contrast help to create both the character’s physical appearance and personality. His establishment of relationship development and personality progression make us feel for the characters and begin to wonder what life was really like for the English population during the industrial revolution.