Great Expectations - Settings, motifs and point of view
Great Expectations is set in nineteenth-century England, mainly in London and the surrounding marshlands (picture 1) where Pip grows up.
The settings are described through Pip’s point of view, and highlight both his dissatisfaction and his idealism.
As Pip becomes increasingly discontented with home and with everything around him being “all coarse and common,” he becomes repelled by the flat marshlands.
Comparing them to his prospects he says, “how flat and low both were.” Despite Pip’s ambitious hopes for London, when he arrives in the city Pip finds it “rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty.” (Pictures 2 & 3)
Because Pip is constantly chasing his “great expectations,” he can’t see the value or appeal of any of the places he encounters.
At the end of the novel, when Pip returns to his hometown humbled and eager to reconcile with Joe and Biddy, he finds that “the June weather was delicious. The sky was blue… I thought the countryside more beautiful and peaceful by far than I had ever known it to be yet.”
Because Pip has finally made peace with his history and identity, he can finally appreciate the beauty of the world around him.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Dickens’s work is its structural intricacy and remarkable balance. Dickens’s plots involve complicated coincidences, extraordinarily tangled webs of human relationships, and highly dramatic developments in which setting, atmosphere, event, and character are all seamlessly joined together.
In Great Expectations, perhaps the most visible sign of Dickens’s commitment to symmetry is the motif of doubles that runs throughout the book.
From the earliest scenes of the novel to the last, nearly every element of Great Expectations is mirrored or doubled at some other point in the book.
There are two convicts on the marsh (Magwitch and Compeyson, picture 4), two invalids (Mrs. Joe and Miss Havisham (picture 5)), two young women who interest Pip (Biddy and Estella (Picture 6)), and so on.
There are two secret benefactors: Magwitch, who gives Pip his fortune, and Pip (picture 7), who mirrors Magwitch’s action by secretly buying Herbert’s way into the mercantile business.
Finally, there are two adults who seek to mold children after their own purposes: Magwitch, who wishes to “own” a gentleman and decides to make Pip one, and Miss Havisham (picture 8), who raises Estella to break men’s hearts in revenge for her own broken heart.
Interestingly, both of these actions are motivated by Compeyson: Magwitch resents but is nonetheless covetous of Compeyson’s social status and education, which motivates his desire to make Pip a gentleman, and Miss Havisham’s heart was broken when Compeyson left her at the altar, which motivates her desire to achieve revenge through Estella.
The relationship between Miss Havisham and Compeyson (picture 9)—a well-born woman and a common man—further mirrors the relationship between Estella and Pip.
This doubling of elements has no real bearing on the novel’s main themes, but, like the connection of weather and action, it adds to the sense that everything in Pip’s world is connected. Throughout Dickens’s works, this kind of dramatic symmetry is simply part of the fabric of his novelistic universe.
Comparison of Characters to Inanimate Objects
Throughout Great Expectations, the narrator uses images of inanimate objects to describe the physical appearance of characters—particularly minor characters, or characters with whom the narrator is not intimate.
Do you know the words animate and inanimate?
Animate means alive (like animation, cartoons) and inamnimater is ther opposite (not alive, like a building).
For example, Mrs. Joe looks as if she scrubs her face with a nutmeg grater, while the inscrutable features of Mr. Wemmick are repeatedly compared to a letter-box.
That means that Mrs Joe has a poor complexion (her skin is a bit rough) and Wemmick (secretary to Mr Jaggers) has a tight, horizontal mouth when he's in London.
This motif, which Dickens uses throughout his novels, may suggest a failure of empathy on the narrator’s part, or it may suggest that the character’s position in life is pressuring them to resemble a thing more than a human being.
The latter interpretation would mean that the motif in general is part of a social critique, in that it implies that an institution such as the class system or the criminal justice system dehumanizes certain people.
In Satis House, Dickens creates a magnificent Gothic setting whose various elements symbolize Pip’s romantic perception of the upper class and many other themes of the book.
On her decaying body, Miss Havisham’s wedding dress becomes a symbol of death and degeneration.
The wedding dress and the wedding feast symbolise Miss Havisham’s past, and the stopped clocks throughout the house symbolize her determined attempt to freeze time by refusing to change anything from the way it was when she was jilted on her wedding day.
The brewery next to the house symbolizes the connection between commerce and wealth: Miss Havisham’s fortune is not the product of an aristocratic birth but of a recent success in industrial capitalism.
Finally, the crumbling, dilapidated stones of the house, as well as the darkness and dust that pervade it, symbolize the general decadence of the lives of its inhabitants and of the upper class as a whole.
The Mists on the Marshes
The setting (place where a story happens) almost always symbolises a theme in Great Expectations and always sets a tone that is perfectly matched to the novel’s dramatic action.
The misty marshes near Pip’s childhood home in Kent, one of the most evocative of the book’s settings, are used several times to symbolize danger and uncertainty.
As a child, Pip brings Magwitch a file and food in these mists; later, he is kidnapped by Orlick and nearly murdered in them.
Whenever Pip goes into the mists, something dangerous is likely to happen.
Importantly, Pip must go through the mists when he travels to London shortly after receiving his fortune, alerting the reader that this apparently positive development in his life may have dangerous consequences.
Although he is a minor (smaller) character in the novel, Bentley Drummle provides an important contrast with Pip and represents the nature of class distinctions.
In his mind, Pip has connected the ideas of moral, social, and educational advancement so that each depends on the others.
The coarse and cruel Drummle, a member of the upper class, provides Pip with proof that social advancement has no inherent connection to intelligence or moral worth.
Drummle is a lout who has inherited immense wealth, while Pip’s friend and brother-in-law Joe is a good man who works hard for the little he earns.
Drummle’s negative example helps Pip to see the inner worth of characters such as Magwitch and Joe, and eventually to discard his immature fantasies about wealth and class in favour of a new understanding that is both more compassionate and more realistic.
The style of Great Expectations is primarily wry and humorous - which together mean slightly funny. Pip often describes events that are quite tragic and upsetting, but he typically does so in a way that relies on dark humor rather than evoking pity. For example, when he mentions his five dead siblings he refers to them as having “gave up trying to get a living exceeding early in the universal struggle.”
When he describes the abusive relationship between his sister and Joe, he jokes that “I suppose both Joe Gargery and I were brought up by hand.” To be 'brought up by hand' simply means that Mrs Joe would give them a bit of a walloping if either Pip or Joe didn't behave.
The humorous style shows Pip’s tendency to avoid being vulnerable both with readers and with the characters around him, since he does not want to be an object of pity, or be defined by his difficult childhood circumstances.
He even jokes about the bad decisions of his younger self, making fun of how badly he managed his money and noting that he saw writing down his debts and actually paying them off as “in point of meritorious character … about equal.”
Point of view
Great Expectations is written in the first person point of view, with Pip acting as both the protagonist and narrator of the novel.
Pip doesn’t narrate events as they happen, but looks back at his life and tells the story based on what he remembers, a style known as retrospective narration - or sometimes ‘flashback’.
For example, when Pip describes leaving for London, he admits that his desire to depart without Joe “originated in my sense of the contrast there would be between me and Joe.”
Pip says that “If I had cried before, I should have had Joe with me then.”
The retrospective point of view allows Pip to reveal his motivations for his behaviour, which he might not even have been aware of at the time.
He also reflects on what he now knows would have been a better course of action.