Great Expectations is the thirteenth novel written by Charles Dickens, the most popular English novelist of the Victorian Era. It was published as a serial edition in his magazine named ‘All the Year Round’ on a weekly basis to increase its sales and to make it more available to the public. Like most of his novels there exists a concern for social reform, through which Dickens conveys and expresses his own opinions of the Victorian social system. Through his presentation of characters, Dickens demonstrates that Victorian society revolved around social class and how individuals judged others based on their class, status and appearance, doing so by satirising Victorian society. The protagonist of the novel is named Pip, and like the young Dickens, dreams of becoming a gentleman. Dickens’ father was imprisoned for bad debt which may have been the stimulation of the escaped convict Magwitch. Before his father’s imprisonment, Dickens had the good-fortune of being sent to a boarding school at the age of nine, where Dickens got a taste of the upper-class, and most probably where his dreams of becoming a gentleman developed.
Dickens expresses many of his views through characters in the novel. The presentation of Magwitch, for example is used to show how highly the society of the time valued the upper class at the appearance of a gentleman. Miss Havisham’s presentation, and in turn Compeyson’s, is used to expose the upper-class. Miss Havisham wants to find her adopted daughter, Estella, a fitting boy of lower class, teach her her own opinions on men. Her intentions throughout the novel are to make young Pip fall in love with beautiful Estella, and then exploit said love, to seek revenge on the opposite sex seeing as she was once jilted at the altar by her almost husband, Compeyson. Compeyson is also of upper class; he went to a boarding school as a child and was quite good-looking. He too exploited love, Miss Havisham’s, for her wealthy heritage from her father. All in all, it is very prominent how the upper-class are satirised and criticised by Dickens, using a range of literary and linguistic techniques.
Magwitch is first introduced on the Marshes, he is discovered ‘on a raw afternoon’ within the Gothic setting of a graveyard in the mist. ‘Raw afternoon’, adds effect whereby it suggests that the afternoon is cold and painful, and possibly foreshadowing the following events. The graveyard sets a Gothic and scary image using lexis such as, ‘savage lair’, which implies a sort of monster, or beast is waiting amongst the shadows. In addition, the graveyard is described as a ‘bleak place overgrown with nettles’, while the nearby river is described as a ‘low leaden line’.
Ultimately both quotes give a dull atmosphere to the graveyard, with ‘bleak’ meaning gloomy and cold and dull, and where the description ‘overgrown with nettles’, creates an image of a crowded desolate place, not looked after and very dull and dreary. Finally, the river being compared alliteratively with a ‘low leaden line’, gives the phrase a dreary and monotonous effect. ‘Gothic’ novels were at the time a popular literary tradition and setting it in a graveyard could be seen as foreshadowing the end of the book whereby both Miss Havisham and Magwitch die, and could also possibly give the novel an almost cyclical structure. Weather is used as a pathetic fallacy, foreshadowing danger to the reader, where the future is shady and it is not possible to predict what is going to happen. This already sets the scene for Magwitch, mist suggests uncertainty and insecurity, the mist conceals the horizon in a literal sense, it is uncertain what will come out from it, but also conceals what is to come, the word ‘mist’ is a connotation of the word haze, which supports this in that the future is hazy.
Magwitch is a prison convict after having been condemned 14 years to prison for felony of putting stolen notes into circulation with his partner Compeyson. Compeyson is looked on more favourably because of his good looks and gentlemanly nature and he only gets 7 years. Magwitch describes towards the end of the novel how Compeyson looked like a gentleman ‘wi’ his curly hair and his black clothes and his white pocket-handkerchief’ and how Magwitch himself ‘sold all the clothes (he) had, except what hung on (his) back’, and how next to Compeyson ‘what a common wretch (he) looked’. The crooked legal system means that Compeyson is treated sympathetically by the judge and is awarded a lesser sentence because the Victorians looked more fondly on those of upper-class – educated, good looking and wealthy. Their separate descriptions are important because it contrasts the pair in a way that it is clear why the prosecution ‘bore heavy on (Magwitch), and how light on (Compeyson)’. They are both imprisoned on the same prison ship, and consequently Magwitch tries to kill Compeyson, resulting in him being taken to ‘the black hole’, which is a solitary confinement cell. He is able to escape the ship in the Christmas of 1812 and this is where he is first introduced ashore on the marshes.
Pip, the protagonist and narrator of the novel recounts the story in first person retrospect. Pip is visiting his parents and siblings graves at the time that Magwitch arrives onshore, we know this because words under the semantic field of ‘death’ are used frequently in the first chapter, for example, ‘tombstone’, and ‘five little lozenges’, referring to the graves of Pip’s younger siblings, and evoking sympathy in the reader in that Pip is the only one left. Their encounter is intimidating, further exaggerated by Pip’s child-like reactions and descriptions from the time which makes the reader fear that Magwitch will be the end of Pip, and that he will have the same fate as his siblings. Magwitch approaches Pip in the graveyard crying out, ‘Hold your noise!’, and ‘Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!’, as Magwitch’s first appearance, the menacing tone and exclamation convey to the reader the threatening and intimidating nature of the convict instantly. He uses aggressive imperatives, and the short expositions communicate his ability to ‘terrify’, in a short period of time.
The convict is depicted as ‘soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered’. This quote shows Pip’s infant and therefore limited language cause him to describe the convict’s appearance in a very child-like manner, repeatedly juxtaposing the word ‘and’. The short conjunctive conveys Pip’s fear by quickening the pace of the sentence. The listing and depth of description conveys the extent of Magwitch’s suffering, and also by using lexis such as ‘cut’, ‘stung’, ‘lamed’ and ‘torn’, comes under the semantic field of ‘pain’, and the extent of suffering is heightened. This makes the reader question Magwitch’s trustworthiness; he is not described as a wealthy man, or educated, instantly lowering him in their expectations.
Pip is overwhelmed by the ‘fearful man’ whose ‘teeth shattered in his head as he seized (Pip) by the chin.’ This is supported by Pip’s reaction, as he ‘pleaded in terror’, ‘O! Don’t cut my throat, sir’. Magwitch is given animalistic characteristics similar to that of a dog, or a beast. He ‘glared and growled’, and ‘licked his lips’, and his short forceful outbursts are like a bark from a dog. Giving Magwitch these animalistic qualities show him as wild and ruthless and badly bought up. He seems incapable of knowing how to act around people. Dickens became very interested in the subject of social reform, he believed that there was a need for prison reform in particular. Dickens is satirising the Victorian justice system, giving Magwitch the escaped convict animalistic qualities, suggesting that if you put someone in prison, they are going to become even worse a criminal, punish the crime and not the person. An interpretation of this could be that prisons are comparable with zoos in that they confine wild ‘animals’. Magwitch went in a criminal and came out an animal.
Overall, at first Magwitch is conveyed to the Victorian reader as an unlikeable character; he is by himself which could indicate that he is an outcast from society, which is fitting with the era. Many of the words he is described with come under the semantic field of the word ‘poor’, for example, ‘broken’, ‘old’ and ‘rag’. The Victorian society do not approve of those of lower status, there is a hierarchy, and the fact that he looks poor and lacks of gentility supports the fact that he is an outcast. The fact that he is ‘all coarse in grey with a great iron leg’, informs the reader immediately that he is a convict, which especially in those times would cause him to be greatly feared. Dickens describes him as, ‘eluding the hands of the dead people, stretching up cautiously out of their graves.’
This implies that he is an escaped convict and is this avoiding both death and capture (imprisonment).The horrible imagery created of seeing dead people’s hands, adds to the Gothic theme. In reality the Victorian reader would definitely fear and disapprove of these frightful characteristics, yet stories of jail and crime were considered enthralling and fascinated the Victorian public. One of Dickens’ ideas was to combine all of the different literary traditions from the time to make sure his novel would sell, this one being a Newgate novel, and the setting of graveyards ties in perfectly with the ‘Gothic’ novel. To a modern day reader, where the class system is much less biased, Magwitch could be interpreted as a misunderstood man, who has suffered from a series of unfortunate events, doomed from the moment the landlord ‘called him out, and said, “I think this is a man that might suit you” – meaning (Magwitch) was’.
Miss Havisham is a very important character, she is both very influential and central to the story, and thus Dickens presents her in various different ways, through her personality, surroundings and history, all at the first encounter. Dickens uses various symbols and a reoccurring theme of death and decay on the first meeting with Miss Havisham to satirise Victorian society, ridiculing the upper class. We meet her in Satis house which holds many of the Gothic symbols within it. Symbols are used in order to aid the understanding of Miss Havisham, her personality, surroundings and history. The house firstly symbolises Pip’s perception of the upper class, and numerous other themes within the book. The stopped clocks throughout the house symbolise Miss Havisham’s determined attempt to freeze time, to remain on her wedding day and keep everything the same before being jilted at the altar.
The stopped clocks also indicate to the reader that Miss Havasham has long been in the house, her decaying body still draped with her decaying wedding dress, now yellow, also showing the time she has been in the house. This is an ironic symbol of death and degeneration and can also be seen as Dickens satirising the upper class, where their status is dying and degenerating. This is also supported by the rotting wedding feast. The room in which she is waiting is given a chaotic description, supported by the phrase, ‘chaos – her handkerchief, some flowers, a prayer book – confusedly heaped about the looking glass’. The lexis chosen is important, ‘chaos’ already implies disorder, which could be a metaphorical representation of her mind, chaotic and disordered. The phase, ‘confusedly heaped’, implies that everything was hurriedly thrown to the side in a haste and her bewildered self is so confused she hasn’t ever thought to clear it up. The brewery next to the crumbling, dilapidated stones of the house symbolises the connection between commerce and wealth, and the run down exterior of the house, on top of the dust and darkness that run through it symbolise the general corruption of its inhabitants, and in turn upper class as a whole.
Pip meets Miss Havisham in chapter 8 when he is invited over by Miss Havisham herself one morning. He is greeted by Estella at the front gates of the manor, ‘the cold wind seemed to blow colder there’, which foreshadows their icy encounter and is another example of pathetic fallacy. Estella informs him that Satis House means Enough House, like satisfied, which is ironic in the sense that none of the inhabitants are indeed satisfied. The two converse, Estella is purposefully mean and derogatory to Pip, calling him ‘boy’ and teasing him because of his ‘thick boots’ and ‘coarse hands’. Meeting Estella in the Gothic house foreshadows the meeting with Miss Havisham, where Estella is like a representation of a younger Miss Havisham. A hugely popular Gothic novel at the time was ‘Frankenstein’; Estella is comparable with Frankenstein in that she is the creation of a monster, Miss Havasham raised and almost manufactured her in order to reek havoc on men due to her own injustice as a young woman.
Pip finally gets to meet the woman who forces the two together to play cards in order to fulfil her ‘sick fancy’, while Estella throws insults at Pip, ‘he is a common labouring-boy!’, she protests. Pip notices that ‘the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress’, that the bride had ‘no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes’, and finally that ‘the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman’, and such figure had no ‘shrunk to skin and bone’. All these quotes foreshadow Miss Havisham’s fate towards the end of the novel by using words that fall under the semantic field of ‘death’, such as ‘withered’, ‘shrunk’ and ‘skin and bone’. Dickens satirises the upper class of the time, giving the impression that Miss Havisham is eccentric and obsessive by clinging on to all she has left of her engagement. Dickens describes Miss Havasham as having withered away to nothing, she is worthless and so are the upper-class.
Dickens became interested in social reform from early on in his career and used Great Expectations as a tool to convey his thoughts and beliefs on Victorian society and their justice system through the characters of Magwitch and Miss Havisham. Dickens satirises the Victorian society through Magwitch, who is equally as guilty, if not less so than Compeyson, but is nevertheless given double the sentence due to the crooked justice system favouring and sympathising with Compeyson’s gentility. Magwitch’s time in prison seems to have given him animalistic qualities and rendered him incapable of acting normally around people.
Miss Havisham imprisoned herself in her long lost memory and fantasy that her groom will return to her for so long she doesn’t even remember. She has withered to nothing and is breeding a ‘monster’ to hurt men in the same way she was hurt on her wedding day. She has so long been confined in her memory that she also has lost the ability to act and communicate with other people normally. Compeyson is used as a lever in both cases, misleading both of them to his own gluttony by stealing Miss Havisham’s wealth and corrupting and deceiving Magwitch. Dickens overall portrays the class system as corrupt by showing that each class is no better than the other and that they all suffer.