Great Expectations

By Charles Dickens

Language, Imagery and Symbolism

Great Expectations

is written in a far simpler, less ornate style than many of Dickens's novels. Unlike most of his books, which open with extended metaphors, Great Expectations plunges straight in with Pip's dramatic graveyard encounter. This trend is continued throughout the book, which lacks the digressions that so mark his other works. Lengthy metaphors and wordplay are largely eschewed in favour of precise expression. Long lists of words are given to pin down a meaning: for instance, in the graveyard Magwitch "limped, and shivered, and glared and growled"; when Mrs. Joe washes Pip he is "soaped, and kneaded, and towelled, and thumped, and harrowed, and rasped"; London is "ugly, crooked, narrow and dirty" and the atmosphere in Newgate prison is "frouzy, ugly, disorderly, depressing". An impression of urgency and directness is thereby created.

Objects and animals are personified or anthropomorphized throughout Great Expectations; a powerful effect frequently used by Dickens. As Pip runs to the churchyard with his stolen food he fancies that the cows are staring reprovingly at him. Later they "seem to wear a more respectful air", as he comes into his expectations. The spiders in Satis House run around "as if some circumstance of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community". Pip describes his situation at family gatherings as akin to that of "an unfortunate little bull in a Spanish arena'", and Orlick's porter's lodge at Satis is likened to a "cage for a human dormouse", linking him to the mice that scuttle eerily unseen around the house. As Magwitch eats the stolen food "something clicked in his throat, as if he had works in him like a clock". As the escaped convicts are hunted, Joe's bellows "seemed to roar for the fugitives". Pip suspects that the flowers in packets in Mr. Pumblechook's shop long "to break out of those jails and bloom" and in Jaggers's office Pip describes "the distorted adjoining houses looking as if they had twisted themselves to peep down at me". Many such images are symbolic of confinement or guilt, adding to Pip's constant sense of guilt and unworthiness.

Much use is made of light and dark. The book begins and ends in the evening, "as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now", Pip observes at the end. Artificial lighting complements several eerie scenes, such as those inside Satis House, where candles "faintly troubled its darkness", Pip's first meeting with Provis, which is held by flickering lamplight, and his captivity at Orlick's hands, which is sinisterly candlelit. "It was a dark night" when Pip meets Orlick, "it was all dark" on the way to Miss Havisham's lair in Satis House, "darkness [is] coming on" as the convicts are hunted at the beginning and "night was fast falling" as Pip and Herbert make their doomed attempt to assist Magwitch's flight at the end. Indeed, it is notable that Miss Havisham is burned to death by a candle. On the other hand, light suffuses most scenes involving Biddy and Herbert: for instance, "the June weather was delicious" on Biddy and Joe's wedding day.