Lamps, candles, torches and stars

The lighting of the scenes in Great Expectations is a very important part of the novel's total effect:

  • many of the most important scenes take place in the dark or half-light
  • conversely, very few scenes occur in full daylight, much less sunshine
  • in this sense, it is literally a ‘dark' novel. (See Darkness; Light)

There is an emphasis on artificial lighting, which is used both literally and metaphorically. Here are some examples from the early chapters of the book:

  • as the recaptured Magwitch is taken back to the Hulk, the soldiers extinguish their torches: ‘the ends of the torches were flung hissing into the water, and went out, as if it were all over with him' (Ch. 6; Vol. 1, Ch. 6)
    • this image suggests the way in which transported prisoners were literally extinguished, or banished from England for ever
    • it also indicates a narrative irony, in that it seems to dismiss Magwitch from the book – though in retrospect the qualifying phrase ‘as if' is a hint that he will return
  • when Pip first visits Satis House, he finds himself ‘in a pretty large room, well lighted with wax candles. No glimpse of daylight was to be seen in it' and Miss Havisham asks him, ‘‘ You are not afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since before you were born?'' (Ch. 8; Vol. 1, Ch. 8):
    • the exclusion of natural light dramatises Miss Havisham's strange half-life, cut off from the real world
    • the symbolism then becomes an indicator of the character's state of mind – she has created an external context that reflects her internal experience
  • when Pip is ordered to stand ‘in the dark in a mysterious passage' and call for Estella, she appears with a candle which comes ‘along the long dark passage like a star': as he leaves Satis House he sees her in the ruins of the brewery where she ‘[goes] out by a gallery high overhead, as if she were going out into the sky' (Ch. 8; Vol. 1, Ch. 8):
    • this kind of detail emphasises the significance of Estella's name, which means ‘star'
    • it adds to the unsettling quality of Pip's first visit to Satis House
    • most important of all, it signals the role that Estella will play in Pip's life: he will follow her, as if she were a guiding star
    • but the fact that she is associated with a star, a body that belongs in the sky, suggests that in social terms she far above him
    • she is in fact a false star, not leading him to the destination he desperately desires – that of marrying her.
  • Make notes on other scenes from later in the novel where candles, lamps or torches are the only source of light
  • Think about the significance of these scenes in terms of the ideas suggested above about how dark and light are important ideas in the novel

Light can also suggest illumination in the sense of knowledge or understanding, as in the phrase ‘seeing the light':

  • in relation to Estella, Pip only ‘sees the light' very slowly, in two senses:
    • first, that she wasnot intendedby Miss Havershamto be his wife
    • second, that she bears a resemblance to Jaggers' housekeeper, something that he notices in a brief moment of illumination:
‘I should have been chary of discussing my guardian too freely even with her, but I should have gone on with the subject so far as to describe the dinner in Gerrard-street, if we had not then come into a sudden glare of gas. It seemed, while it lasted, to be all alight and alive with that inexplicable feeling I had had before; and when we were out of it I was dazed for a few moments as if I had been in lightning' (Ch. 33; Vol. 2, Ch. 14)
  • Magwitch's reappearance in the novel occurs on an especially dark night, and as Pip holds out his lamp to light his visitor up the stairs we share his point of view:

I stood with my lamp held out over the stair-rail, and he came slowly within its light. It was a shaded lamp, to shine upon a book, and its circle of light was very contracted; so that he was in it for a mere instant, and then out of it. In the instant, I had seen a face that was strange to me, looking up with an incomprehensible air of being touched and pleased by the sight of me […]
As he ascended the last stair or two, and the light of my lamp included us both, I saw, with a stupid kind of amazement, that he was holding out both his hands to me.' (Ch. 39; Vol. 1, Ch. 20)
    • as the scene develops it becomes clear that that this is the novel's climactic moment, when Pip learns the truth about his expectations
    • the restricted circle of light indicates Pip's partial understanding of what is happening: note the words ‘incomprehensible' and ‘stupid'
    • the lamplight finally includes Pip both and Magwitch, pointing to the way in which they will be linked for the remainder of the novel.
  • Try to find other scenes in the novel where light is used in the sense of increased knowledge or understanding
  • How do you interpret the use of ‘light' in the final sentence of the novel?
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