Structure and settings

Just to list some of the key settings in Great Expectations is enough to demonstrate their importance and influence:

  • in and around Pip's village: marsh, churchyard, forge, prison hulk
  • at Satis House: Miss Havisham's rooms, the ruined brewery and the abandoned garden
  • in London: Smithfield Market, Jaggers' office, Newgate Prison and Jaggers' house, Pip and Herbert's lodgings
  • out of the city: the Pockets' house, Wemmick's Castle.

These settings could be seen as reflecting the development of the novel

  • the village and life at the forge is the setting of Pip's time of innocence, interrupted only by the appearance of the convict
  • Satis House is where he glimpses the possibilities of a different kind of life, becomes ashamed of and dissatisfied with his home and begins to aspire to a different social status, largely as a means of winning Estella's love; in this sense it is the location of Pip's corruption by false values
  • Satis House is where he glimpses the possibilities of a different kind of life, becomes ashamed of and dissatisfied with his home and begins to aspire to a different social status, largely as a means of winning Estella's love; in this sense it is the location of Pip's corruption by false values
  • in London, where he lives after acquiring his wealth, he encounters the filth of Smithfield, the dubious atmosphere of Jaggers' practice, the horrors of Newgate and the temptations of life as a young man with too much money and too little to do
  • at the Pockets' house, he sees the ill-effects of social snobbery and the difficulties of man who is well-educated but cannot earn sufficient money to support his growing family and his wife's genteel pretensions
  • at Wemmick's house, he sees the value of simple family love and the importance of protecting one's privacy and best impulses against the outside world.

Dickens is echoing conventional wisdom about urban and rural landscapes derived from the classics (see The associations of location) and the Bible (see City and countryside)

Satis House

  • the mouldering wedding feast and disintegrating wedding dress create a setting that is fixed at a moment in time when Miss Havisham first heard that she had been jilted
  • she is trapped in an obsessive and eternally repeated drama arising from an insupportable emotional hurt, symbolised by Pip's task of wheeling her round in an endless figure of eight
  • the house is lit only by candles and the curtains are drawn – an indication that Miss Havisham has willfully placed herself outside the natural cycles of life
  • the appearances of Estella – partly as a real and very rude little girl and partly as a kind of visionary light, floating in the air – contribute to a dream-like and contradictory atmosphere, in which Pip can never be sure what will happen next
  • it is also clear that Estella is trapped in Miss Havisham's sinister plan to use her as a weapon of revenge – this is a house where people's true feelings are warped by the will of its crazed owner
  • a kind of weird companionship is established between Pip and miss Havisham, as when they sing ‘Old Clem'
  • Pip is subjected to unexpected tests, ranging from his skill at cards to his fight with ‘the pale young man'.

Newgate Prison

Re-read the description of Newgate Prison in Ch. 32; Vol.2, Ch. 13. It develops the novel in several ways:

  • Pip has already seen the prison in all its horror just as he arrives in London – and it seems like another link in the chain of associations with crime and punishment, established by the unexpected appearances of convicts in Pip's life
  • Newgate is transformed in this chapter into Mr. Wemmick's greenhouse, because he gives the impression, as he talks to the inmates, of a gardener inspecting and tending his plants
  • this seems like a whimsical contrast, but Dickens's use of irony here actually serves to intensify the helplessness and desperate courage of those about to be hanged
  • Wemmick can only cope with the reality of the prison by being cheerfully businesslike and apparently callous
  • after this, his Castle at Walworth can be seen not just as an eccentricity but a carefully-designed refuge from the harsher realities of city life
  • the chapter also prepares the reader for the later revelations of Mr. Jaggers' character and the fact that he has to present a hard face to his clients so that he can be more effective in defending them
  • the prison is recalled later when Mr. Jaggers' efforts on behalf of Estella and her mother are revealed;
  • Newgate and the system it represents is a prison for Jaggers and Wemmick as much as it is for the inmates.

The abandoned garden

Photo by Alfred Fyfe available through Creative Commons

  • The last scene of the novel features another setting, the abandoned garden where Satis House used to stand:
  • everything that was there has been cleared away in readiness for eventual redevelopment a sign that social change is taking place in the town
    • it is thus an appropriate setting for the novel's final meeting between Pip and Estella
  • both are on journeys of remembrance and both are now aware how they were damaged by what happened to them at Satis House
  • it may also be the setting for Pip and Estella's final farewell (this is not necessarily the same as their final meeting in the novel): much depends on how we interpret the novel's alternative endings.

A lost Paradise?

As they leave ‘the ruined place' together, there is an echo of the story of the departure of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, especially as recounted by John Milton (1608-74) in the last lines of his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667-9; 1674):

Some natural tears they dropp'd, but wip'd them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wand'ring steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way.

Paradise Lost, Book 12, lines 645-9
  • the parallel is not exact – there was no perfect life at Satis House for them to regret
  • there is, however, a parallel with Pip's realization that his own ‘family Eden' at the forge, now occupied by Joe and Biddy, is closed to him
  • but there isa suggestion that the reality of life in an imperfect world can have its rewards – this is certainly a central theme of Dickens's novels from the 1850s.

  • Go through the other settings listed above and make notes on the role they play within the novel
  • What features do the settings (or groups of settings) have in common?
  • How are the settings related to the stages in Pip's fortunes?
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