Miss Havisham's room with the wedding cake epitomizes decay. Insects and mold have taken over the room. “Speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies" people the centerpiece of the table, “overhung with cobwebs (104)." The grasp of entropy even reaches the fire. “The reluctant smoke. . . seemed colder than the clearer air (103)," and the candles are “wintry (104)." Miss Havisham tells Pip to enter the room alone.

I crossed the staircase landing, and entered the room she indicated. From that room too, the daylight was completely excluded, and it had an airless smell that was oppressive. A fire had been lately kindled in the damp old-fashioned grate, and it was more disposed to go out than to burn up, and the reluctant smoke which hung in the room seemed colder than the clearer air — like our own marsh mist. Certain wintry branches of candles on the high chimney-piece faintly lighted the chamber, or, it would be more expressive to say, faintly troubled its darkness. It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing in it was covered with dust and mould, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was a table with a long tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks stopped all together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite indistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies run home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community. [103-4]

The surroundings people choose reveal much about them. So, in describing the cake room Dickens describe Miss Havisham's character. The room is frozen at the same moment as Miss Havisham, the moment when her heart broke. Despite the attempt to halt time, however, or perhaps because of it, time has lain waste to both the room and its owner. The refusal to move forward has had destructive, rather than preservative, effects.

Questions

1. What connections does Dickens hope to create by comparing the smoke in the cake room to Pip's “own marsh mist?"

2. Why does Dickens describe the light from the candles twice, the second time in a “more expressive" way?

3. How does the experience of this room for Pip compare with the experience of Wuthering Heights for Mr. Lockwood in Wuthering Heights?

4. Mist is a recurring theme in Great Expectations. It is mentioned, for instance, in the marsh with Magwitch, in the final scene with Estella, and in this scene. What is the symbolic significance, if any of this mist?

5. Was wedding cake a tradition during this period? How did that tradition begin?


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 18 February 2008