ickens uses the passage at the onset of the novel to illustrate the unusually intense fear and guilt-asociated paranoia that afflicts his young protagonist. On a larger scale, however, he uses it to address the disquietude and trepidation that children so often and so unfortunately experience throughout their lives. He considers the vulnerability and impressionability of children, lamenting the inescapable fact that such a large portion of them suffer mercilessly at the hands of ignorant and irresponsible parents or guardians. Dickens voices a plea for these fragile children (Pip, Estella, the little Pockets, to name a few) who are perpetually manipulated and permanently scarred, both mentally and physically, by careless adults without a second thought.
This passage illustrates the way in which the bleakness of Pip's daily reality taints his perception of the world. His severe and violent upbringing renders him prone to anxiety and trepidation. It also, seemingly, encourages his imaginative powers. Young Pip sees through the eyes of a veritable victim. He feels betrayed by his guardian, confused and uncertain about his future. His sister harshly describes to him the horrific fate of a Hulk's prisoner and warns him he is on his way to becoming one; naturally his “oppressed conscience" sees the wooden sign-post in the misty morning fog as a phantom decreeing his own life sentence. Similarly, when Pip first arrives at Miss Havisham's, he seems especially horrified. His apprehension follows him wherever he goes:
I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly wax-work at the fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could. (p.53)
Dickens employs haunting descriptives almost poetically, to relate Pip's vision of both a typically damp English morning on the marshes and a decrepid woman in her equally decrepid surroundings. He plays with powerful words like “goblin", “clammy", “phantom", “ghastly" and “skeleton" to create exagerrated versions of the actual scenes, implying that his character truly experienced them that way. The eerieness of these vivid images makes a reader shudder. They draw him in and evoke pathos for the poor child who must face these terrors alone. A reader must ask why no one nurtured this boy, or loved him unconditionally, or made him feel secure in knowing he always had a haven to which he could return? Dickens presents Joe as a loyal friend but certainly not as a capable parent.
Dickens presentation of children in the novel invites a reader to consider the plight of the orphan throughout nineteenth-century England. The newly industrialized world was a scary place even for the child who had a family and money on which to live. For those without, daily life often resembled a nightmare. Workhouses, boarding schools, and orphanages aside (as in Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist), “the conditions under which women and children toiled [in factories] were unimaginably brutal. Elizabeth Barrett's poem “The Cry of the Childen" (1843) may strike us as exaggerated, but it was based on reliable evidence concerning children of five years of age who dragged heavy tubs of coal through low-ceilinged pasages for sixteen hours a day" (Norton Anthology of English Literature, 894 ). Even after the Factory Acts, a life of labor could hardly have been enjoyable for, or beneficial in any way to, a child. Furthermore, the advent of women working to improve their educational opportunities only led them way from the home and from their children. If given a choice, one would probably not choose to relive one's childhood during the Victorian era. It follows that Dicken's novel lacks a single happy-go-lucky character under the age of twenty-five. Take it from the child-laborer himself!
Last modified 14 October 2002