In this passage, Bevidere, after betraying Arthur twice by disobeying his last wishes, finally does as Arthur bids him and casts away Excalibur. Tennyson uses this scene of Arthur's death to close a cycle and return to the beginning. Arthurian legend says that upon Arthur's death, the Lady of the Lake will reclaim the sword. When Bevidere follows Arthur's instructions, the prophecy is fulfilled.
Then, with both hands I flung him, wheeling him;
But when I looked again, behold an arm,
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
That caught him by the hilt, and brandished him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere.
[Tennyson, Norton Anthology, 1161-2)
This theme that death ends a cycle and brings things back to the beginning is also present in Great Expectations. Pip confronts death twice, once when his sister dies and again when Magwitch dies. Mrs. Joe's funeral brings him back to his childhood home, where he tries to reestablish himself as part of the family, requesting his old room and declaring that he will be back to visit Joe often. Despite these attempts, Pip “felt that [he] had done rather a great thing in making the request" (Dickens 301) of sleeping in his old room, and he was not sincere in his concern for Joe. Although his sister's death gives him the opportunity to return to his childhood home and redress some of his wrongs while ending his childhood, Pip has not grown enough emotionally to take this opportunity.
Magwitch's death ends Pip's time in London as a gentleman and his aspirations of becoming a gentleman, but more importantly, ends the greater cycle of Pip's relationship with the convict. At the end of this cycle, Pip's return to the beginning is not geographical, but emotional. After his experience with Magwitch, Pip's natural sympathy and goodness is restored. Magwitch's death eventually brings Joe to Pip geographically when Joe nurses Pip back to health, and Pip back to Joe emotionally when Pip realizes how true and noble Joe has always been.
Despite sharing similar themes, Tennyson and Dickens treat death very differently. Tennyson treats the passing of Arthur as an enormous event, a final fulfillment of obligations, a final test of loyalty, using drama and weighty language to illustrate the enormous significance of Arthur's death. Its impact is very personal; we see Arthur's death through the eyes of Bevidere, the first of Arthur's knights. Dickens seems to treat death more cavalierly. Pip grows up with the death of his family hanging above him as part of his identity, and although his sister's death is the “first grave that had opened in [his] road of life" (Dickens 297), Dickens's depiction of the funeral ceremony is filled with humor and absurdity. While Tennyson's language and description emphasize the importance of the ritual and ceremony, Dickens's description of the funeral ceremony emphasizes the awkwardness and silliness of ritual and ceremony.
it being a point of Undertaking ceremony that the six bearers must be stifled and blinded under a horrible black velvet housing with a white border, the whole looked like a blind monster with twelve human legs, shuffling and blundering along, under the guidance of two keepers — the postboy and his comrade.
The neighborhood, however, highly approved of these arrangements, and we were much admired as we went through the village; the more youthful and vigorous part of the community making dashes now and then to cut us off, and lying in wait to intercept us at points of vantage. [p. 300]
Dickens treats death far more impersonally and matter-of-factly than Tennyson does. Even though Magwitch's death affects Pip far more, it is so inevitable and foreshadowed that even the tenderness of the final scene does not dwell on how the death affects Pip himself.
Dickens's attitude and treatment of death reflects how common death was. The average life expectation was only between forty-two and forty-six years; many babies died within the first year of their births; many children died from childhood diseases. Children were raised to understand that at any time, someone in their family might die. Tennyson, in a different manner, contributes to the idea of the universalization of death through his description of Arthur. His treatment of death reflects a more personal approach, perhaps partly due to the death of his close friend Arthur Hallam in 1833, that contrasts the generally accepted views of death to the actual feelings of loss.
Last modified 1996