In chapter three of Great Expectations Dickens sets the scene for a dramatic and confusing moment by having Pip struggle to find his way through the marshes on a “rimy morning." This description can be seen as a form of pathetic fallacy, since the atmosphere seems perfectly designed to further torment the frightened and guilty Pip on his way to the convict.

It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders' webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade. On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy, and the marsh mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village--a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there--was invisible to me until I was quite close under it. Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped, it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks.

The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me. This was very disagreeable to a guilty mind. The gates and dikes and banks came bursting at me through the mist, as if they cried as plainly as could be, “A boy with Somebody's else's pork pie! Stop him!" The cattle came upon me with like suddenness, staring out of their eyes, and steaming out of their nostrils, “Halloa, young thief!" One black ox, with a white cravat on,--who even had to my awakened conscience something of a clerical air,--fixed me so obstinately with his eyes, and moved his blunt head round in such an accusatory manner as I moved round, that I blubbered out to him, “I couldn't help it, sir! It wasn't for myself I took it!" Upon which he put down his head, blew a cloud of smoke out of his nose, and vanished with a kick-up of his hind-legs and a flourish of his tail. [12]

Dickens's treatment of nature illustrates his awareness of his use of pathetic fallacy. At the time, young Pip had projected his own emotions onto his surroundings but older Pip has the ability to look back upon this and realize that while it was indeed a damp and foggy morning, his “oppressed conscience" has helped to shape his memories of it. He uses the word “seemed" several times to reinforce this acknowledgment of pathetic fallacy. However, this selection does not use “seemed" consistently. Towards the end, Pip begins describing the scene in more definite terms stating that the ox “fixed [him] . . . obstinately with his eyes, and moved his blunt head round inÉan accusatory manner" attributing anthropomorphic characteristics to the creature. At this point Dickens has already clarified that Pip's fear has colored his description of the scenery and reaction to it so he does not need to keep stating it. Pip has already convinced us that he has learned better and now has to ability to analyze his childish behavior with a critical eye, the use of definite terms helps to draw us back into the moment and the excitement and fear young Pip must have felt.

Questions

1. In the above passage young Pip imagines that inanimate objects are able to communicate with him and accuse him of his guilt. What effect does this have on the passage? Does it help you identify with Pip's fear or does the comic element take you out of the moment?

2. Settings play very important roles within the novel. Several times, the mist on the marshes indicate impending danger. Why do you think Dickens chose to set the early part of the novel in the marshland as opposed to some other part of the country? What impact do the mists and the marsh have on the story?

3. How does Dickens's use of pathetic fallacy differ from that of other authors we have read (Brontë for example)? What effect does it have that the older Pip acknowledges that he let his emotions affect his view of the environment?

4. Dickens defended his novels when critics charged that incidents were false or impossible. When someone said that the spontaneous combustion in Bleak House was unscientific, Dickens went to great lengths to establish precedent. In Great Expectations he was forced to defend his inclusion the sometimes overly eccentric Mrs. Havisham, who is partially based on a woman who he used to see on Oxford Street. Why do you believe it was so important for Dickens to explain these potential elements of fantasy away as realistic events which had occurred in real life?

5. The above passage describes gates and rails. Is the description of land ownership accurate? How did residents distinguish their properties?

Related questions


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 20 February 2008