I walked away at a good pace, thinking it was easier to go than I had supposed it would be, and reflecting that it would never have done to have an old shoe thrown after the coach, in sight of all the High Street. I whistled and made nothing of going. But the village was very peaceful and quiet, and the light mists were solemnly rising, as if to show me the world, and I had been so innocent and little there, and all beyond was so unknown and great, that in a moment with a strong heave and sob I broke into tears. It was by the finger-post at the end of the village, and I laid my hand upon it, and said, 'Goodbye, O my dear, dear friend!' [149]

The famous interchanges between the rising and the obscuring mists in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, have interesting parallels to other images in contemporary literature. For instance, in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's “The Coming of Arthur" — one of his Idylls of the King of 1859 — King Leodogran's pivotal dream also involves the symbolic mists. However, Dickens employs the mists as a reflection of Pip's inner reflections, so that when Pip's prospects brighten the mists rise and when Pip's future is uncertain, like a clouded mind, the mists remain thick. Or rather, Dickens illustrates that the mists play an emotional mirror to Pip, whether he experiences confusion or clarity of mind.

On the other hand, Tennyson's mists have an oracular feel in King Leodogran's dreams as he muses whether to support the young Arthur and give his daughter's hand to him. Phantom visions play across these mists, which in the ambiguous end, nonetheless allows Leodogran to act with certainty. Thus, for Tennyson the mists suggest that in a dreamscape, answers offer themselves in visions. Hence, the mist nearly hides “a phantom king," and the smoke rolls to the peaks of his dream-mountains until it becomes thicker when the calls of 'No king of ours," and “No son of Uther," sound out. But Leodogran's dream changes just then as “the haze / Descended... and the king stood out in heaven, / Crowned." Tennyson has haze throughout the passage, emphasizing the ambiguity and dream-like quality and illustrating a landscape as mysterious and obfuscated as the so-called phantom king. The misty vision, though, indicates a clear choice for Leodogran.

For Pip, however, the mists do not roll in, but rise instead to show him the world he is about to leave behind in all its raw clarity, becoming solid and emblematic in the village finger-post he touches. Dickens echoes the sudden realization on Pip's part of leaving his innocence and youth to go on to something “so unknown and great" with a very real, tactile encounter with the finger-post and, of course, the rising of the mists. Therefore, both authors take advantage of what is coined as “pathetic fallacy" by John Ruskin in his critical work Modern Painters in 1856. The mists in Tennyson and Dickens' reflect a “world as experienced by a man under the influences of powerful emotion." (George Landow, “Ruskin's Discussion of the Pathetic Fallacy," Victorian Web) Therefore, both Great Expectations and “The Passing of Arthur," carry on a discourse through this literary device, exploring the possibilities of the impression of psychology upon environment, or how psychology can produce an environment, even form a complete dreamscape.

That both writers use the mists in this mystical fashion responds to the debate over the value of fairy tales and the appeal towards fancy, imagination and affection. Towards the beginning of the nineteenth century, critics said of fairy tales and their elements of magic that “anything fantastic... is inherently noxious; or at least so void of good as to be actively dangerous." Eventually, this attitude eased, as during 1840-1850 the literary fairy tale emerged, which invested the tale with morality. In these tales, “Magic is a useful means of creating a situation and bringing about the right denouement." (all the above from Gillian Avery, “Fairy Tales with a Purpose," Norton Critical Edition of Alice in Wonderland) Dickens certainly uses any magic feeling in this sense, using “the supernatural... to point the moral." Tennyson, on the other hand, inflates his magic to the full manifestation of visions and enchantment, allowing it to weave in and out to create his literary world; and yet, he finds a way to relate this mythic world to his audience without disarming his magic with mechanic lessons.


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 1996