In Great Expectations, Dickens often describes characters by comparing them to animals. Sometimes the comparisons he draws are primarily physical. Uncle Pumblechook, for instance, is said to have "a mouth like a fish". However, often, Dickens uses comparison to portray intangible qualities such as personality and situational discomfort. For example, before Miss Havisham, Joe is rendered “like some extraordinary bird; standing as he did speechless, with his tuft of feathers ruffled, and his mouth open as if he wanted a worm". Dckens uses metonymy to recast Joe's awkwardness as a tangible image, a bird with ruffled feathers expecting a worm. A similar phenomenon occurs when Pip brings Magwitch food in the swamp:

I had often watched a large dog of ours eating his food; and I now noticed a decided similarity between the dog's way of eating, and the man's. The man took strong sharp sudden bites, just like the dog. He swallowed, or rather snapped up, every mouthful, too soon and too fast; and he looked sideways here and there while he ate, as if he thought there was danger in every direction of somebody's coming to take the pie away. He was altogether too unsettled in his mind over it, to appreciate it comfortably I thought, or to have anybody to dine with him, without making a chop with his jaws at the visitor. In all of which particulars he was very like the dog.

This comparison transforms Magwitch's gruff behavior into something tangible. The “strong sharp sudden bites" he describes paint a clear image. Moreover, this passage can be seen as an explanation for Magwitch's behavior. When Pip recounts that Magwitch was “altogether too unsettledÉ to have anybody to dine with him, without making a chop with his jaws at the visitor," he indirectly excuses Magwitch for his actions. His violent and anxious temperament is seen as a product of being “unsettled" rather than as a fundamental facet of his character. However, because Great Expectations is narrated in first person, descriptions reveal as much about the narrator as they do about the character described. Indeed, a reader can not be sure that Magwitch was unsettled or doglike; what Pip merely thought him so. One might deem Pip a poor judge of character, especially since in his first encounter with Magwitch he proves himself to be naive. However, since Dickens later reveals that Pip's generosity has warmed Magwitch's heart, perhaps Pip's impression of him as a battered dog is well founded or even, a self fulfilling prophesy.

Questions

1. When Mr. Jaggers identifys a “Spider" in the crowd, Pip does not instantly think of the “blotchy, sprawly, sulky fellow" he knows as Drummle. However, eventually Pip grows to see Drummle as the Spider:

The Spider, as Mr. Jaggers had called him, was used to lying in wait, however, and had the patience of his tribe. Added to that, he had a blockhead confidence in his money and in his family greatness, which sometimes did him good service,--almost taking the place of concentration and determined purpose. So, the Spider, doggedly watching Estella, outwatched many brighter insects, and would often uncoil himself and drop at the right nick of time.

How do Pip's perceptions change over time. Are they the product of his own experience? Are they influenced by the perceptions and opinions of others?

2. When Pip lies about his experiences at Miss Havisham's estate to his sister, Joe, and Mr. Publechook, he asserts that “Towards Joe, and Joe only, I considered myself a young monster" What might this remark suggest about the ways in which we justify our own actions?

3. Does Pip's love for Estella make her appear lovely, even though she treats him horribly throughout much of the novel? How do Pip's interpretations influence the reader's interpretations? Is he credible?

4. Although long passages laden with metonymy, such as the ones Dickens uses, reveal a lot about his characters, they are based primarily upon interpretation rather than fact. What, if anything, does Dickens sacrifice by narrating Great Expectations in the first person? What, if anything, does he suggest about universal truth? Does it exist in the novel?


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 18 February 2008