Each character in Great Expectations selects his or her own space in the novel. In turn, the environment also defines the individual character. This push-pull relationship between characters and their space adds complexity and realism to the story. By describing the surroundings in detail, as well as the characters' interactions with their surroundings, Dickens goes beyond simple narrations of appearance and personality. For example, when Pip first arrives at Satis House, he describes Miss Havisham's cake-room in rich detail. Not only does the description of Miss Havisham's cake-room illustrate the surroundings, but it also offers a first glimpse into Miss Havisham's past.

It was then I began to understand that everything in the room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago. I noticed that Miss Havisham put down the jewel exactly on the spot from which she had taken it up. As Estella dealt the cards, I glanced at the dressing-table again, and saw that the shoe upon it, once white, now yellow, had never been worn. I glanced down at the foot from which the shoe was absent, and saw that the silk stocking on it, once white, now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without this arrest of everything, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave-clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud.

The objects in the room have symbolic meaning related to Miss Havisham's identity. For example, the frozen watch and clock reflect Miss Havisham's failure to move beyond her painful past. The yellowing room and its yellowing objects reveal a former glory that once belonged to its main occupant. In addition to mirroring her past, Satis House actively shapes Miss Havisham by isolating her from “a thousand natural and healing influences." Both Satis House and Miss Havisham decay from the inside out.

Wemmick is another character whose environment determines his disposition. Unlike Miss Havisham, however, Wemmick exercises his ability to leave his abode. Nonetheless, Wemmick's kindly disposition is tied to his home, and he shifts into his business mode during his hours at the law firm. Throughout the novel, Wemmick alternates between two characters: a humorless law clerk and a genial caretaker of the Aged. When Wemmick leaves his castle stronghold and returns to his office, Pip observes:

By degrees, Wemmick got dryer and harder as we went along, and his mouth tightened into a post-office again. At last, when we got to his place of business and he pulled out his key from his coat-collar, he looked as unconscious of his Walworth property as if the Castle and the drawbridge and the arbor and the lake and the fountain and the Aged, had all been blown into space together by the last discharge of the Stinger.

Whenever characters move out of their space, they either adopt an alternate persona or, in Joe's case, nearly lose their ability to function amongst society. For example, when Joe accompanies Pip to see Miss Havisham, he becomes “unlike himself." Throughout the verbal exchange with Miss Havisham, Joe awkwardly “persisted in addressing [Pip] instead of Miss Havisham." Similarly, when Joe comes to the city to visit Pip, he endures great discomfort while staying at Pip's place.

As to his shirt-collar, and his coat-collar, they were perplexing to reflect upon, — insoluble mysteries both. Why should a man scrape himself to that extent, before he could consider himself full dressed? Why should he suppose it necessary to be purified by suffering for his holiday clothes? Then he fell into such unaccountable fits of meditation, with his fork midway between his plate and his mouth; had his eyes attracted in such strange directions; was afflicted with such remarkable coughs; sat so far from the table, and dropped so much more than he ate, and pretended that he hadn't dropped it; that I was heartily glad when Herbert left us for the City.

Questions

1. Joe appears terribly out of place whenever he moves into a social class not his own. However, Pip easily maks his transition between the artisan class and the gentility with relative ease. Why is is so? What were Dickens's opinions on class structure and social mobility during the Victorian age, and how does Great Expectations convey his views?

2. Dickens's depictions of Miss Havisham's house and the prisoner ships are strikingly similar:

By the light of the torches, we saw the black Hulk lying out a little way from the mud of the shore, like a wicked Noah's ark. Cribbed and barred and moored by massive rusty chains, the prison-ship seemed in my young eyes to be ironed like the prisoners.

Within a quarter of an hour we came to Miss Havisham's house, which was of old brick, and dismal, and had a great many iron bars to it. Some of the windows had been walled up; of those that remained, all the lower were rustily barred. There was a courtyard in front, and that was barred...The cold wind seemed to blow colder there than outside the gate; and it made a shrill noise in howling in and out at the open sides of the brewery, like the noise of wind in the rigging of a ship at sea.

What compare Satis House to a prisoner ship? Why would Satis House, a brewery, have iron-barred windows?

3. In Phantastes, Anodos rarely remains in one place for long. Even during his stay at the Fairy Queen's castle, he constantly roams the magical halls and rooms. Spirited from scene to scene throughout most of the novel, Anodos finally finds a home in the old woman's cottage. What does this say about Anodos's character development? How does MacDonald's use of space differ from Dickens?

4. Why does Wemmick choose to adopt radically different personas for home and work? More importantly, why does Dickens repeatedly refer back to Wemmick's loosening or tightening of his “post office" when one mention should have sufficed?


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 23 February 2008