As I passed the church, I felt (as I had felt during service in the morning) a sublime compassion for the poor creatures who were destined to go there, Sunday after Sunday, all their lives through, and to lie obscurely at last among the low green mounds. I promised myself that I would do something for them one of these days, and formed a plan in outline for bestowing a dinner of roast beef and plum pudding, a pint of ale, and a gallon of condescension upon everybody in the village.
Tennyson's In Memoriam, like this passage from Great Expectations, illustrates two different views regarding death. Pip's greatest fear does not seem to be of death itself, but of dying without having done anything with his life. Dickens believes that expectations and ambitions are important although sometimes we can go a bit too far with them.
Tennyson takes a much more serene and serious look at death. He attempts to understand death and tries to comprehend the reason for his friend's unexpected demise. The sudden death of his friend evokes feelings of loss, and he begins to view the world in a different light. He no longer dreams of Spring, the streets are dark and dreary. Then amongst all this sadness he hears a voice and this voice is not one of grief. It represents something different and Tennyson must solve the mystery by looking within himself. The difference in the interpretations of death between these two authors can be attributed to the fact that in Great Expectations we are informed of Pip's view of death not Dickens's, whereas in In Memoriam Tennyson speaks to us and attempts to come to terms with his own sentiments regarding this issue.
Dickens conveys Pip's feelings about death to the reader by means of first person narration. Even within first person narration we often have the impression of an omnipresent narrator, but in this passage one really has the sense that they are being spoken to directly by Pip. It is Pip, not Dickens, who walks by the church and thinks of all the people buried there who never amounted to anything in their life. Tennyson also conveys his feelings to the reader through the first person however the identity of the speaker constantly changes. Although it is Tennyson who speaks to us, his sentiments and opinions are shifting throughout the poem as he tries to make sense of the world around him. Tennyson makes use of brief lyrics in “In Memoriam" which he feels best express his emotional state after the death of his friend. (George Landow, “Experimental Form: The Hypertextuality of In Memoriam," Victorian Web)
The Victorian's were obsessed with the notion of death. They had elaborate funeral customs and created many rituals regarding death. The house in which the death had occurred was required to close all windows and draw the blinds thereby shutting out the light. Two 'mutes' were then placed in front of the house and were supposed to appear extremely sad and depressed. “They carried crape-covered wands, and were not only symbolic of the visitation of death, but of the guards at the brier and of the professional mourners of antiquity" (Curl, 7). Funeral customs differed according to what social class one came from. The poor, possessing less money than the wealthier members in society, did not have funerals equal in elaborateness to the rich; although they did emphasize the importance of funerals and basically adapted a modified, simpler form than the upper-class.
The dresses worn by mourners in all classes were covered with crape, a silk fabric. For twenty-one months after the death had occurred, the widows were required to wear dresses trimmed with crape. Then the crape was replaced with a plain black mourning dress. After two years had passed the widow was allowed to vary her dress color somewhat; gray, mauve and lavender were among some of the colors which she was allowed to wear now. Other family members were required to dress in crape for varying lengths of time. The servants also dressed for the occasion. Even the poorest members of English society would appear in a black dress of crape at the time of death (Morley). There was even special mourning jewelry worn by the rich. Widows and family members were not only expected to dress a certain way but also to act accordingly, by showing feelings of remorse. If these customs were not maintained it was considered a sign of disrespect. The upper- classes spent large sums of money in preparation for the funeral and in the construction of the tomb and the poor members of society would often find themselves in debt as a result of trying to adhere to these same customs. (Curl)
Dickens makes fun of this celebration of death in his description of Mrs. Joe's funeral. He describes the ceremony as being very mechanical and contrived. And the image of the pall bears emerging from the kitchen under a black cloak looking like a six headed monster is quite humorous. By emphasizing the uniformity of actions (for example everyone taking out their pocket handkerchiefs at the same time) he makes a joke out of the way people acted. Their actions are dictated by society: they act the way they are supposed to act.
Curl, James Stevens. The Victorian Celebration of Death . Detroit: The Partridge Press, 1972.
Morley, John. Death, Heaven and the Victorians . Pennsylvania: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971
Last modified 1996