Dickens uses setting in a variety of ways in Great Expectations. He uses it as a way to mirror the feelings of a character and to expand on the characterisation towards Pip. This allows him to create an environment that the reader can empathise with. In Chapter One, we connect with Pip in a graveyard. The dark, dismal feelings portrayed by the negative adjectives mirror the feelings within Pip – specifically, the feeling of loneliness or abandonment that Pip is suffering from at this stage.
The dead nature of the graveyard, and the subsequent introduction of Magwitch, could connate Magwitch’s death further in the novel. As Dickens was an outspoken socialist, the graveyard could also be used to represent the high mortality rate as a result of extreme poverty within the 19th century in England. This is specifically represented by the reference to ‘five little stone lozenges’ – siblings of Pip who have already succumbed to the void. A ‘distant savage lair’ provides the hint of an introduction to Magwitch. Magwitch could also be represented by the brittle, brutal nature of the landscape.
This is particularly reinforced by the uncultured, colloquial way in which he speaks, that shows his roots and the time he has spent in prison. However, as the chapter evolves, we see the perspective of Magwitch change. He is shown as ‘limping’ and ‘cut’, which encourages us to feel pity for him and could hint at the battered existence he has had which has led him to crime. This could represent the view that Dickens’ had – that being of one particular sect, whether good or bad, does not force you all to the same opinion.
The entire novel is told from the point of view of Pip, which allows us to experience the actions from his perspective. This increases the empathy that we feel with the characters and allows a much greater range of tension and emotion to be used. Furthermore, as the story is told from this perspective and it progresses, we see Pip mature and get a much more adult opinion of the world. In Chapter Eight, Pip visits the house owned by Miss Havisham, who lives there with her ward Estella. As soon as Pip enters the house, we see the influence that Miss Havisham has extended upon it.
Havisham was left standing at the altar on the day of her wedding, and this has had an enormous influence on her state of mind and her attitude towards humanity – men, in particular. We see that as she has decayed, brooded and plotted, her abode has decayed with her. Her entire room displays a recurring theme of white’, yet as Pip looks closer he sees that what was ‘once white’ is ‘now yellow’. This represents the passage of time for Miss Havisham, and shows that she has faded over time, and is now a shadow of her former self.
There is a repetition throughout the description of her as ‘half’: she has ‘one shoe’, her veil was ‘half arranged’, her trunks were ‘half packed’. This could be a reference to the fact that Miss Havisham is only half herself – the other half of her being with her vanished, not-to-be partner. It could also suggest that she has been maddened, but it perhaps has a greater influence and shows her as a spider, twitching the webs of other lives to suit her purposes. This for example is shown when she allows Estella to ‘practice’ on Pip, encouraging her to ‘break him’.
We also see that Miss Havisham is used to being in control, as the offhand way that she uses imperatives to command Pip and Estella. However, we also see that she is old and broken, and Dickens encourages us to pity her. This is done by her having the appearance of ‘having drooped… under the weight of a crushing blow. ‘ This could serve the purpose of encouraging us to look deeper into the hidden meaning of a character or setting, to see the truth. This could be related to Dickens’ opinion of politics. We clearly see the future influence that Estella will have on Pip by the way that he introduces her.
She is described as ‘her light came along the passage like a star’. This suggests that Pip is dazzled by her, and it also sets the scene for the future romance between them. However, we also see from a ‘scornful young lady’ that Pip will have difficulty in attracting her interest. This is probably a reference to the opinion that Dickens has on the divide amongst the upper and lower classes, and the subsequent unhappiness that comes from it. In Chapter Twenty-Five, Pip visits Wemmick’s household. Wemmick is in the employment of Mr Jaggers, a lawyer working in and around Newgate Prison.
The significance of this is that when Wemmick raises the drawbridge to ‘cut off the communication’, it shows that Wemmick wishes to keep his work and home life very separate. This represents the belief that an ‘Englishman’s home is his castle’. Dickens makes a mockery of this phrase by using Wemmick as a stereotypical Englishman. His house is describes as a ‘child’s copy’ of a castle, with compromises and illusions to aid the effect. This could show that Pip, and by extension Dickens, feels jaded and wishes to ridicule the mentality of the English people that if they ignore something and shut themselves off from it, it will cease to exist.
This would be one of Dickens major concerns: as without the support of the rich – who would need to open their eyes and look at the situation – it will not be possible for the situation of the poor to change. In conclusion, there are a number of ways that Dickens uses setting in Great Expectations. It is primarily used as a way for us to empathize with the characters, which is particularly important for us because of the way in which Pip, our narrator, acts and matures as the novel progresses. However, the setting is also used to represent Dickens views on society, classes, and segregation, and he does so to great effect.