In Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, the setting almost always symbolizes thematic elements. In almost every scene Dickens uses settings which mood, foreshadow, and reveal character traits. Homes in particular, reveal significant details throughout the novel.
At Satis House we meet Miss Havisham, who is wealthy but far from noble. Miss Havisham is cruel, bitter, and quite insane. The gothic setting Dickens creates in Satis House emphasizes Miss Havisham’s inner darkness. The once grand house is crumbling, mimicking her physical and mental deterioration. She has stopped all the clocks to show the moment she knew she’d been jilted, and still wears her rotting wedding dress. She controls her environment and has effectively stopped time. The nearby brewery provides a counterpoint to Satis House, suggesting industrialization and new money, The main component of Miss Havisham’s wealth. The image of industrialization provided by the brewery shows that despite Havisham’s efforts, time marches on, a sentiment echoed by the house itself which is falling apart. After Miss Havisham repents her cruelty to Estella (and through Estella, Pip), she has an accident with the fireplace and is badly burned. The hearth, metaphorically the heart of the home, undoes Miss Havisham’s unhealthy obsession and allows life to flow back in. When Havisham dies she leaves her fortune to the Pocket family. Ultimately, Satis House is dismantled.
Far more interesting is the home of Pip’s friend Wemmick, in Walworth. At work, Wemmick is cynical, and singularly obsessed with portable property. At home he is jovial and kind, taking care of his aged parent. Wemmick’s home is literally his castle, decorated with all the adornments of a medieval residence. Wemmick demonstrates to Pip, and to the reader, that particular careers or stations in life don’t make a man who he is. “My Walworth sentiments must be taken at Walworth; none but my official sentiments can be taken at this office”, he tells Pip. This sentiment is echoed about forty years later by Oscar Wilde in, The Importance of Being Ernest.
Homes reflect what is in the heart. This is demonstrated quite effectively by Dickens during the scene in London where Joe comes to visit Pip at his shabby apartment. Pip is haughty with Joe and puts on unnecessary airs. The foolishness of Pip’s attitude is demonstrated by his surroundings, which leave no reason to demonstrate such pride. Whereas initially it may seem that Pip foolishly indulges an unfounded pride, the squalid, jumbled apartment reveals Pip’s inner confusion. The apartment is messy and echoes the mixed up emotional turmoil inside Pip. He acts the way he does toward Joe because it is how he believes a gentleman would act, but his heart’s not in it.
Pip is profoundly moved by the various locations he visits; Wemmick’s “castle”, the gallows at Newgate, Satis house. He never feels at home in his surroundings because he does not know himself. Miss Havisham’s great house, Joe and Biddy’s simple shack, and Wemmick’s home reflect the inner life of their inhabitants. Pip is not at home in himself, and therefore is never placed in a settled environment of his own. Initially as a young boy Pip seems most at home visiting his dead family in the nearby cemetery, foreshadowing perhaps that the naive boy he is at the beginning will die so that the man he becomes can grow. Only when Pip grows comfortable with himself as an adult, when all his formative adventures have passed can he find a home for himself.
The importance of setting as a literary device cannot be understated in Great Expectations. In many ways the specific houses we visit, whether great or small, are characters unto themselves. Certainly they reveal a great deal about the characters that visit and live in them.
Joe Capristo holds a North Carolina state teaching license in English, grades 9 – 12. He studied Literature at UNC Greensboro.