Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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How are the fire at Satis House, the ordeal with Orlick, Magwitch's capture, and Pip's fever symbols of suffering in Great Expectations?

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All of these examples are legitimate situations of suffering for the individuals involved, many of them ending in death. What is interesting is the light these events shed on the characters themselves and the events that happen in their lives which lead up to the suffering in question.

The fire at Satis House consumes and kills Mrs. Havisham, and it is symbolic of the fact that Mrs. Havisham has locked herself away in this place and been consumed by the mourning and jealousy associated with being left at the altar. The consuming fire represents the consuming passion and anger she felt because of her experience.

Mrs. Joe brings suffering on herself by her brutality and harshness toward Orlick. In a twist of events, as she has forced Pip and others to do her work and has berated them verbally, she is left mute and unable to move, now relying on others to care for her.

Magwitch's capture is obviously of his own doing, as he fled prison and is a convict, but in the end, due to his kind nature, his capture turns out to be a blessing.

Pip's fever is representative of his obsession with Estella; it consumes him and nearly kills him. More importantly, it delays him from proposing marriage to Biddy until it is too late, and it has also led him to default on his debts. Throughout the entire novel, Pip has been consumed with something, or someone, else, and it has prevented him from doing what he needs to do and from truly succeeding. The fever acts as a metaphor, preventing Pip from reuniting with Biddy or succeeding in paying off his debts.

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Each of these events is symbolic of suffering in the lives of each person involved. Miss Havisham has severe burns which eventually (but not immediately) lead to her death. Orlick’s attack on Mrs. Joe also inflicts severe injury on her that in time will prove mortal. Magwitch’s capture and injuries cause enough damage that he dies in prison, after he has been condemned to death. Pip recovers from his fever (in the Romantic Age, extreme emotional distress is often accompanied by a fever), unlike the others. In part, each person’s suffering is brought about by himself, at least indirectly. In Pip’s case, however, the fever serves as a means to purify his soul, as gold is melted down to rid it of its impurities. This implies that suffering can lead to redemption, even if it leads to death, as it does in the cases of Miss Havisham, Mrs. Joe, and Magwitch. Before their deaths, their hearts were changed and thus they died in a state of “grace.”

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