How does Dickens create powerful mood and settings in Great Expecations?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Great Expectations Charles Dickens creates settings that are, indeed, representative of the characters who are aligned with them.  In the exposition of his novel, for instance, Dickens sets little Pip in the graveyeard where his parents are buried: a cold, dismal, grey place on the haunting moors of England.  Into this dark, lonely atmosphere enters a character even more forsaken and desperate than Pip:  the grey convict, who has escaped from the prison ship.

Another setting that represents the characters themselves is that of Satis House, ironically named--enough--where Miss Havisham and Estella dwell.  When Pip arrives at this decaying mansion, he describes it,

of olbrick, 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 courtyard...was paved and clean, but grass was growing in every crevice...The cold wind seemed to blow colder there than outside the gate....

The parallels between the old mansion of wealth and the moor scene cannot be missed:  both settings are connected to the motif of prison.  The lower class Magwitch,victimized by society has been imprisoned in poverty all his life, while Miss Havisham is imprisoned in her decaying home, victimized by society, also, as she has been jilted by a man who promised marriage only to steal from her.  (Dickens saw Victorian society as a prison where there was little chance to change one's station in life.)  Only Estella, whose name means star, has not yet become evil in this prison of a house, for she lights the way with a single candle--"her light came along the dark passage like a star"--as Pip follows "where no glimpse of daylight was to be seen."   Inside this self-imposed prison lives one of Dickens's most memorable characters, Miss Havisham, who is dressed in an old wedding dress, sitting in a dressing room adjacent to another room where mice and rats romp across a yellowing tablecloth on which sits a rotting wedding cake.  All the clocks are stopped at 8:45 a.m., the fatal hour in which Miss Havisham's heart also stopped, having learned of her tragic fate at the hands of a rapscallion.

Another foreboding setting is the office of the lawyer, Jaggers.  Set near the infamous Newgate Prison, the death masks of some of Jagger's clients hang in the outer office where the kind, gentle Mr. Wemmick works.

In contrast to these dismal settings that create a most melancholy mood, is the loving home of Wemmick, who nightly fires a canon that his deaf, old father, Aged P, delights in.  Likewise, Joe's forge is large and bright and warm from the fire that burns for the blacksmith's work.  Like Joe, whose magnanimous heart extends both love and friendship to Pip even when Pip rejects him, the forge, Joe tells Pip, always has room for him.

As the narrative of "Great Expectations" continues, the settings also continue to reflect the moods of its characters.  The convict, Magwitch, who has defied the law in order to come to London to tell Pip that he is, in fact, his benefactor, must struggle against the sea in order to escape certain death.  Likewise, Miss Havisham meets a deadly fate as her decaying dress catches fire one night.  Trapped in "prisons," neither character can escape their fates originally cast upon them by society. Certainly, Charles Dickens is a master painter, depicting a background that reflects and explicates the lives of the characters who move in the foreground.

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Great Expectations

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