In Great Expectations, how does Dickens use setting to enhance readers' understanding of Miss Havisham?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Great Expectations, the description of the setting of Miss Havisham's property parallels the description of Miss Havisham herself, enhances the reader's perception.  When Pip arrives at the decaying mansion called, ironically, Satis House (enough),  Estella informs Pip that the name meant that whoever owns this house would not want for more.  Pip also finds the house barricaded with a locked gate.  Grass grows in every crevice.  There once was a brewery, but it is closed, empty, and "disused."  As Pip looks around the "cold wind seemed to blow colder" and as it blows through the open sides of this brewery, it creates a noise like the rigging of a ship at sea.

Inside, all the old curtains have been closed to the daylight and only a lone candle lights Estella's and his way up the stairs.  Once in Miss Havisham's room, no glimpse of daylight can be seen there, either.  Strangest of all is the woman sitting at the lady's dressing table,

She was dressed in rich materials--satins and lace....And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was shite. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table.  Dresses and half-packed trunks were scattered about.  She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on--...her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on,...and some flowers, and a prayer book, all confusedly heaped about the looking glass.

Pip notices that everything in his view is yellowed and faded.  The clock has stopped at twenty minutes to nine as has her watch.  Like the exterior of the house, all is decaying inside, even Miss Havisham.  As she notices that Pip looks around, Miss Havisham looks down at her dress and at herself in a mirror; she says,

"So new to old to me; so strange to him, so familiar to me; so melancholy to both of us!"

On another visit, Pip wheels Miss Havisham around a room that has a great table in the middle; the table is covered in yellow lace, there is a rotting cake with mice eating at it. Miss Havisham likens herself to the "heap of decay" that was once her wedding cake.  She tells Pip that "when the ruin is complete," she will be laid upon the bride's table with the decaying cake.

Clearly, Miss Havisham and her surroundings are in moribund sympathy, as the reader discerns. Like the house, Miss Havisham wastes away; like the locked gates, Miss Havisham locks out time, the outside world, and virtually stops living.  The only light in her life is Estella, whose name means star, the beautiful young girl that Miss Havisham teaches to break hearts so that she can wreck vengeance upon men. These passages about Satis House and its "ruin" of a mistress are much like those in an Edgar Allan Poe story entitled "The House of Usher" in which the mansion deteriorates just as the family does, finally crumbling into the ground as the last of the Ushers died.

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Great Expectations

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