Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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How does Miss. Havisham catch on fire near the end of Great Expectations?

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In Chapter XLIX Pip visits Miss Havisham in order to ask her for nine hundred pounds in order to establish Herbert in a position at a bank. But, on this visit Pip notices a strange preoccupation of Miss Havisham.  Strangely, she asks Pip if he resents her and begs his forgiveness for her cruelty to him when he visited Estella years ago. "Is there nothing I can do for you?" she asks Pip. Taking out a tablet, she asks Pip,

"If you can ever write under my name, ‘I forgive her,’ though ever so long after my broken heart is dust—pray do it!”

She explains to Pip that she once saw him in a mirror as Estella hurt him, and at that time she recognized

"what I once felt myself, I did not know what I had done. What have I done!"

Then, she rises and pulls a tablet out, asking Pip to write on it that he forgives her for what she has done. Still dismayed that she can do little more for Pip in her contrition than help him place Herbert in a position, Miss Havisham sits forlornly before the fire as Pip leaves.

On a presentiment after seeing an illusion of Miss Havisham hanging from a beam in Satis House, Pip returns to Miss Havisham's room and sees her seated closely to the fire in her decaying wedding dress. Just then "a great flaming light spring[s]up."  And, Miss Havisham's dress catches on fire.  Apparently, a spark from the fire catches her dress, whose fibers are rotted and extremely flammable. Desperately, Pip grabs her and rolls her on the floor, extinguishing the flames, but he burns his hands in the effort.  Poor Miss Havisham is wrapped in gauze and laid upon the wedding table in a macabre imitation of her wedding day.



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