Throughout the story, Charles Dickens constantly uses fire as a motif, especially in Chapter 49. What's the symbolic/thematic significance of fire?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An integral part of life in the setting of "Great Expectations," fire is a necessity as food and heat are made.While fire provides a livelihood for Joe on the forge, Joe relaxes in its comfort in the evenings.Yet, while fire provides comfort at times, it is also destructive.  In Chapter 36, before Jaggers advises Pip of his destructive recklessness with his allowance in London, the lawyer gets up and stirs the fire, just as Joe has stirred the fire before he counsels with Pip as a child. 

Fire begins and ends things; it can cleanse an area for new growth, but it can also destroy.  In Chapter 49 both these meanings of fire are present.  When Pip calls upon Miss Havisham she sits brooding into the fire.  Without leaving her fixation upon the fire Miss Havisham asks Pip what she can do for him; finally, after writing instructions to Mr. Jagger, she asks Pip to write "I forgive you" with her tarnished pencil. Pip looks sympathizes 

seeing her punishment in the ruin she was,,,in the vanity..of penitence...of remorse...of unworthiness, and other monstrous vanities that have been curses of this world.

Pip leaves, but has a premonition that he should check on her.  Her back to him, Miss Havisham faces the fire too closely, and her gown ignites. Pip wraps his cloak around her, but she "shrieked and tried to free herself..."  Fire is the cleanser of her vanities that she has long contemplated.

ms-mcgregor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Fire definitely plays an important role in the novel. It seems to represent both warmth and understanding plus desire and destruction. Fire is first represented as something warm and good. There is fire in Joe's blacksmith shop that he uses to forge tools and fix wagons.It represents Joe's own warmth and goodness. But Pip is also haunted by Estella's face which he sees in the fire when he is working as an apprentice to Joe.Her it represents desire and unrequited love. The most telling use of fire is at Satis House. The fire in Miss Havisham's hearth never seems to give off any warmt. Of course. Miss Havisham herself is cold and heartless. In Chapter 49, it is a little piece of coal from her fire that falls out of the fireplace and catches her ancient wedding dress on fire. Pip uses the great tablecloth which has be laying on the bridal table for years to put out the flames and it is destroyed during his efforts. The fire also burns Pip's hands very badly. In this case, the fire could be seen to represent the small evils that become greater as we become older and eventually, if they are not snuffed out, turn to be forces that can destroy us.

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Great Expectations

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