Besides the title, what are some symbols in Great Expectations?Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, there are several symbols:

  • Satis House is, perhaps, the most salient of these symbols.  Satis, a Latin word, means satisfied; of course, the irony in this name is that Miss Havisham, the occupant of the house is anything but satisfied, nor is anyone else who comes there.
  • The clocks arrested at twenty minutes to nine (8:40) are symbolic of Miss Havisham's spiritual death after having been jilted as she freezes time and refuses to change anything from that point.
  • Miss Havisham's wedding dress and cake are symbolic of her physical decay and spiritual stagnation.
  • Her wedding veil wraps around her like a shroud.
  • The brewery in decay suggests the connection of commerce and wealth as well as the evils Dickens perceived in the Industrial Age.
  • The crumbling stones and rusted gate of Satis House suggest the decadence of what Dickens considered a frivolous aristocracy.  That her relatives and the townspeople yet perceive the eccentric Miss Havisham as superior also indicates the reverence given to materialism which Dickens found offensive in his society.
  • The mists on the marshes are symbolic of danger.  It is there that Pip first encounters the convict, and it is also on the marshes that Pip's life is threatened by Orlick at the sluice house.  Whenever Pip travels to and from London he must pass through the mists; this suggests that his development as a gentleman may have negative results.
  • The prison ship represents what Robert Barnard in his essay "Imagery and Theme in Great Expectations" calls the transference of guilt from one character to another.  For instance, after his encounter with convict in Chapter One, Pip is ridden with guilt as he steals the food and file for Magwitch.  When he later returns to the marshes Pip is ridden with guilt for avoiding Joe on his visits and for his treatment of Biddy, as well as his feelings that "had some hand in the attack upon my sister."
  • The names of characters are also symbolic: Estella, whose name means star, is an unobtainable as a star for Pip, but viewed by him as beautiful and desirous and one to be reached for. Pumblechook, who is pompous and fawning before the wealthy, symbolizes the rising middle class who wish to rise the higher social class.  When Pumblechook learns that Pip has acquired money, he congratulates him and treats him with a new respect.  Also, Bentley Drummle, a lout, represents the falsity of class distinctions as this coarse and crude man is allowed into what is seemingly polite society.  Magwitch's name suggests both his wicked past and his magical provision of Pip's "great expectations."  Pip's servant, whose name is Avenger suggests the pretensions of Pip in having a servant.  Avenger does not serve Pip at all; in fact, it is difficult for Pip to get him to do anything.
  • Fire, which is often symbolic of cleansing, represents Miss Havisham's spiritual cleansing from her sin of vengeance against men as she is burnt after asking Pip his forgiveness.
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Great Expectations

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