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Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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What are three examples of parallel structure in Great Expectations?

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Parallelism can be used at various levels within a literary work, including words, sentences, and paragraphs.

Within a sentence, the author can repeat the structure of a phrase. In chapter 5, a sergeant and a group of the soldiers come to the forge to ask for help from Joe, the blacksmith, in fixing a pair of handcuffs. Pip describes their attitudes as they wait. The first phrase begins with a prepositional phrase and uses past tense, but all subsequent phrases use the present participle; each phrase is separated with a semicolon and begins with “now”—for example “now, resting a knee.”

And then they stood about, as soldiers do; now, with their hands loosely clasped before them; now, resting a knee or a shoulder; now, easing a belt or a pouch; now, opening the door to spit stiffly over their high stocks, out into the yard.

Similarly, within a paragraph, the author can repeat the same sentence structure. In chapter 8, Pip describes his personality as formed during his childhood and persevering into the present. He employs the past perfect tense (which uses the verb “to have” with the past participle): “I had sustained, ... I had known ...” In some sentences, he varies this with another parallel structure by inserting a phrase referring to the previous time with the preposition “from”: “from my babyhood,” "from the time.”

Within myself, I had sustained, from my babyhood, a perpetual conflict with injustice. I had known, from the time when I could speak, that my sister, in her capacious and violent coercion, was unjust to me. I had cherished a profound conviction ...

The use of a particular construction can emphasize a feature of a character. Dickens repeats a construction in several sentences within one paragraph to show both the formality and the restraint of Herbert Pocket as “the pale young gentleman” instructs Pip on proper table manners. Rather than giving him orders and telling him what to do, Herbert offers “friendly suggestions” as neutral comments on the way things are usually or customarily not done: “it is not the custom ... the fork ... is not put ...”

[I]n London it is not the custom to put the knife in the mouth,—for fear of accidents,—and that while the fork is reserved for that use, it is not put further in than necessary. ... Also, the spoon is not generally used over-hand, but under.

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Strictly speaking, parallelism (matching grammatical structures and syntax) isn't so much a stylistic device as it is a "best practice" all writers should try to adhere to; a sentence like "he enjoys basketball, soccer, and playing tennis" sounds awkward because it juxtaposes two basic nouns ("basketball" and "soccer") with a gerund ("playing").

That said, Dickens arguably draws more heavily on parallel structure than other writers; the repetition of certain structures over and over again is part of what gives his writing its distinctive, exuberant quality. I've highlighted a few examples from Great Expectations below (several are also examples of anaphora or epistrophe, which involve the repetition of the exact same words at the beginning or end of a phrase, clause, sentence, etc.).

So, leaving word with the shopman on what day I was wanted at Miss Havisham's again, I set off on the four-mile walk to our forge; pondering, as I went along, on all I had seen, and deeply revolving that I was a common laboring-boy; that my hands were coarse; that my boots were thick; that I had fallen into a despicable habit of calling knaves Jacks; that I was much more ignorant than I had considered myself last night, and generally that I was in a low-lived bad way. (Chapter 8)

This passage contains a few examples of parallelism—not just the list of clauses beginning with "that" but also the parallelism of "pondering" and "revolving." Here, Dickens uses the repetition to underscore Pip's deep sense of shame and inadequacy.

You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since,—on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. (Chapter 44)

This is part of Pip's tortured declaration of love for Estella. Almost every phrase after the dash follows the exact same construction: preposition ("on" or "in"), article, noun. In this case, Dickens uses parallelism and repetition to convey a sense of overwhelming, overflowing emotion.

He lighted the candle from the flaring match with great deliberation, and dropped the match, and trod it out. (Chapter 53)

This description of Orlick's actions is an interesting example, because it would be just as grammatically correct to write something like "and dropped the match, trodding it out." In context, however, the repetition of the same structure underscores the "deliberate" nature of what Orlick is doing (and thus his longstanding resentment of Pip and desire for vengeance).

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Parallel structure involves the repetition of certain grammatical structures such as sentence construction, phrasing, repeated use of the same part of speech, similar clauses.  Chapter I of Dickens's Great Expectations contains, perhaps, the most imagery of all the chapters. 

1. In Chapter I, the description of the convict who turns out to be Magwitch is an example of parallelism as the first three sentences begin in similar fashion and follow the same construction in the rest of the sentence:

A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

2. Another example of parallelism is also in this chapter with the symmetry of the repeated relative clauses:

...and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

3. In Chapter XVIII, Mr. Jaggers brings the news of Pip's "great expectations" to him.  The chapter begins with Pip describing  "the strange gentleman leaning over the back of the settle opposite me, looking on."  This phrase, "the strange gentleman" is repeated in three paragraphs, while the stranger is employed also:

I became aware of a strange gentleman....

"Well!" said the stranger....

The strange gentleman with the air of authority not to be disputed.

The strange gentleman, beckoned ..

The stranger did not recognize me. 

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