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Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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How does Dickens use diction for characterization in Great Expectations?

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Pip's very name is the result of a conscious choice of words. His real name, his birth name, that is, is Philip Pirrip. But as that was so difficult for the young lad to pronounce he adopted the name Pip instead, derived from both his Christian name and his surname.

On the face of it, this may seem rather trivial, but diction in this case determines Pip's whole identity throughout the book. Pip isn't just a childhood nickname; Pip is Mr. Pip, in the same way that Jaggers is Mr. Jaggers. One of the conditions of Pip's receiving Magwitch's bequest is that he continue to be known by no other name than Pip. This indicates the extent to which what appears on the surface to be just a name has become inextricably linked with Pip's personality. It serves to unify his identity over time, from his formative years growing up on the Romney Marshes to his exciting new life as a wealthy young man about town in London.

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Diction is word choice. An author can make huge changes in a story based on the style of words they use.

Charles Dickens stands out in this regard, because when we read Great Expectations now, the language is old and sometimes unfamiliar. But Dickens chose his language specifically and used words that created tone and rhythm and set the atmosphere in his novel.

One of the most obvious places to look for diction choices in this novel is in the character voices. If you study the dialogue in Great Expectations, you'll find that many of the characters speak differently. There's different language for Estelle and for young Pip. Dickens writes the way the characters would speak, and that helps to set them apart from each other and to build a better picture of their character and personality.

This is especially important in Great Expectations because one of the themes of the novel is the contrast between rich and poor, so it makes sense that Charles Dickens would want to emphasize things like the differences in speech across classes.

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Diction is an author’s word choice.  One of the clearest examples of diction is in Dickens’s choice Pip as the narrator.  By choosing Pip to be his first person point of view, Dickens is able to use an adult’s words and reflection to describe things a child sees.

Throughout the book, Dickens uses very specific words to describe things.  For example, this quote where he introduces his parents.

As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. (ch 1, p. 4)

He uses the word “likeness” instead of “picture” and “fancies” instead of” imaginings” and “derived” instead of “taken from.”  Each of these words reinforces that Pip is an adult, that he is educated, and that this part of the story is old-fashioned because it takes place in the past.

Diction can also be used to distinguish characters.  When we look at how young Pip talks, as well as Joe and the convict, it is very different from the narration.

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