Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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Significant Allusions

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Last Updated on July 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 889

Dickens employs a number of biblical, historical, and literary allusions in Great Expectations. These allusions enable him to subtly challenge the Victorian codes of conduct and rigid class divisions that forced people into poverty, oppression, and exploitation. 

Biblical Allusions: Like many Victorian authors, Charles Dickens incorporates several extended biblical allusions that shape character and plot development in Great Expectations. Here are two of the novel’s most prominent biblical allusions: 

  • Dickens begins an extended allusion to the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11–32) in chapter 4 when Mr. Wopsle comments at the Gargerys’ Christmas dinner that “Swine were the companions of the prodigal.” In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the younger of two sons asks his father for his inheritance. After wasting his fortune on prostitutes, the prodigal son returns home to beg his father to hire him as a servant. His father, however, is delighted and celebrates his son’s return with a feast. Mr. Wopsle’s remark foreshadows Pip’s later transformation into a figurative prodigal son after receiving his mysterious inheritance. Only after squandering his fortune does Pip return home, humbled and apologetic. 
  • The characters of Orlick and Magwitch invoke a modern retelling of the story of Cain and Abel from the Book of Genesis. Cain and Abel are the first two sons of Adam and Eve. Cain, the oldest, is a farmer, and Abel is a shepherd. When God favors Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s, Cain becomes so jealous that he murders Abel. God punishes Cain by condemning him to a life of wandering. In Great Expectations, Orlick is compared to Cain because of his tendency to “slouch out [. . .] as if he had no idea where he was going, and no intention of ever coming back.” Also like Cain, Orlick’s immense pride and jealousy transform him into a murderous villain, though he is only imprisoned for robbing Mr. Pumblechook and will presumably be released at a later point. Abel Magwitch is the novel’s figurative Abel, both in name and because he is betrayed by his partner, Compeyson. Magwitch, like Abel, also loses his life due to events beyond his control. 

Historical Allusions: Dickens incorporated many historical allusions in Great Expectations. Here are two major ones: 

  • Herbert Pocket compares Estella and Miss Havisham to the Tartars in chapter 22. The Tartars, who are more commonly known as Tatars, were groups of Turkic-speaking nomadic people living in northeastern Mongolia beginning as early as the 5th century CE. After numerous Turkic tribes joined the armies of the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan in the 13th century, a blending of the Mongol and Turkic cultures gradually took place. Consequently, the Mongolian invaders of Hungary and Russia were known to Europeans as Tatars, or—as Herbert calls them—Tartars. By comparing Estella and Miss Havisham to the Tartars, Herbert rather harshly suggests that they are merciless and cruel in their treatment of men. 
  • Herbert fantasizes about entering the merchant trade by traveling to the West Indies “for sugar, tobacco, and rum.” Britain’s colonial control of the West Indies , a group of islands separating the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, was largely established in the 17th century, over a century after Christopher Columbus’s initial invasion in 1492. Britain, along with France, focused on the Lesser Antilles, which were not entirely under Spain’s control. Colonialism became intertwined with mercantilism in the second half of the 17th century, especially among plantations that produced sugar and coffee. Europeans relied heavily on slave labor to produce these goods. However, because much of the native population had been killed through genocide and...

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  • disease, slaves were imported from West Africa to work on the plantations. Therefore, Pip’s and Herbert’s later success in the merchant trade—and the success of the British Empire in general—has strong roots in colonialism and slave labor. 

Literary Allusions: Like most Victorian authors, Dickens incorporated numerous literary allusions in his novel. Here are two of the most important: 

  • In chapter 40, Pip makes an explicit reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) when he recounts his reaction to learning that Magwitch was his mysterious benefactor. Pip identifies with Frankenstein’s protagonist, the scientist Victor Frankenstein, when he says that “the imaginary student pursued by the misshapen creature he had impiously made, was not more wretched than I.” Pip goes on to compare Magwitch to Frankenstein’s Creature, but Magwitch is also “the creature who had made me” by using his wealth to turn Pip into a gentleman. Unlike Frankenstein’s Creature, Magwitch is not hurt by Pip’s horror; instead, “recoiling from him with a stronger repulsion, the more he admired me and the fonder he was of me.” 
  • In chapter 15, Mr. Wopsle reads aloud to Pip and Mr. Pumblechook from George Lillo’s The History of George Barnwell. The play, which is more commonly known as The London Merchant, follows the tragic story of a London apprentice who is ruined by his association with a prostitute. Mr. Wopsle’s selection of this particular play foreshadows Pip’s own ruin after he squanders the fortune bequeathed to him by Magwitch. Dickens’s allusion to The History of George Barnwell intersects with his allusion to the Prodigal Son, who is also ruined after wasting his inheritance on prostitutes. 

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