Poetry is the communication of experience through words that illuminate a greater meaning by allowing the reader to see the world in a new light. In that same way, the language of Charles Dickens's novel Great Expectations is poetic because it allows the reader to experience the tragedies of the characters as though the tragedies are occurring in his life. In this paper, I will examine Dickens's writing style in Great Expectations in terms of the traditional elements of poetry. I will analyze Dickens's use of imagery, symbol, characterization, and irony. I hope to demonstrate how Dickens's writing style achieves a sense of poetic prose.
Dickens's use of imagery allows the reader to jump into a character's mind and become a part of the character. To become a character, the reader must first sense what the character is sensing and see what the character is seeing. Imagery allows the reader to do just that by painting a picture in the reader's mind. A mental image gives the reader a sense of the atmosphere of a scene. For instance, when Pip reunites with Estella for the last time, "the moon [begins] to rise, and [Pip thinks] of the placid look at the white ceiling, which [has] passed away," and "of the pressure on [his hand] when [he spoke] the last words he had heard on earth" (Dickens 379). Pip is reminded of the dying moments of Magwitch, a father figure in his life, and the feeling of solitude is portrayed through the image of a rising moon. In some senses, the scene assures the reader that Great Expectations is a gothic romance.
The atmosphere implied by imagery can often give the reader a foreshadowing of what will happen and who will appear. Foreshadowing is an element of literature that gives the novel more excitement because as the reader reads, there are numerous questions that appear which make him curious. When Herbert leaves on a business trip, there is a "wretched weather; stormy and wet, stormy and wet; mud, mud, mud, deep in all the streets" (Dickens 245). The weather conveys to the reader that the atmosphere is gloomy and devastating which foreshadows that something disastrous is doomed to happen. As the reader continues on, he is pulled into the story by the appearance of continuous questions about what will occur.
Dickens explores imagery further with a detailed description of "Satis House," Miss Havisham's house. It is crucial to have some knowledge of what Miss Havisham's house looks like because that is the place where Pip's adventures begin and end. Having the power to depict an image of an "oppressive," "damp," and "airless" room where "cobwebs," "black fungus," "dust," "mould," and "spiders" exist in every little corner takes a great deal of imagination (Dickens 65). Dickens uses his imagination to allow the reader to experience the atmosphere of a room with an implication that all forms of life are extinct. Twenty-five years before Pip arrives, Miss Havisham's heart turns to stone twenty minutes before nine when her fianc betrays her. From that day on she has never seen the light of day to the extent that others consider her dead. On the subject of being able to make others see images they usually do not see, Vendler writes that "imaginative people have the gift of making others see the world as they see it" (Vendler xli). Dickens uses his gift to show others another aspect of life, under his light.
While imagery allows the reader to see mental images and foreshadow events, symbol contributes to the greater meaning of the work. Dickens's word choice is spectacular because his words have more meanings than meets the eyes. Poetry is not easily understood through the words of the poet but "is the orphan of silence" (Simic cited in Rios, 8). As the orphan of silence, the text of poetry contains a hidden meaning. Dickens, a poet who writes in prose, also disguises meanings in his text. For instance, when Miss Havisham is nearly burned to death by the fire, Pip is afraid that "if [he] let her go, the fire would break out again and consume her" (Dickens 315). Dickens is not just using fire as a noun, but implies that the fire is the devil. Replacing fire with devil means that Pip would be giving Miss Havisham's life to the evils of the world and to the grave.
Through years of experience, poets acquire a library of vocabulary that contributes to the use of symbol. Dickens's use of symbol shows how much experience he possesses. He also reveals that symbol not only has a literal meaning but a figurative one as well. When Pip states that "since [he] first came" to Miss Havisham's house, "[Estella has] been... 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," and "in the streets" (Dickens 285). He does not really mean on the river and in the clouds because each word represents an idea. The river represents life, the sails represent dreams and hopes, the marshes represent poverty, the light represents goodness, the darkness represents evil, and the sea represents experience. To gain the ability to interpret the silent meaning of the text, the reader must experience many fortunes and misfortunes as well as read masses of book.
The images and symbols in Dickens's Great Expectations convey the elements of poetry of the language, thereby allowing characterization to take place. The characterization in the novel gives each character a distinct personality and past. When Pip enters Jaggers's "twisted" and "distorted" office, he sees "odd objects," "a broken head," "an old rusty pistol," a sword," "strange-looking boxes," "two dreadful casts," "faces peculiarly swollen," "brass nails," "a coffin," and "a one-eyed gentleman... against the wall" (Dickens 127). The scene portrays that everything is out of place and gives the reader an impression of what the owner of the room is like. From the image of the scene, Jaggers's character is implied to be as distorted and twisted as his office is seen to be.
Through the use of characterization, Dickens introduces another type of character that exists in Pip's world to the reader. Miss Havisham is not an ordinary woman but a woman with a heartbreaking past. A person's past often haunts them for a lifetime and, in Miss Havisham's case, she turns out to be a grotesque character. When Pip visits Miss Havisham, "she [draws] an arm around [Pip's] neck, and [draws his] head close down to hers as she [sits] in the chair" and repeatedly whispers "love her, love her, love her" in his ears (Dickens 187). As the reader reads these lines, chills go down his back in disbelief of Miss Havisham's existence. Although those characteristics are bizarre and unnatural, they captivate the reader and act as a hook to keep the reader reading. To be able to write in such a captivating way, Dickens "[possesses] two talents: one is imagination, the other is mastery of language" (Vendler xli). Dickens's mastery of language allows him to keep the reader excited and make him want to know more about the twisted characters.
Imagery, symbol, and characterization are devices that allow the irony in Dickens's prose to operate. Dickens uses irony to give the novel a complete twist of events which pulls the reader into the story. After being called common by Estella, Pip decides that "[he wants] to be a gentleman" which deepens the irony in Pip's life (Dickens 99). The gentleman he wants to become is a man who lives by doing nothing all day. In order to please Estella and satisfy his desire to fulfill his hopeless fantasy, he will turn himself into a worthless man whose only asset is money. Pip's nave character is altered by the evils of the world and this taint gives him the experience to deal with life. On the subject of achieving experience, Perrine writes that "experience comes to us largely through the senses" (Perrine 49). Indeed, experience is gained by seeing events and feeling emotions.
Possibly it is the tragedy in the irony of Great Expectations that makes the novel so appealing. Pip does not see this irony even though it is right before his eyes. When Pip meets Molly, "a certain action of her fingers as she [speaks arrests his attention]" and the reader's attention (Dickens 305). He does not realize it then but the actions of Molly's fingers very much resemble Estella's. It seems as though Pip and Estella's lives are being played around with by fate. Estella, not knowing her birth, is constantly being controlled by Miss Havisham and grows up to become a woman with no softness and no heart. Pip, believing that Estella is born of high class, strives for her hand in marriage only to realize that she is the daughter of a convict and a murderer. The irony in Pip's life turns the story in a completely different direction which intrigues the reader and makes Great Expectations even more captivating.
Charles Dicken's Great Expectations is written in prose style that has all the elements of poetry. So, even though it is a lengthy novel, it is never tedious because the elements of poetry add excitement and purpose to the novel. Through Pip's long journey, the reader is no longer just reading the lines but is "transformed into the hesitating speaker" (Vendler xliii). The reader is no longer the reader but takes on a new role as one of the characters. Dickens's prose is written in a way that engages the reader so much that the experiences become as vivid as they are in reality. The reader of Great Expectations experiences Pip's tragedies as if the reader is Pip.
- Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Mineola: Dover, 2001.
- Perrine, Laurence, ed. Sound and Sense. New York: Harcourt, 1992.
- Rios, Alberto, ed. Approaching Poetry. New York: Bedford, 1997.
- Vendler, Helen, ed. Poems, Poets, Poetry. New York: Bedford, 2002.