How does Charles Dickens create an atmosphere of crime and death in ‘Great Expectations’?

Last Updated: 19 Apr 2023
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In this essay, I will talk about how Charles Dickens creates an atmosphere of crime and death in 'Great Expectations'. Charles Dickens was an English novelist of the Victorian era and was considered to be one of English language's greatest writers; he was acclaimed for his rich storytelling and memorable characters and achieved massive worldwide popularity in his lifetime. 'Great Expectations' is a novel written and serially published from 1860 to 1861 in a magazine called 'All Year Round'. Shortly after that, it was published as a complete novel. It was set during the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The Industrial Revolution brought in a major change in the economy and society resulting from the use of machines and the efficient production of goods.

Charles Dickens begins the story in a graveyard. Immediately, we are introduced to the theme of death. The weather matches with the creepy setting. It links to death by using words like "raw afternoon"; the word "raw" suggests that it is painful. "Dark" suggests evil and death; and "flat" suggests something bleak. These words all enhance the gloomy setting.

The main character Pip tells us about his parents and brothers who are buried in the graveyard. He lists the names of his brothers in a matter of fact way and this shocks us. "...and that Alexander, Barthlomew, Abraham, Tobias and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried...." In the 1830s when the novel is set, half the babies died in infancy due to poor medical care and killer diseases which thrived in the appalling conditions within the society. Pip lists the names of his five dead brothers. This makes us think that the list is never-ending and highlights the presence of death.

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We are introduced to the theme of crime when an escaped convict by the name of Magwitch, jumps out from behind a gravestone at Pip. "Hold your noise!" At this point, he makes the reader feel frightened, as he starts to threaten Pip. Pip also sees a gibbet. "...a gibbet, with some chains hanging to it which once held a pirate."

A gibbet was where executed criminals were placed as a warning to others. It stands out on the horizon and looks particularly eerie in the gloomy night sky. Dickens personifies the sky to make it "angry"; the use of personification here alarms the reader because the sky feels extremely threatening. The sea is described as a "lair"; the use of the word "lair" suggests that the sea is a wild animal in a den. The wind comes rushing from the lair to get Pip. Pip becomes "a bundle of shivers". The word "shivers" suggests fear and extreme cold, both of which and to an atmosphere of crime and death.

In Chapter Three, Dickens describes the weather as a "rimy morning" and has Pip imagine a goblin that had been crying all night. This links to the guilt that Pip feels about the crime he has committed because he is upset and he feels like crying. "Rimy morning", "very damp", "damp lying on the bare hedges and sparegrass, like a coarser sort of spider's webs", "the marsh-mist was so thick", "the mist was heavier....", all these words tell us of darkness and crimes.

Dickens uses a simile to compare about the "damp lying on the bare hedges...". Dickens uses personification to enhance Pip's guilty conscience by using the weather, "the marsh-mist was thick" and "the marsh-mist was heavier...". The mist is clearly a metaphor for Pip's state of mind. He is literally finding it hard to find his way to the convict but also feels morally lost because of his crime.

Dickens writes about a "wooden finger on the post...". Dickens also uses personification to enhance Pip's guilty conscience at this point because he has committed a crime and he thinks that this signpost is telling him the only way he should go. "Like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks", "that the wooden finger on the post...invisible to me...".

Dickens uses personification by heightening Pip's mind as he is confused about the whole situation. The signpost has turned into a ghastly accuser.

As the confusion in Pip's mind races on, he sees an Ox which was black "with a white cravat". This Ox of Pip's mind notices him with the pork pie and recognises that the pie is not his. "A boy with Somebody-else's pork pie! Stop him!", "Holloa, young thief!"

With its clerical air, the ox seems like a vicar, accusing him of sin.

In the beginning of Chapter Eight, Dickens described the Satis House like a prison. It "was of old brick, and dismal, and had a great many iron bars to it. Some of the windows had been walled up; of those that remained, all the lower were rustily barred." Iron bars are like prison bars and it is one of the places where you can't escape from.

"There was also a large brewery" at the side of Satis House. This place was very idle. "There was also a large brewery. No brewing was going on in it, and none seemed to have gone on for a long long time". Nothing growing in it signifies death and in this case, the large brewery consists of nothing but waiting death.

At one point, Pip was beginning to feel cold as he went through the house. "The cold wind seemed to blow colder there, than outside the gate...".

This links to Pip's fear of going into the house. The more he has the feeling of becoming colder, the more he fears going into the house. He isn't really used to visiting anyone else's places except the graveyard and that's why he feels frightened of going in to the house.

When Pip was about to meet Miss Havisham, Estella walked away from him and took the candle away with her. "This was very uncomfortable, and I was half afraid."

From Pip's point of view, he's afraid of the dark. He's always used to having light around him as he goes around but in this case, there was darkness; "No glimpse of daylight was to be seen in it". This stresses the presence of evil and death.

Pip is alone when he sees a woman in the dressing room in Satis House. "In an armchair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see", "... "...she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled...".

White is related to ghosts and ghosts come from death. She is rich with faded dresses and her house is very old. Miss Havisham is compared by Pip to a "skeleton" and a "waxwork"; the word "skeleton", suggests that Miss Havisham could represent the presence of death. The "waxwork" suggests something that there is something about Miss Havisham which appears real but is not substantial. The "bridal flowers in her hair" compares with her white hair and obvious age suggests something eerie and bizarre.

In Chapter Twenty, Pip travels to London to see Mr Jaggers in his office. "I was scared by the immensity of London; I think I might have had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow and dirty." Pip has never been to London before and he was so used to living in the Marshes, he had no idea what London might look like, as in that time, London was the busiest, most crowded towns of England.

Pip goes into Mr Jaggers' room and was fascinated by what he sees in it. "Mr Jaggers' room was lighted by a skylight only, and was a most dismal place". When the novel was set, electricity wasn't really invented at that time and the only light rooms receive is the daylight.

"The skylight, eccentrically patched like a broken head, and the distorted adjoining houses looked as if they had twisted themselves to peep down at me through it." Pip is intimidated by what he sees as he has never been to an office before.

Pip also sees "some odd objects about". The skylight is personified as a victim of an assault. "Old rusty pistol"; this suggests that Mr Jaggers is a criminal and has done many crimes with the "pistol" in the past. "A sword in a scabbard"; this suggests that he is very protective of his special possessions. "Several strange-looking boxes and packages"; this suggests that there might be a few hidden surprises that Mr Jaggers doesn't want people to know yet. "Two dreadful casts on a shelf, of faces peculiarly swollen and twitchy about the nose"; this also suggests that he is very interested in dice as to see in how it was created.

Pip has also never seen these kinds of objects before in his life and he too, gets fascinated as he looks into them. Pip says that Jaggers' chair is like a "coffin". We have a mental image of Jaggers emerging like a vampire from the coffin.

Pip's experiences of the law are linked to Dickens's life: his father had been imprisoned for debt and he had been a court journalist and law clerk. The choice of settings such as the frightening graveyard and the introduction of dark characters such as the sinister convict, Magwitch create the atmosphere of crime and death. Dark weather creates a sense of crime and death in a lot of scenes. Charles Dickens sums up this novel as a crime and death genre. It is also a mixture of crime and horror as well as crime and death.

A drunken court official offers to show Pip a public hanging place. This sickened Pip just as it did Dickens who campaigned against such humiliating events and wanted them to be banned. Dickens spent his life campaigning against poverty, crime and death. There was crime and death everywhere all around his time and he chose this genre to make his readers aware of these and to the fact that poverty played an important part which caused high crime rate resulting in unfortunate deaths.

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How does Charles Dickens create an atmosphere of crime and death in ‘Great Expectations’?. (2017, Oct 23). Retrieved from

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