Setting and the Elements of Dickens’ Biography in Great Expectations

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

In literature, an author will often choose to portray a turning point in a novel through a change in setting. This transformation alerts the reader to take notice of not simply the plot development but also many other things about the work. For example, the setting may allow one to draw parallels between the story and the bigger picture, in part by examining the author’s biography and the time in which the literary work was written. Likewise, in Great Expectations, Pip’s travel between two separate settings of England – from the marsh country of Kent in the southeast to the city of London – mirrors author Charles Dickens’s own move during childhood, as well as the universal population shift from the country to the city as a result of the changes induced by the Industrial Revolution.

Pip’s story starts with his family – that is, his sister Mrs. Joe Gargery and her husband Joe – in a small village in the misty marsh country. Here the main character, an orphan, is brought up “by hand” and it is expected that he will someday become apprenticed to Joe, the town blacksmith (6). Although Dickens himself was not an orphan by the traditional definition, he was forced to become self-sufficient later on in his childhood. However, this setting early on in the book does relate more clearly to that of Dickens’s home as a child. In fact, it is known that his family took residence in Chatham of Kent from the time he was four years old until his father was transferred to London (Victorian Web).

Additionally, these living conditions depicted in the book are generally representative of those in the early 19th century, the time before the Industrial Revolution. For instance, the family unit was considered the cornerstone of the time-honored agricultural economy. Those who were not farming families made their living with “mercantile activity,” as most skilled trades were handled in the individual households (World Civilizations). This was the small type of community, in which all the villagers are involved in everyone else’s business, a theme also found in Great Expectations. For example, it was a common occurrence for the townsmen to gather in the Three Jolly Bargemen and listen to Mr. Wopsle share a dramatic interpretation of the latest sensational news (146-147). Apparently, this small self-sufficient village was an archetype to the simple, everyday life of pre-Industrial Revolution times.

As the story of Great Expectations progresses and Pip nears his adolescent years, he is bound into service as a blacksmith’s apprentice to Joe (114-120). He quickly develops an aversion to the forge and the trade, much like author Charles Dickens did towards his job at Warren’s Blacking Factory around the same age. Just as Pip was forced into his apprenticeship by Miss Havisham and the other adults, Dickens had no choice but to accept his position when his father and the rest of his family was imprisoned for debt (Victorian Web). This experience “scarred him psychologically” and in most likelihood, became a sort of inspiration for the internal torture, misery, and alienation that the setting of Joe’s forge brings about in Pip.

Just when Pip is about to give up on his great expectations, he is rescued from the fate of a blacksmith by a mystery benefactor. His dreams of achieving a higher education and becoming a gentleman are realized as his sponsor provides him the funds and means to move to the city, London (151-153). Similarly, Dickens’s father acts almost like the benefactor in rescuing him from the fate his mother wished for him, to continue work at the Blacking Factory after his father had been released from prison. Dickens instead gains a higher education in London as well, by attending a school there at age twelve (Victorian Web). Despite the age disparity between Dickens and his autobiographical character Pip at this point in time, their comparable experiences and emotions undoubtedly line up alongside each other.

As optimistic as Pip was in anticipating the London of the elegant and noble society, he soon becomes disenchanted and learns that the city is not all that he had hoped for it to be. His first impressions are not favorable; although slightly frightened by its enormity, he thinks it as a whole to be “rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty” (177). Pip isn’t any more pleased by his accommodations, which he considers “the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner as a club for Tom-cats” (188). This description could be discovered true in the reality of the Industrial Revolution. At this time, England was going through a gradual transformation from the agricultural, family-based economy mentioned earlier to the capitalist, industry-based economy starting to take shape (World Civilizations). This change in economic focus to manufactured products led to a shift in population; people were moving from the country villages to the city in order to entertain the hope for a different, better life than that in which they had been raised. Such a sudden, rapid relocation of the workforce caused crowding and other unsanitary conditions (Yale-New Haven). Evidently, the filth in the real London and in Pip’s London is one and the same.

Some of the several effects of the Industrial Revolution on society are portrayed in Great Expectations through the different settings of England utilized in the novel, including both the population shift between settings and the conditions of the village and the city. Author Charles Dickens also employs the autobiographical element of his own childhood travel between the marshes of the country in Kent and the city of London in the experiences of the book’s main character Pip. In addition, the use of setting expands on not only the plot development, tone, and other literary devices but gives clues as to the historical and biographical context of the literary work.

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