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Symbolism in Great Expectations Research Papers

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Symbolism is a literary technique frequently employed in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Many of the novel's symbols reference the book's themes of social class and privilege.

  1. Pip watches Estella "ascend some light iron stairs, and go out by a gallery high overhead, as if she were going out into the sky". Symbolism in Great ExpectationsThe iron stairs represent the social distance separating Pip and Estella. Pip aspires to join her in the sky by gaining his fortune and winning her love.
  2. The book's frequent mention of darkness and light are also symbols for the two distinct social worlds.

Symbols of a Tragic Past

Many of the elements in Miss Havisham's home are symbolic of her tragic past.

  1. Her wedding dress is a symbol for death and decay, reminding the reader of the bride's loss of innocence when abandoned by her fiancé.
  2. The "rotted bride-cake" is also a symbol of Miss Havisham's loss of innocence and despair.
  3. The stopped clocks in Miss Havisham's home represent her attempt to freeze time and avoid facing the reality of the abandonment.

Uncertainty in Great Expectations

Dickens frequently mentions the existence of mists to describe the story's surroundings. In the novel, mists symbolize uncertainty. At times, Pip passes through mists uncertain of the outcome. For example, Pip passes through mists on his way to London after the reception of his fortune. The mists suggest that Pip's fortune may not generate the positive outcome he expects.

Victorian society was acutely class conscious, and that the upper and middle classes felt considerable anxiety with regard to the question of social mobility within the prevailing class system is something quite obvious. Two points are important here.  In the first place, the Victorian landed and commercial classes had no gospel of upward mobility like that prevailing in America.  They would have preferred life without such a thing.  If there had to be such, then it was something to be gained by unremitting toil.  Secondly, one of the focal points of anxiety concerning the phenomena of upward mobility concerned sex.  While liaisons between upper-class men and lower class women in the form of prostitution was winked at, there was a strong social taboo against liaisons between upper-class women and lower-class men.  This taboo survived well into the twentieth century; D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is about it. The question arises whether, in Great Expectations, Pip is punished romantically because of his social aspirations, or whether he is punished socially for his romantic aspirations.

I would argue that both, in fact, occur.  In chapter eight Dickens describes Estella in terms of a mixture of physical beauty and upper-class hauteur: “…beautiful and self-possessed; and…as scornful of me as if she had been one-and-twenty, and a queen…”.  When Havisham suggests a card game between the two, Estella replies, “With this boy! Why he is a common labouring-boy.”  When, in chapter 17, Pip tells Biddy that he wants to become a gentleman on account of Estella, that “…wisest of girls…” sagely asks, “Do you want to be a gentleman to spite her or to gain her over? (144)”.  She then remarks that, if to spite her, paying no attention to her words would be a better course.  And, if to gain her over, she is not worth it.

Given what happens subsequently, Estella’s rejection of him in favor of Drummle in chapter forty-four, we can say that Pip is, in fact, punished romantically for his class aspirations.  Estella, I submit, is desired not alone because of her great beauty, but also because she represents that whole world of privilege and luxury and snobbery that Pip at first falls prey to and then overcomes in the course of the novel.  She is a bad choice and part of the reason that he makes this bad choice is that he is a social climber dazzled by that other world to which he aspires.   

But it can be argued that he is also punished socially for his romantic longings.  Part of Pip’s learning process is the destruction of false values in favor of true ones.  Another part is the discovery of what qualities in human beings are admirable and what qualities contemptible. The phrase “to be punished socially” can denote two things. First, it can mean being punished in polite society for some faux pas that one has committed; in this sense I don’t think Pip is punished for his aspirations regarding Estella.  But there is a second sense to the phrase; one can be “punished socially” by becoming alien to the society to which one naturally belongs. In this sense, I believe, Pip is so punished.  His pursuit of Estella involves a pursuit of gentility and this pursuit involves a turning away from Joe. The good, the beautiful, the true all reside in Joe and Biddy and Pip’s life in pursuit of Estella and of the trappings of gentlemanly status, constitute an evil excursion into a life dominated by illusion and a set of morally destructive values. In this sense Pip’s romantic yearnings, which cannot be separated from his class aspirations, are punished socially.

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