Great Expectations Setting Essay

Nineteenth-Century England; London and Kent

Okay, before we get into the details, let's zoom out:

Great Expectations takes place in 19th century England. Pip is born in the early 1800s, and our narrator is telling his story in 1860. This is a busy time for England, seeing the momentum of the Industrial Revolution (and the invention of things like the steam engine and light bulb) as well as the abolishment of slavery in the British colonies in 1834. London is a thriving metropolis, and England is a powerful, wealthy, global giant. But Dickens' depiction of London, however, doesn't exactly fall in line with this notion of England as all-powerful, rich, and healthy.

Dirty

Our first hint comes from Pip himself. When he arrives, he says:

We Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of everything: otherwise, while 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. (20.2)

Not a great beginning, right? And one of the first things he sees is the public yard where criminals are whipped, punished, or hanged for anyone to see. In fact, his first tour guide tells him to come back in a few days so that he can watch the execution of four men. Mr. Jaggers' office is right next to Newgate Prison, and Pip encounters a long line of criminals and their families waiting to speak to Mr. Jaggers. He also accompanies Mr. Wemmick at one time on an excursion into the prison where he checks in on Jaggers' clients. Crime and reminders of crime are all around Pip.

Dirtier

When Pip arrives at his new bungalow, Barnard's Inn, he's shocked by how dark, dirty, and rundown the place is. Mr. Wemmick assumes Pip's shock is happiness at finding an inn that resembles the country life (due to all of the grime), but in Pip's mind, the Blue Boar (his hometown inn) is like a palace by comparison:

A frowzy mourning of soot and smoke attired this forlorn creation of Barnard, and it had strewn ashes on its head, and was undergoing penance and humiliation as a mere dust-hole. Thus far my sense of sight; while dry rot and wet rot and all the silent rots that rot in neglected roof and cellar,—rot of rat and mouse and bug and coaching-stables near at hand besides [...] (21.21)

Rather than being a gentlemanly paradise, London is gross, dirty, and criminal. But it's also full of life: the hilariously bad play that Mr. Wopsle is in, Wemmick's funny little castle, and the wharfs and ships that eventually give Pip a career. Dickens loved London and wrote about it a lot: he's not saying that it's the big bad city, but he's definitely enjoying crushing Pip's great expectations.

Home Sweet Home

It's not like the country is all that, either. Pip's hometown is in Kent, twenty miles from the ocean and sees the Thames river flow through it and widen on its way to the ocean. But this isn't a Thomas Kinkade painting. Thanks to its proximity to the ocean, it's always full of two things: mists, and escaped criminals. Cozy.

Within Kent, Dickens gives us a range of settings—the Three Jolly Bargeman pub, the creepy cemetery, the cozy forge, and, of course, Satis House. Satis House is "uptown," beyond the village, in the part of town where the affluent live. It may be huge, but it's also ruined and decaying, with boarded up windows and barred doors. Still, Satis House is enough to make Pip yearn for the life of wealth and privilege it represents. It's the only affluent setting that we see, so it sort of stands in for the whole rich-and-famous lifestyle.

In Great Expectations, social position and class are closely tied to where and how you live. So, what does it say that the warmest, coziest, most Shmoop-endorsed places are the castle and Joe's house?

Setting is extremely important to Dickens. The word "Dickensian" for many conjures images of a bustling, crowded London full of factories, men in top hats, child laborers, and soot. Although this is an oversimplification of Dickens's world, the very fact that something so specific comes to mind when people think of Dickens is a testament to the importance of setting in his novels.

Great Expectationstakes place in England in the first half of the...

Setting is extremely important to Dickens. The word "Dickensian" for many conjures images of a bustling, crowded London full of factories, men in top hats, child laborers, and soot. Although this is an oversimplification of Dickens's world, the very fact that something so specific comes to mind when people think of Dickens is a testament to the importance of setting in his novels.

Great Expectations takes place in England in the first half of the nineteenth century. The novel was published in 1861, and while the narrator (Pip) is telling the story in what was then the present day (1861), he is writing about his childhood, a couple of decades earlier. The novel's action takes place in London and in Pip's childhood home in the countryside, which was modeled after the countryside of Kent, where Dickens lived in his later life.

Here are some ideas for questions/ideas you could explore in an essay analyzing setting in Great Expectations:

  • How is the setting like a character in the novel? Does London have character traits? Is it, for example, mean and unforgiving like the many criminals Dickens describes as living in it? Take a look at chapter 19 when Pip first arrives in London.
  • Compare and contrast London and Kent. Even though Pip goes to London to chase his "great expectations," London is not necessarily portrayed in a more positive light than the countryside.
  • How do changes in setting coincide with changes in Pip's character? How does Pip change when he leaves the forge for the village in his first visit to Satis house? How does he change when he first arrives in London? Does he act differently when he returns home to the forge?
  • Consider historical context. In the early nineteenth century, London was a center of invention, population, industrial development, and, as Dickens shows in Great Expectations, crime and filth. You could explore how Dickens uses the novel to express his criticism of Victorian London and city life.
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