Literary Analysis: The Importance of Setting in Dickens

The setting in Great Expectations is undeniably crucial to the novel as Dickens uses setting to portray themes, reflect character personalities, situations and feelings. The settings that Dickens chooses are not accidental – they represent too much to be accidental.
Great Expectations tells the story through the eyes of the young working class orphan Pip who is raised by his sister and her husband, and documents his journey from being a young boy who moves to London to become a gentleman. The setting starts off in the countryside where Pip was raised and moves to London where he pursues his goal to be a refined gentleman. Both are symbolic of his journey and life lessons he learns.

The story starts in the misty marshes which is a significant setting in the novel. It creates a sinister atmosphere and tends to indicate some form of foreseeable danger and uncertainty. It is where he meets the escaped convict at the start, and later, is where he is kidnapped and nearly killed by Orlick. Symbolically, he passes the marshes on his way to London, a seemingly positive and exciting phase in his life. However this setting indicates that perhaps this experience will be a dangerous one.

Pip grew up in two places, the forge, where his sister and husband lived and Satis House, where Pip was sent to spend time with the upper class Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella. Satis House is a gothic setting which reflects situation – it is in ruins, like Miss Havisham. Since Miss Havisham was jilted on her wedding day, she stopped the clocks and remains in her wedding gown with the decaying feast of food around her. This setting represents Miss Havisham’s want to freeze time and her wedding dress symbolizes her past. The decaying food represents her decay as she has become frail in her old age.

Satis House 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.” The iron bars, as you would see in a prison, symbolises the feeling of being imprisoned – Pip is imprisoned in his unattainable love for Estella and Miss Havisham is imprisoned in her destroyed life which does not move on. This, alongside the locked main gate and high surrounding walls, adds to the feeling of imprisonment. It can also been seen as symbolising a separation between the upper and lower classes.

Even Miss Havisham’s courtyard reflects her life and situation – overgrown and tangled with weeds – neglected and not loved. The courtyard is also lifeless with no animals.

The empty brewery next to the house used to be successful but is now just empty, only with memories to hold on to – a reflection of Miss Havisham.

Another significant setting in the novel is Dickens portrayal of London. Upon arrival Pip thought London was unattractive and dirty, yet it is where the second, ‘exciting’ stage of Pip’s expectations began.

All in all, setting plays an extremely significant role in Great Expectations and it is an aspect of the novel that determines the mood and tone, reflects the situations and character personalities and contributes largely to the themes.


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