Wednesday 20 November 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: G is for Graves in Great Expectations

Charles Dickens’s 1861 Great Expectations is best represented in popular culture and imagination by two visual tableaux – the abandoned bride, among the ghostly trappings of her fruitless wedding day, and the small child and the convict among gravestones in a bleak landscape. Juxtaposition between life (or youth) and death is central to the effectiveness of both images – a juxtaposition brought most sharply into focus by physical mementoes of death and the dead.

Young Estella’s beauty shines all the more against the foil of Miss Havisham, described as ‘that figure of the grave’ and as wearing ‘grave clothes’, while Pip’s visit to his parents’ headstone, in the very first paragraphs, makes the relationship between the living and the dead, literalised in the act of reading an epitaph, central to our understanding of the novel.

The Pirrips’ graves don’t just provide us with context for Pip’s character by informing us of his orphaned state. They are most formative for the young Pip linguistically, meaning that reading the grave acts as the first step to becoming the mature narrator – perhaps we are even meant to imagine that these tombstones have taught the young boy how to read.

Asked by Magwitch where his mother is, Pip can only quote the headstone (marked ‘also Georgiana Wife of the Above') which has been his sole access to her:

'‘There, sir!’ I timidly explained , ‘Also Georgiana. That’s my mother.’'

The child’s response is amusing in its naivety but also potentially important. The ridiculousness of Pip’s ‘Also Georgiana’ highlights the non-fundamental nature of names and naming, unsettling the ‘authority of [the] tombstone’ Pip has already cited as coming before living witnesses as to his parentage and underlining the randomness of record and language suggested by the origins of Pip’s own name:

‘My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.’

'Pip's graves' in Cooling
Pip’s act of naming is undermined even as it is aggrandised. He is given an Adam-like authority to name, but lacks any spiritual knowledge to add the required solemnity. Dickens undercuts the graves and their testimony likewise, even as he uses the graveyard setting to create atmosphere. The graves are open to ludicrous misinterpretation or misreading from Pip:

‘The shape of the letters on my father’s [grave], gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair.’ 

His siblings’ graves are even compared to ‘lozenges’, while one tombstone serves as a seat for Pip. And with this parody of the objects which symbolise death comes the understatement of death itself:

Pip believes that those ‘five little brothers of mine – who gave up trying to get a living exceedingly early in that universal struggle’ ‘had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trouser pockets’.

There is a dark humour here, and with that a destabilisation of narrative tone. Great Expectations is known for its most macabre moments, and its gestures to the Gothic. But its use of the graveyard setting and the eery abandoned bride is self-aware. When Magwitch ends his adventure at the town Gravesend, the location's name is a wry reminder of where we began as readers.

The 'grave' in  Great Expectations does not always mark a clear boundary between the living and the dead, and its testimony is not always certain - and in both of these ways it can be seen to mirror Pip's atmospheric but unstable text itself.

Any ideas for 'H' in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!


  1. This may be a bit general, but "H for Hysteria", perhaps?

  2. "H" for Housman (A.E.) or Housmans or Harris (Frank) or Housman (A.E.) AND Harris (Frank) or...

  3. Great suggestions, both! Keep them coming!