In Great Expectations, as in his other works, Dickens creates his memorable personages by means of several techniques, all of which we can see in his introduction of Pip's sister at the opening of Chapter 2.
1. He uses physical descriptions that indicate something about the moral and spiritual nature of the character:
My sister . . . had such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap. She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against Joe, that she wore this apron so much.
Compare the descriptions of Pumblechook, Estella, Magwitch, and Miss Havisham.)
2. He associates his character with some mannerism of language:
My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbours because she had brought me up 'by hand.' Having at that time to find out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand."
3. He associates his character with some mannerism or action:
My sister had a trenchant way of cutting our bread-and-butter for us, that never varied. First, with her left hand, she jammed the loaf hard against her bib—where it sometimes got a pin into it, and sometimes a needle, which afterwards got into our mouths. Then, she took some butter (not too much) on a knife and spread it on the loaf, in an apothecary kind of way, as if she were making a plaister—using both sides of the knife with a slapping dexterity. . . . Then, she gave the knife a final smart swipe on the edge of the plaister, and then sawed a very thick round off the loaf; which she finally, before separating from the loaf, hewed into two halves, of which Joe got one, and I the other.
4. He places his character in a particular setting. Wemmick and Miss Havisham exemplify this typically Dickensian mode of character creation. Can you think of any others? Can you imagine Miss Havisham outside her environment? Why?
Last modified 1988