In both Great Expectations and “The Palace of Art," the author takes up themes of environment and boundary. In “The Palace of the Art," the poet tries to create an isolated paradise for the soul, the Palace of Art. Tennyson describes the palace using a tone of ownership and pride. “Full of great rooms and small the palace stood,/ All various, each a perfect whole/ From living Nature, fit for every mood/ And change of my still soul." (Tennyson, “The Palace of Art"). The careful description results in a tone similar to that of a host showing a new home to guests.
For some were hung with arras green and blue
Showing a gaudy summer-morn'
Where with puff'd cheek the belted hunted blew
His wreathed bugle-horn.
One seem'd all dark and red — a tract of sand,
And some one pacing there along,
Who paced for ever in a glimmering land,
Lit with a low large moon.
One show'd an iron coast and angry waves
You seem'd to hear them climb and call
And roar rock-thwarted under bellowing caves,
Beneath the windy wall.
In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham also creates her own isolated sphere, although whether a paradise or a hell depends on interpretation. The reader is introduced to this sphere through Pip's eyes, resulting in a descriptive tone tinged with fear and disconcertedness. The tone is more uncomfortable, that of a person stumbling into an unfamiliar scene and taking in the bizarreness. As opposed to the tone in The Palace of Art, a real sense of looking around for the first time exists. The different tone in describing each isolated Eden contributes towards the themes of boundaries and environment in Great Expectations and “The Palace of Art."
Both works stress the importance and relation between characters and their environments. Great Expectations seems to send two different messages about roles and social mobility and isolation. On one hand, Dickens ties characters very closely to their environments. Joe, for example, is out of place in London or trying to be a gentleman, as he himself acknowledges. “I'm wrong in these clothes. I'm wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th'meshes" (Dickens 246). Wemmick's personality at his home and at the office differ so vastly that it almost seems as though there are two Wemmicks. Mr. Pumblechook and Mr. Wopsle are so tied to the village that when Mr. Wopsle leaves the Church to pursue his acting career in London, he is an abysmal failure. Similarly, Jaggers no more fits in the village than Magwitch fits into London with his disguise of “a seafaring slop suit, in which he looked as if he had some parrots and cigars to dispose of ..." (Dickens 349). With these characterizations, Dickens does not so much emphasize the limitations of roles, but acknowledges the importance of proper environments for different characters.
On the other hand, Miss Havisham represents the extremes of a character tied to environment. Never seeing sunlight or venturing outside of her dusty rooms, Miss Havisham is a warped and ultimately destructive character, who Dickens clearly treats as unhealthy. While Wemmick's roles are perhaps exaggerated and satirized, he is at least healthier, happier, and less destructive than Miss Havisham. Dickens uses Miss Havisham to show isolation's danger. Thematically, Miss Havisham's counterpart in The Palace of Art is essentially the soul, who, in its extreme, perfect isolation, also goes mad and cannot survive there. These characterizations seem to challenge the theme of healthy boundaries for the separation of different people.
Tennyson's poem seems to address a crisis that faced writers after the Romantic era: a general “mood of aimlessness and despair cast its shadow over Europe's most advanced minds" (Madden, 248). This crisis made writers, especially poets, question their role in society. Through his description of an ideal for the aesthetic soul as an ideal that the soul can not exist in, Tennyson grapples with this dilemma in “The Palace of Art." While “The Palace of Art" addresses this question of where the aesthetic soul belongs directly (even though it can not resolve the dilemma), Dickens's exploration of his role in society as a writer is much more subtle. Throughout his novel, despite setting the story in a slightly earlier time period, Dickens criticizes many aspects of society and points out many of the problems facing England during the Industrial Revolution. Through his grounding in realism and relatively contemporary issues, Dickens levels many critiques towards the conditions of his day. Since many argue that Tennyson's constant use of Arthurian legend represents a criticism of his contemporary society as well, Dickens and Tennyson may have both seen a certain obligation to raise consciousness to the problems in society through their works.
Madden, William A. “The Burden of the Artist," from 1859: Entering an Age of Crisis. Ed. P. Appleman, W. Madden, M. Wolff. 248
Last modified 1996