The first chapter of Dickens's Great Expectations presents an unusual bond between text and image, when a naïve and barely literate Pip explores the “calligraphic qualities" (Baumgarten, 61) of the text on his parents' tombstone.

The shape of the letters on my father's, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, “Also Georgiana Wife of the Above," I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. [1]

Baumgarten explains that “[o]ut of the letters of his father's and mother's names . . . he derives an image of his parents' bodily form" (62). The assertion that Pip's “imagination feasts eagerly upon the constitutive strokes of pen and chisel" (62) is well supported by the text. But the pictorial quality of the text is not limited to the strokes that form the characters: the positioning of the two engravings holds a similar importance. It is established that the “character and turn" (Dickens, 1) of Georgiana's inscription are Pip's primary evidence for concluding that his mother was “freckled and sickly" (1). Little is made however, of the other visual clue: “Wife of the Above" (1). Obviously, this shows that Georgiana's etching is located vertically below her husband's. If Pip's interpretations of the text are to be taken literally, then the letters of the upper inscription are “square, stout" and “dark" (1). Through these visually domineering characteristics, and through vertical pride of place, the husband's inscription overshadows the wife's. To an imaginative, interpretive Pip, this could be evidence enough of a patriarchal relationship. The vertical hierarchy continues downwards in the form of the “five little stone lozenges" (1) on the ground. These stones, which apparently bear no inscription, represent Pip's five brothers: these siblings must have been “sickly" to a greater extent than Georgiana, as they died in infancy. It is difficult to imagine how Georgiana's text could be interpreted as freckled, though by contradistinctive comparison to “the above" (1) it could certainly be visually weakened, and interpreted as “sickly" (1). On the marshes however, it is likely that speckles of mud are common a feature on the lower portions of the tombstones. Perhaps Pip was visually interpreting these, as well as the strokes of the chisel, when he used the description “freckled" (1). In this case the vertical hierarchy of the inscriptions has a practical impact on Pip's visual interpretation, as well as a symbolic one.

The lowest members of this vertical hierarchy, the stone lozenges of child mortality, bear no text at all. In this patriarchal family group, they warrant the lowest vertical position and no textual representation for Pip to interpret. As a result Pip takes the appearance of the stones as a basis for identifying his siblings: “I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trouser-pockets" (1). The low flat stones lead Pip to conceive an image of his siblings lying in a horizontal position, and their lack of vertical importance is reinforced by this.

Works Cited

Baumgarten, Murray. “Calligraphy and Code: Writing in Great Expectations". Dickens Studies Annual. Ed. Michael Timko, Fred Kaplan and Edward Guiliano. Vol 11 New York: AMS Press. 1983.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. London: Everyman's Library. 1992

Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 16 February 2008