At moments of revelation in Great Expectations — most notably those concerning Magwitch and the mysterious origins of Pip's wealth — Dickens writes in a cinematic style that almost feels designed for screenplay. Sometimes this takes the form of meticulously detailed descriptions of setting — lighting, ambience, character movements, etc — as in Chapter 39, when Magwitch finally comes to reveal himself to Pip:

I stood with my lamp held out over the stair-rail, and he came slowly within its light. It was a shaded lamp, to shine upon a book, and its circle of light was very contracted; so that he was in it for a mere instant, and then out of it. In the instant, I had seen a face that was strange to me, looking up with an incomprehensible air of being touched and pleased by the sight of me. [Place within the complete text of the novel]

Dickens' writing also emulates screenplay by using parallel structure to dramatize significant moments. In the Three Jolly Bargemen scene of Chapter 10, the “strange man" gradually moves to show Pip the file, and throughout the short scene the mounting tension can be felt in the repetition of certain keywords:

It was not a verbal remark, but a proceeding in dumb-show, and was pointedly addressed to me. He stirred his rum and water pointedly at me, and he tasted his rum and water pointedly at me. And he stirred it and he tasted it; not with a spoon that was brought to him, but with a file. [Place within the complete text of the novel]

The words “pointedly at me" serve as a cue to the metaphorical cameraman: every time they repeat, the shot can be thought to flip dramatically back and forth between the two characters. Dickens uses this structure to build suspense in Chapter 28 as well, when Pip recognizes one of the convicts in his carriage:

The two convicts were handcuffed together, and had irons on their legs, — irons of a pattern that I knew well. They wore the dress that I likewise knew well.

I relinquished the intention he had detected, for I knew him! Even yet I could not recall a single feature, but I knew him!

Later, just before unveiling the novel's climactic twist, Dickens again draws on repetition — this time incorporating it into a dialogue between Pip and Magwitch — to intensify the mood:

"Might a mere warmint ask what property?" said he.

I faltered, “I don't know."

"Might a mere warmint ask whose property?" said he.

I faltered again, “I don't know."

"Could I make a guess, I wonder," said the Convict, “at your income since you come of age! As to the first figure now. Five?"

With my heart beating like a heavy hammer of disordered action, I rose out of my chair, and stood with my hand upon the back of it, looking wildly at him.

"Concerning a guardian," he went on. “There ought to have been some guardian, or such-like, whiles you was a minor. Some lawyer, maybe. As to the first letter of that lawyer's name now. Would it be J?"

All the truth of my position came flashing on me; and its disappointments, dangers, disgraces, consequences of all kinds, rushed in in such a multitude that I was borne down by them and had to struggle for every breath I drew.

"Put it," he resumed, “as the employer of that lawyer whose name begun with a J, and might be Jaggers, — put it as he had come over sea to Portsmouth, and had landed there, and had wanted to come on to you. 'However, you have found me out,' you says just now. Well! However, did I find you out? Why, I wrote from Portsmouth to a person in London, for particulars of your address. That person's name? Why, Wemmick."

I could not have spoken one word, though it had been to save my life. I stood, with a hand on the chair-back and a hand on my breast, where I seemed to be suffocating. [Place within the complete text of the novel]

Questions

1. What does Dickens's cinematic style say about works of fiction around the time of Great Expectations (1850)? From a modern perspective, to what extent might the dialogue between Pip and Magwitch seem slightly melodramatic, if at all? To ask a broader question: should modern criticism be applied to older works?

2. Compare the way in which Dickens handles climactic moments in Great Expectations to how Tennyson writes them in “The Coming of Arthur" and to how MacDonald writes them in Phantastes. Does each author build suspense in a distinct way? What similarities exist between the texts? (Examples below.)

Tennyson:

. . . while the phantom king
Sent out at times a voice; and here or there
Stood one who pointed toward the voice, the rest
Slew on and burnt, crying, 'No king of ours,
No son of Uther, and no king of ours';
Till with a wink his dream was changed, the haze
Descended, and the solid earth became
As nothing, and the king stood out in heaven,
Crown'd. And Leodogran awoke, and sent
Ulfius, and Brastias and Bedivere,
Back to the court of Arthur answering yea.

MacDonald:

I caught it by the throat, and the moment we reached the platform, a struggle commenced, in which I soon got uppermost, with my hand upon its throat, and knee upon its heart. But now arose a wild cry of wrath and revenge and rescue. A universal hiss of steel, as every sword was swept from its scabbard, seemed to tear the very air in shreds. I heard the rush of hundreds towards the platform on which I knelt. I only tightened my grasp on the brute's throat. His eyes were already starting from his head, and his tongue was hanging out. My anxious hope was, that, even after they had killed me, they would be unable to undo my gripe of his throat, before the monster was past breathing. I therefore threw all my will, and force, and purpose, into the grasping hand. I remember no blow. A faintness came over me, and my consciousness departed. (197)

3. Dickens modifies the spelling of Magwitch's speech in order to give the impression of dialect. He does so at other moments in the novel as well, typically with convicts ("How should I know?" returned the other. “He had 'em stowed away somehows. Giv him by friends, I expect.") and with Joe ("Why, yes, Sir," said Joe, “me and Wopsle went off straight to look at the Blacking Ware'us. But we didn't find that it come up to its likeness in the red bills at the shop doors; which I meantersay," added Joe, in an explanatory manner, “as it is there drawd too architectooralooral.") To what degree did Dickens mean to generalize the relationship between class and speech, if at all? What purpose does this generalization serve in Great Expectations, and what might it say about the 1850s?

4. Why did Dickens choose to make the critical reminder of Pip's first encounter with Magwitch a file? Might there be some symbolic significance in this object in particular?


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 19 February 2008