Figurative Language & Metaphors in Great Expectations

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  • 0:00 Figurative Language
  • 0:42 Personification
  • 1:26 Hyperbole & Irony
  • 2:12 Simile
  • 2:46 Metaphor
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Burke

Erin has taught college level english courses and has a master's degree in english.

This lesson will explore some of the figurative language used in Charles Dickens 'Great Expectations', specifically some examples of personification, hyperbole, irony, and simile. It will also examine some metaphors from the novel.

Figurative Language

Figurative language is a way to describe a host of techniques that writers use to bring life to their work. Think of it as a sort of author's spice rack; a variety of ways to use language in order to add flavor and interest to the writing. A lot of different literary devices make up figurative language. Our purpose here is to examine a few examples of these from the novel Great Expectations. We will then look with more detail at one specific aspect of figurative language in the novel: that of the metaphor.


Dickens doesn't mess around when it comes to figurative language in Great Expectations. The novel is chock-full of examples. We have personification, which is the assigning of human attributes to inhuman things. In Chapter 43, Dickens compares the new day to a tired and bedraggled traveler when he writes, '...the day came creeping on, halting and whimpering and shivering, and wrapped in patches of clouds and rags of mist...' This passage makes it obvious how much figurative language adds to the reading experience. Imagine how boring it would be if Dickens had just written, 'The day began.'

Hyperbole & Irony

Another example of figurative language is the use of hyperbole, which is exaggeration for effect. In Chapter 40, Pip says, 'As to forming any plan for the future, I could as soon have formed an elephant.' The exaggerated language here underscores Pip's complete lack of a plan, as well as providing a comic touch. Irony also abounds in the novel. Irony, another aspect of figurative language, has to do with the difference between what appears to be true and what is actually true. The fact that Pip's benefactor is an ex-convict instead of the wealthy society lady that he'd previously assumed is an ironic detail in this novel.


Another figurative element in this novel is the simile. This is an explicitly made comparison using words 'like' or 'as.' Great Expectations is full of similes. Joe is compared to a scarecrow. Mrs. Joe is compared to an eagle and Pip to a lamb. Estella is compared to a statue. Mr. Wemmick is compared to a mailbox, and so on. Every time a simile is used, it helps paint a more vivid picture in the reader's mind.


Like a simile, a metaphor is an example of figurative language that compares one thing to another. The difference is that a metaphor compares through implication, not an obvious statement. Great Expectations contains many metaphors that enhance the reader's understanding of the novel's events, themes, and characters. One recurring metaphor has to do with the despicable character of Bentley Drummle. He is not described as simply being like a spider, which would be a simile, he is 'the spider.' Dickens extends the metaphor in Chapter 38 by describing how Drummle the spider waits patiently to drop in at just the right moment and ensnare Estella in his web. This paints a striking picture and really brings home the predatory nature of the character.

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