Great Expectations Setting

Instructor: Erin Burke

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

This lesson will explore the setting of Charles Dickens' 'Great Expectations'. We will take a closer look at the time period of this classic novel, as well as some of the specific places where the action happens under the main categories of country and city.

Pip and the convict in the country setting, on the Marshes
Pip and the convict on the marshes

Historical Context

Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations in 1860-1861, during England's Victorian Age. The action in the novel takes place a bit earlier. We follow Pip's journey from a young boy in 1812 through adulthood in 1840. This was a time of greater change than England had ever seen. The Industrial Revolution brought unprecedented advances in technology, such as steamboats and railroads. More important--in the context of the novel--are the social changes of the time. Suddenly it was possible for people to get rich without being born that way. People could make their own money and climb the social ladder. The theme of social class is important in Great Expectations. The fact that it is possible for Pip to rise from his humble roots into being a gentleman in London attests to how much English society has changed during this time.

Country Setting

The physical places in Great Expectations are described in great detail and important to the novel as a whole. Generally, the settings can be divided into country and city. Young Pip lives in a wind-swept rural area of England near the sea. This setting features mists on the marshes and escaped convicts from the prison ships nearby. The mists are a recurring symbol for danger and ambiguity throughout the novel. When the mists are around, things aren't going well for Pip! The encounter with the convict in the first chapter is hugely important to the plot of the novel, since the convict turns out to be Pip's benefactor who makes his journey possible.

The Forge

The blacksmith's forge where Pip grows up plays an important role in the novel. It is a modest but cozy home. Pip starts out seeing the forge as a comforting source of light and warmth. Influenced by his experiences with Miss Havisham, he feels shame for the first time and is embarrassed by the humbleness of the forge. Finally, after doing a lot of growing up and getting over himself, Pip once again comes to see the forge as a warm and comforting place. Through the setting of the forge, we see Pip's character come full circle.

Satis House

Satis House is another significant place within the country setting of the novel. This is the old, crumbling estate where Miss Havisham is living out her days as a total eccentric. In Pip's modest village, Satis House is the sole symbol of affluence. As such, it exerts a huge influence on Pip and his plans for himself. Through his exposure to the upper-crust world of Satis House, especially the aristocratic, beautiful Estella, Pip feels shame at his origins and wants to rise above his station in life. If not for Satis House, Pip would have continued happily at the forge, becoming Joe's apprentice and living the life of a commoner. Ironically, Satis House is in a ruined state, a creepy old mansion with no natural light. The garden is in a state of decay, and the brewery on the premises is ruined and shut down. Pip's main takeaway from his time there is an all-consuming ambition to transcend his beginnings and enter a higher class society.

The City

Once Pip achieves his dream of moving up in the world, the setting switches to the big city: London. London at the time of the Industrial Revolution is a booming metropolis. Pip heads there to try to carve out a place for himself as a gentleman. His 'expectations' are high, but he soon gets a reality check. Pip arrives in London at the beginning of Volume 2, and he is not impressed. His assessment of London can be summed up in one word: 'overrated.' The city is dirty and foggy, and public executions are on offer as entertainment. There is a seedy aspect to it as exemplified by all the criminals that accost the lawyer Jaggers as he stands on the road with Pip. Clearly, London is not all it is cracked up to be.

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