The Gothic in Great Expectations

Professor John Bowen considers how Dickens uses the characters of Magwitch and Miss Havisham to incorporate elements of the Gothic in Great Expectations.
Great Expectations is not a Gothic novel in any simple sense. Like all of Dickens’s writings, and perhaps all writing, it belongs to more than one genre. At times it resembles a fairytale, at other times a realistic or a comic novel, at others a melodrama: most commonly, it blends together the qualities of several genres. But gothic is a persistent thread in the book and at times, particularly moments of psychological transformation and crisis, the whole book seems charged with the force of the Gothic. In the very first chapter, for example, when Magwitch leaves the graveyard, he looks to Pip ‘as if he were eluding the hands of the dead people, stretching up cautiously out of their graves, to get a twist upon his ankle and pull him in.’ What is true for Pip is also true for us as readers of the book; at certain moments, the dead seem to reach up to grab you.

F W Pailthorpe's illustrations to Great Expectations

F W Pailthorpe's illustrations to Great Expectations [page: 2]

F W Pailthorpe's illustration of the first chapter of Great Expectations where Pip first encounters Magwitch in the graveyard, 1885.

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There is a different use of the Gothic later in the book, when Magwitch returns and reveals to the horrified Pip that he is his benefactor. Pip writes:

The imaginary student pursued by the misshapen creature he had impiously made, was not more wretched than I, pursued by the creature who had made me, and recoiling from him with a stronger repulsion, the more he admired me and the fonder he was of me. (ch. 40)

The ‘imaginary student pursued by the misshapen creature’ is of course Frankenstein, from Mary Shelley’s novel of 1818, who is a student when he first creates the monster. Pip at first seems to be comparing himself to the creator of the monster but in fact and much more sinisterly, he thinks of himself as someone ‘pursued by the creature that had made me’. He is like both Frankenstein and the monster, and – most troublingly of all – like a creature created by a monster: a kind of monster’s monster. This tiny gothic allusion, over in a sentence, tells us so much about Pip, his state of mind and his relationship with Magwitch.

1831 edition of Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus

1831 edition of Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus [page: frontispiece]

“We shall each write a ghost story”: the introduction to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1831, in which she describes the 'ghost story challenge'.

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We see these Gothic forces on a bigger scale in one of the turning-points of the book, when Pip sees Miss Havisham for the first time:

dressed in rich materials -- satins, and lace, and silks -- all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about ... I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes ... Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if could. (ch. 8)

The eeriness and uncanniness of the passage stem a good deal from its repetitions, in which some simple words – hair, dress, bride, white, brightness, waxwork, skeleton – repeat over and again. It’s as if Pip can’t let go of what he sees, and that what he has seen is destined to return over and again, however hard he tries to escape it. His description resembles a strange incantation, suddenly punctuated by the simple words of his impossible exclamation: ‘I should have cried out, if could’.

Both in Magwitch and Miss Havisham, the living seem uncannily to resemble the dead, as the boundary between life and death trembles and the dead seem strangely able to return to seize the living and bend them to their will. Pip’s father is dead but Pip is haunted by substitute and ghostly father-figures, such as Jaggers, Pumblechook and Magwitch. Miss Havisham too is haunted by her own dead past and when Pip first sees her, she seems almost to have willed herself into becoming this uncanny, haunting figure, through a performance in which she stages her own Gothic misery and draws others into her dead-alive world. She has become the living corpse of her own happiness. This self-destructive (but also self-preserving) staging of herself as a bride on the threshold of her wedding arrests her in time, at the moment of traumatic revelation. Unable to let the past go, unwilling to move forward or back, she is a figure simultaneously powerful and powerless. Miss Havisham is both the victim of her abandonment and the dominant, powerful, even seductive, oppressor of Pip and Estella. Gothic, with its fascination with eroticism and death, and understanding of how deeply they are entangled together, is the perfect medium and idiom for her.

Promotional photographs for the film adaptation of Great Expectations starring Jean Simmons, Martita Hunt and Anthony Wager

Miss Havisham, Pip and Estella from David Lean’s 1946 film version of Great Expectations.

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Copyright: © CINEGUILD

Copyright: © Allstar Picture Library

  • John Bowen
  • John Bowen is a Professor of 19th century literature at the University of York. His main research area is 19th-century fiction, in particular the work of Charles Dickens, but he has also written on modern poetry and fiction, as well as essays on literary theory.

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More articles on: The novel 1832 - 1880

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