The Gothic in Great Expectations

Great Expectations is a novel full of strange repetitions, hauntings and doublings. Here Professor John Bowen explores the work’s Gothic motifs. Filmed at The Charles Dickens Museum.

Some rights reserved.  ©  British Library Board / British Library

So in one way Great Expectations has a very specific historical setting, a very specific geographical setting in the marshes of Kent and then in London. But it’s one that’s constantly filtered through the prism of Pip’s consciousness and what you see there is a very strange, often uncanny set of forces at work, full of strange repetitions and hauntings and doublings.

So Great Expectations has a very complex relationship to time and to the past. If you think of Miss Havisham for example, she’s somebody who wants to control time, she wants to arrest everything at a particular moment. All the clocks have been stopped at the moment that she is abandoned, and she wants never to have to progress forward and that creates this weird, uncanny space, deeply kind of Gothic space that erupts within the book so that suddenly Pip, you know, who’s progressing onwards in his childhood is suddenly pulled back to this strange archaic, traumatic past that’s Miss Havisham’s. In the course of the book you see Pip constantly returning to Satis House, constantly going back there and that’s a double repetition, it’s both that Miss Havisham can’t move on but somehow Pip can never move on. And so he constantly returns there and returns there in order he hopes to move on, to move on to some sexual fulfilment with Estella.  But as far as we know there is no sexual fulfilment in this book, it’s full of unconsummated relationships and the symbol of that above all is Miss Havisham’s house and Pip’s compulsive repetitions in his coming back to it.

So repetition is everywhere in Great Expectations. Because all the events of the book we see through Pip’s consciousness it means that we get a pattern in the book of Pip constantly seeking to break out or move forward in his life and failing, constantly failing. He seems to find himself again and again in remarkably similar scenes. And so you find that too in the way that the novel is narrated, so that often there are moments when Pip, for example the moment he sees Miss Havisham for the first time, there’s an incantatory, repetitious quality to the way that he represents that to us. And it’s as if the most new thing, he’s never seen anything like Miss Havisham, is the most shocking, strange thing for a boy from a forge to see, somehow needs to be caught and reprised within this kind of writing that takes you back to something that’s already existing. And so her presence reminds him of things he’s seen before, it reminds him of seeing a corpse at the church or a waxwork at the fair. And that can stand as a kind of symbol for a much deeper pattern in the book of narrative repetition, so it’s both a repetition in language but also deeper repetition within plot and narration.

So one more thing that the Gothic allows Dickens to do in Great Expectations is to explore a deep violence that often seems to saturate or fill the erotic relationships in the book. So Miss Havisham we know has been violently betrayed, but like so many of the victims of the book she in her turn becomes an oppressor. hat’s also the case about Pip who’s a victim, we feel sorry for him early on, but he also can be very cruel to others like Joe, it’s also true about Magwitch, it’s also true about Estella, and you see that in almost all the erotic and sexual and romantic relationships of the book. People often think of it as a romantic novel and many adaptations in film and elsewhere tend to stress the relationship of Pip and Estella. But in many ways the relationship of Estella and Miss Havisham is equally interesting, so same sex desire can be as important as that between two people of different sexes. And that clearly in a way Miss Havisham is in love with Estella, and that that is one of many kind of very unexpected things to find in a Victorian novel. We find out at the end of the book for example that Estella is the daughter of Magwitch. Pip is a kind of adopted son of Magwitch, so there’s a way in which not only is that a perverse relationship in which Estella seems to take pleasure in causing pain to Pip, and Pip maybe enjoys the pain that she causes him. It’s also, we find out quite late, almost like an incestuous relationship too. And that’s quite a deep pattern in the book, one in which eroticism and violence are blended together. So many of those threads come together in Miss Havisham and that strange, weird Gothic mansion that she lives in and that releases all this gothic energy around perversity and violence and sexual desire that is one of the structuring devices of the whole book.

There are several moments of enormous psychological stress for Pip. The moment when he first goes to Satis House, the moment later when Miss Havisham sets herself on fire and Pip has to wrestle with her, again, it’s almost like a scene of sexual violence, almost like a rape scene. And then again climatically the moment that he’s captured by Orlick who’s his great rival and somehow a strange double of his, and imprisoned at the limekiln, and his whole life is at stake at that moment. And at that moment it’s like his whole identity seems to – to disappear or to be vulnerable and Orlick seem – blames him for all the things that Orlick himself has done. So there you see at moments of the greatest psychological stress both that Gothic motif of imprisonment, but also the Gothic motif of doubling, both of them deployed to explore the most extreme kinds of psychological dislocation and suffering.

The high point of the Gothic novel, or the first high point is in the late 18th, early 19th century, and then the mid Victorians feel that this is slightly archaic, old fashioned kind of form so there’s a way in which the Gothic goes underground as it were. You then get a big revival of it later in the century. But at the same time it’s constantly present in novels like Jane Eyre, in Oliver Twist, in Great Expectations, in Barnaby Rudge, in many of the major Victorian novels. And it’s like the possibility is that at any moment within a realistic normal everyday world, any door might suddenly open into a Gothic nightmare. So the Gothic becomes a key prism by which the sheer strangeness of the Victorian city is viewed.

Explore further

Related videos

Great Expectations and class

Class mobility in Great Expectations

Professor John Bowen discusses class and social mobility in Charles Dickens’s novel, Great Expectations. Filmed at the Charles Dickens Museum, London. - video

Ghosts in A Christmas Carol

The origins of A Christmas Carol

Professor Michael Slater MBE explains the background to Charles Dickens’s novel, A Christmas Carol, reveals his reasons for writing it and discusses its monumental success. Filmed at the Charles Dickens Museum, London. - video

Oliver Twist: depicting crime and poverty

Oliver Twist: depicting crime and poverty

Referencing Dickens’s original manuscripts, Professor John Bowen explains how Dickens used crime and poverty in Oliver Twist. - video

Simon Callow on Dickens as a performer

Simon Callow on Dickens as a performer

Simon Callow discusses Charles Dickens’s performances, his abilities as an actor, and the impact of his readings upon his audiences and the wider public. How did they help make him “the most famous man in the world” during his lifetime? Filmed at the Charles Dickens Museum, London. - video

Related articles

The Gothic in Great Expectations

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 and class

Great Expectations and class

The world of Great Expectations is one in which fortunes can be suddenly made and just as suddenly lost. Professor John Bowen explores how the novel’s characters negotiate and perform class in this atmosphere of social and financial instability.

Crime in Great Expectations

Crime in Great Expectations

Crime exists as a powerful psychological force throughout Dickens’s Great Expectations. Professor John Mullan examines the complicated criminal web in which the novel’s protagonist, Pip, finds himself caught.

Gothic motifs

Gothic motifs

What does it mean to say a text is Gothic? Professor John Bowen considers some of the best-known Gothic novels of the late 18th and 19th centuries, exploring the features they have in common, including marginal places, transitional time periods and the use of fear and manipulation.

Related themes

The Gothic

The Gothic

What are the key motifs of Gothic literature and how do these works reflect the contexts in which the genre emerged and evolved?

The novel 1832 - 1880

The novel 1832–1880

How did the writers of this period incorporate fantasy, realism, sensationalism, and social commentary into their work?