The Gothic Elements and Atmosphere in Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations". An Analysis

Term Paper, 2014

14 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Gothic Novel and its Repertoire of Gothic Elements

3. The Gothic Setting
3.1. The Misty Marches
3.2. Satis House: A Relict of the Gothic Castle
3.3. Pip‘s London: An Exotic Word Full of Guilt and Crime

4. Supernatural and Irrational Elements

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Like a Gothic novel, this is a haunting and haunted book, where the dead call out to the living and stretch out their hands to bring them down” (Bowen X ).

From his earliest works, Dickens has included elements of Gothic literary conventions into his novels. Dickens used the rich atmospheric, thematic and metaphorical repertoire of Gothic elements to entertain his readers and to utter social critique (Mighall 82, 86). In his novels Dickens produces a scary, menacing and mysterious atmosphere and similarly depicts the social problems of the “haunted British society” (Mighall 86). This is explicitly true for Dickens’s novel Great Expectations, as the introducing citation points out.

In academic literature there have been diverse critical interpretations about Dickens’s use of Gothic elements and their effect (Ballinger 35). However, it is still a growing field of academical research and only few Gothic elements of the novel Great Expectations are documented in detail. This paper therefore seeks to analyze the two most dominating Gothic elements in Great Expectations and their effect on the atmosphere and on the development of the main protagonist Pip in more detail.

To get an overview of the Gothic novel’s genre, the characteristic elements of Gothic novels will be introduced in brief. The following analysis of Gothic elements in Dickens’s Great Expectations will be limited to the most dominant and most important Gothic elements. These are the Gothic setting as well as supernatural and irrational elements.

To get an instrument for the analysis of the Gothic setting in Great Expectations, the characteristics of the Gothic novel’s setting will be introduced. Then, the atmospheric effects of the settings Satis House, London, and the misty marshes in Dickens’s Great Expectations will be analyzed in detail. Also, their influence on Pip’s personal development will be examined.

Furthermore, the repertoire of the supernatural and irrational elements in the Gothic novel will be presented. In Great Expectations these Gothic elements are represented through Pip’s dreams and hallucinations which also add to the haunting atmosphere and illustrate Pip’s development. In the end, the most important findings of the paper will be summarized and further aspects of the topic will be pointed out.

Throughout the paper, it will be shown that the Gothic elements in Great Expectations create a menacing and mysterious atmosphere and also illustrate and influence the personal development of Pip.

2. The Gothic Novel and its Repertoire of Gothic Elements

The heyday of the Gothic novel is generally marked between the publications of Horace Walpole's ‘The Castle of Otranto’ in 1764 and Charles Maturin's ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ in 1820 (Lutz 77). After 1820 the Gothic novel did not occur as an individual genre anymore but elements of the Gothic novel can be found in many subsequent novels up to now.[1]

Characteristic of all Gothic novels is the wide spectrum of horrible, mysterious and supernatural elements. The repertoire of Gothic elements includes haunted castles, ruins, abbeys, towers, crypts and graveyards, nightly and wild landscapes, secrets, supernatural apparitions, hallucinations and dreams. All these elements are used to evoke a sinister atmosphere which is full of suspense (Snodgrass 156). The scary atmosphere is mainly based on the setting, but also supernatural elements and the villain add to the menacing effect of the Gothic novels. In the center of Gothic novels there is typically a secret which concerns the identity of a certain figure or is connected to the villain. Characteristically, there is a love story between the Gothic heroine and the hero who becomes the antagonist of the villain. In the end all secrets are uncovered and the evil is disarmed. In short, the Gothic novel can be reduced to this pattern (Loe 84).

3. The Gothic Setting

The settings of Gothic novels are very important as they essentially contribute to the mysterious and menacing atmosphere and create suspense. Moreover, they illustrate human characters and their behaviour in an allegorical and psychological way (Snodgrass 158). So the inner state of the Gothic characters is often visualized through the settings.

Part of the setting is nature with its wild landscapes and the night which darkens the events. Thus, the senses of the protagonists are tightened and they produce imaginary horrors besides the real danger. Monsters and villains of Gothic novels often appear in storms and the elements of nature seem to become alive. Maturin states:

Terror is very fond of associations; we love to connect the agitation of the elements with the agitated life of man; and never did a blast roar, or a gleam of lightening flash, that was not concerned in the imagination of some one, with a calamity that was not to be dreaded, deprecated, or endured, - with the fate of the living, or the destination of the dead (Maturin 108).

Another important aspect of the setting is the labyrinthine, claustrophobic and exotic space into which the plot is set. Since Walpole’s ‘Castle of Otrano’ (1764) the Gothic castle is one of the key features of the Gothic novel. The Gothic castle is a labyrinthine and claustrophobic place which evokes feelings of “fear, awe, entrapment and helplessness” (Raškauskienė 50). Characteristic of the Gothic castle are mazy, over- and undergrounded corridors, creaking doors, shuttered windows, trapdoors, darkened rooms, vaults, and dungeons. The architecture of a Gothic castle evokes a sublime and a scary atmosphere as the fort-like edifice is always a sign of the villain’s power but also decaying and mysterious (Raškauskienė 50-59).

3.1. The Misty Marches

In the novel Great Expectations Dickens creates a menacing atmosphere that dominates the whole novel right from the very beginning. Great Expectations opens in a sinister and scary Gothic setting. Young Pip is on a foggy churchyard at the grave of his parents and his five little brothers. This exposes him as an orphan who is endangered by Gothic horror. Pip is consequently threatened by a fearful looking convict who turns him upside-down, empties his pockets and seats him on a tombstone (Dickens 4). Losing his equilibrium is an image of Pip’s distorted view of the world which he must learn to correct in the cause of the novel (Campbell 193-195). Dickens here uses Gothic devices to emphasize Pip’s transformation. Landscapes and people that seem hostile or evil to him turn later out to be good and vice versa.

The landscape and the weather foreshadow subsequent happenings but also express Pip’s feelings of horror and fear. The marshes are a wild Gothic landscape often hung with deep mist. Therefore, the atmosphere is mostly very scary, dark and menacing.

When Pip brings the file and the food to Magwitch, the mist of the marshes is very thick and the elements of nature seem to become alive accusing Pip for his theft.[2] In the night the two escaped convicts are hunted the weather is also very uncomfortable: “[…] the weather was cold and threatening, the way dreary, the footing bad, darkness coming on.”(Dickens 29). The hunt takes place in a scary Gothic atmosphere as the convicts are searched on the dark churchyard and in the dismal still wilderness of the misty marches. Likewise, in the night when Pip’s sister is attacked, there is a heavy, wet and thick mist (Dickens 100). This shows that the heavy mist indicates wicked, sinister and criminal happenings.

When Pip leaves his village because he is going to London, the place suddenly seems to him very peaceful and quiet and this is a first indication of the learning process he will have to go through: “[…] the light mists were solemnly rising, as if to show me the world, and I had been so innocent and little there, and all beyond was so unknown and great […].” (Dickens 136). The peaceful atmosphere indicates that Pip’s great expectations will fail in London because he is following wrong assumptions of social standing.

Near the end of the novel darkness, mist and heavy rain again indicate and foreshadow subsequent events. Pip tries to find his way through the marches in a dark night when the full moon is shining and a melancholy wind is blowing. The scene is so dismal that even Pip who knows the marshes well, hesitates to walk across them: “A stranger would have found them insupportable, and even to me they were so oppressive that I hesitated, half inclined to go back.” (Dickens 357). Darkness and mist transform the marshes into a Gothic labyrinth. Pip is lured by the light of an old sluice house where he is attacked by Orlick. The sluice house is also a typical Gothic setting as it is abandoned, decayed and broken and there is a “[…] choking vapour of the kiln [that creeps] in a ghostly way towards [him]” (Dickens 358). Just before Orlick attacks Pip, the weather even gets worse as it is beginning to rain fast.

But when Pip comes back home at the end of the novel, the atmosphere has considerably changed. Instead of the dark, menacing atmosphere of the beginning, Pip is now welcomed by a beautiful and peaceful setting:

The June weather was delicious. The sky was blue, the larks were soaring high over the green corn, I thought all that countryside more beautiful and peaceful by far than I had ever known it to be yet (Dickens 405).

The pleasant weather and the peaceful setting symbolize Pip’s changed character. He is not haunted anymore by his guilt and has abandoned his wrong moral values and high expectations, he has found back his equilibrium:

[…] my heart was softened by my return, and such a change had come to pass, that I felt like one who was toiling home barefooted from distant travel, and whose wanderings had lasted many years (Dickens 405).

3.2. Satis House: A Relict of the Gothic Castle

Satis House shows a lot of parallels to the Gothic castle as it is decayed, ruinous and mazy and has a grotesque owner. The architecture of the house evokes a mysterious and sinister atmosphere and the events and characters at Satis House highly influence Pip’s personal development. The appearance of Satis House is strongly connected to Miss Havisham’s character as the house symbolizes Miss Havisham’s inner state of soul (Thomson 132-133). The ruinous decay of Satis House indicates Miss Havisham’s inner moral decay and the mazy architecture alludes to her inner chaos. In a metaphorical way Satis House is Miss Havisham’s fort, the symbol of her self-imposed incarceration (Mighall 92). At Satis House Miss Havisham retires from society and plans her revenge as she was jilted on her wedding day.[3] Miss Havisham is obsessed by hate and revenge and rears the beautiful Estella to a proud woman in order to hurt all men. According to Snodgrass, the motives of obsession and revenge which often come along with aberrant behaviour are central motives in Gothic literature (Snodgrass 1, 258, 291).

When Pip comes to Satis House for the first time he sees an inhospitable place where “even the cold wind seemed to blow colder” (Dickens 47). The first impression of Satis House is very haunting as the whole property is forlorn and decayed like a “Gothic wasteland” (Snodgrass 305). The name of Satis House is contrasted through reality: “whoever had this house, could want nothing else” (Dickens 48). Inside the house there is a tangle of dark passages and staircases. Estella leads Pip through this dark maze with a single candle. Her light seems to him “like a star” (Dickens 50) which shows him his way into future. Later in the novel it becomes clear that this light is more like a will-o`-the-wisp which alienates Pip from his natural environment.

The centre of the maze is Miss Havisham’s dressing room and the decaying banquet table where Pip sees Miss Havisham for the first time. No daylight is seen in the room and even the clocks in the room have been stopped at the same time, the moment she was jilted (Dickens 51). But even though time and light are excluded, everything in the room is in a slow decaying process similar to the owner of Satis House. In her faded and yellow wedding dress and her white hair, Miss Havisham looks like a ghastly waxwork and a “skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress” (Dickens 49). Pip even associates the long veil she wears with a “shroud” (Dickens 51). Her corpse-like appearance frightens and shocks Pip so much that he wants to cry out (Dickens 49). Based on her weird smile and the stick on which she learns, he associates Miss Havisham with a witch (Dickens 72) and therefore also shrinks when she touches him. According to Bowen, Miss Havisham “seems to exist on the very margins of the human, like a vampire or a ghost” (Bowen X) and can therefore be compared to a gothic monster. Mighall even claims that Miss Havisham “enacts” the Gothic spectacle through a “studied self-Gothicization” (Mighall 92). But even though she is aware of the effect she has on her audience (Dickens 73), her decaying appearance is still more based on her trauma and abnormality as on conscious acting.

Pip is disgusted but also fascinated by all the decay he sees (Dickens 72). The description of the room and the decaying objects is therefore very detailed. The airless smell in the room is oppressive, the candles can hardly lighten the darkness, everything is “covered with dust and mould and dropping to pieces” (Dickens 71) and vermin like spiders, mice and black beetles are all over the place. On the dusty banquet table there is a wedding cake which is overhung with cobwebs and looks “like a black fungus” (Dickens 71). All these signs of decay illustrate the grotesque outside of Miss Havisham’s inner soul which died the moment she had been jilted. Through the detailed description of Satis House and Miss Havisham a dark, ghastly, frightening and mysterious atmosphere is created. But in spite of all these signs of evil and decay Pip insists that Miss Havisham is his benefactress.

After the physical death of Miss Havisham, Satis House stays rotten and decayed. But when Pip returns to Satis House in the final chapter of the novel, everything suggests a more harmonic future. At his arrival, Pip can see that “the stars were shining beyond the mist, and the moon was coming, and the evening was not dark (Dickens 410-411). So the atmosphere is much brighter and hospitable than on his first visit. Pip meets Estella at Satis House who tells him that the whole property will be rebuilt.


[1] Due to the scale of the paper it is not possible to inform about the development and the intended effect of the Gothic novel. For further information see Smith (2007).

[2] Pip’s hallucinations will be analyzed in more detail later in the paper.

[3] Wemmick’s wooden house in Walworth is also a place of retirement but in contrast to Miss Havisham, Wemmick uses his house to separate his work from his private life. With its battlements, the canon, the draw-bridge and the ditch and its gothic architecture the house has some attributes of a gothic castle (Dickens 175-176). These objects of defense symbolically help Wemmick to exclude the dirt and crime of London from his home. Thus, he says: “It brushes Newgate cobwebs away” (Dickens 176). It is Gothicism domesticated.

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The Gothic Elements and Atmosphere in Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations". An Analysis
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gothic, elements, atmosphere, charles, dickens, great, expectations, analysis
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Sabrina Rutner (Author), 2014, The Gothic Elements and Atmosphere in Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations". An Analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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