"Great Expectations" Narrative Techniques
Charles Dickens uses narrative techniques to help readers understand the characters and important themes in his novel "Great Expectations," published in 1860. He uses the first person point of view, vivid descriptions of the setting, a chronological accounting of events and compelling dialogue to create a powerful story. Dickens' narrative techniques allow readers to empathize with the protagonist, Pip -- an orphan with a good conscience -- on his lifelong journey toward self-discovery.
Point of View
Dickens uses the first person point of view to help readers see life from Pip's perspective. He tells the story using Pip as the narrator and the main character. Pip the narrator tells a descriptive story and retrospectively examines events in his life; Pip the character experiences those events firsthand. For example, readers relate to adolescent Pip's fears and feelings of isolation in the cemetery when he has a scary run-in with a convict. The story has journal-like qualities, so readers experience Pip's emotions when he says he feels like a "small bundle of shivers growing afraid" in the cemetery. Dickens uses the first person point of view throughout the entire novel, allowing readers to hear Pip's voice at every stage in his life.
Descriptions of Setting
Vivid descriptions of the settings in "Great Expectations" grab readers' attention and set the mood in the opening of the novel, says Lilia Melani, English professor at Brooklyn College in New York. In the first scene, Pip describes the cold, bleak, deserted cemetery where he meets the convict. Later, he discusses the foggy marshes as they level out toward the Thames River near Kent, England. Dickens repeatedly uses cold, dreary settings to develop an important theme in the novel -- the isolation of Pip's childhood. This narrative technique helps readers create a visual image of the story and understand the overriding themes, mood and tone.
"Great Expectations" follows a chronological series of events -- even though Pip as the narrator is an older man who reminisces about his former experiences. This technique allows Pip to add commentary, back story and humor to make events more authentic and heartfelt. Dickens divides the novel into three sections -- Pip's childhood, middle years and later years. The story's straightforward chronology makes it easy for readers to follow Pip's difficult journey from childhood to adulthood. The chronology also allows readers to see that scars from his childhood, such as his struggle to find love and acceptance after being orphaned, never heal throughout his lifetime.
Dickens uses intense, emotional dialogue to draw readers into the story. For example, a wealthy spinster, Miss Havisham, goes crazy after being defrauded and left at the alter by her lover. Years later, she finds emotional satisfaction by instructing her stepdaughter Estella to manipulate Pip and toy with his emotions. Miss Havisham insincerely tells Pip, "Love her, love her, love her! If she favours you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces -- love her, love her, love her!"
- Brooklyn College: Charles Dickens; Lilia Melani
- The Glencoe Literature Library: Study Guide for Great Expectations
- Cummings Study Guide: Great Expectations
- Great Expectations; Charles Dickens; 1860
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