We suppose it’s as good a time as any to tell you that Charles Dickens loved the theater, he was a playwright himself, and so infused his works with a sense of the theatrical. He in a way creates mini sets under the umbrella of the overarching setting, replete with very specific props as well as dramatic lighting. In this way, we readers really get to know little niches within the larger communities to which Pip belongs, and we can take our own notes about how different people lived during this time. There are two communities or regions that we want to discuss: Pip’s hometown (a country called Kent) and London proper. Before we get started, let’s zoom out and look at Great Expectations on a global scale.
Great Expectations takes place in 19th century England. Pip is born in the early 1800s, and our narrator is telling his story in 1860. This is a busy time for England, seeing the momentum of the Industrial Revolution (and the invention of things like the steam engine and light bulb) as well as the abolishment of slavery in the British colonies in 1834. London is considered a thriving metropolis, and England is a powerful, wealthy, global giant. Dickens's depiction of London, however, doesn't exactly fall in line with this notion of England as all-powerful, rich, and healthy. Sound familiar?
When Pip arrives in London, one of the first things he sees is the public yard where criminals are whipped, punished, or hanged for anyone to see. His first tour guide tells him to come back in a few days so that he can watch the execution of four men. Mr. Jaggers’ office is right next to Newgate Prison, and Pip encounters a long line of criminals and their families waiting to speak to Mr. Jaggers. He also accompanies Mr. Wemmick at one time on an excursion into the prison where he checks in on Jaggers’ clients. Crime and reminders of crime are all around Pip.
When Pip arrives at his new bungalow, Barnard’s Inn, he is shocked by how dark, dirty, and rundown the place is. Mr. Wemmick assumes Pip’s shock is happiness at finding an inn that resembles the country life (due to all of the grime), but in Pip’s mind, the Blue Boar (his hometown inn) is like a palace by comparison.
Pip spends a lot of time in Mr. Jaggers’s office as well, and notices a wide array of oddities. Jaggers has a chair that looks like a coffin with nails all the way around it, and there are two casts that never cease to creep Pip out as they portray the faces of two men in agony. He later finds out that the casts are of real man and were made directly following their execution. They are impressions of their faces using that kind of plaster-of-paris material you use to create relief maps in the 4th grade.
By contrast, however, Pip also visits Wemmick’s castle in Walworth. His is a tiny little house made to look like a castle, replete with a moat and drawbridge. Inside, Pip finds the warmest, coziest little home where there is always a fire going and food to be eaten.
Pip’s hometown (really, a county) of Kent lies twenty miles from the ocean and sees the Thames river flow through it and widen on its way to the ocean. The town lies next to an estuary or marshland, and off in the distance, the convict ships hang out. Therefore, the presence of criminals is always lurking about. Because his town is so near the ocean, the mists hang heavily all the time, thus contributing to an ominous atmosphere.
At first, the only places Pip frequents are Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt’s apartment for school (where she has her bed, grocery store, and schoolhouse all in the same room), the Three Jolly Bargeman pub (where Joe likes to go drinking and philosophizing on Saturday nights), the cemetery (where Pip’s parents and dead siblings are buried), the forge (Joe’s home which is attached to his smith), and the battery where he likes to look at the sails on the horizon. Pip sleeps in a little room with slanted roofs in the attic, and he helps his sister do chores like stirring pudding in the kitchen. Joe’s forge often casts a bright, fire-y light onto the marshes at night.
As Pip becomes a gentleman of fortune, however, he begins to frequent other places instead. For example, when he comes back to visit, he stays at the Blue Boar inn rather than at Joe’s house. He buys new clothes at Trabb’s the tailor’s shop. He frequents all of the specialty stores on main street. There’s a decided change in where Pip chooses to hang out after he comes into his fortune. He’s a bit too cool for school.
When he is six, Pip encounters a new place in his hometown that changes his life forever and that introduces him to the idea of social class: Satis House. Satis House is "uptown," beyond the village, in the part of town where the affluent live. It is a huge Gothic mansion, but it is also a ruined, decaying mansion. Its windows are boarded up in places, and there are bars on windows in others. Inside, it is like Space Mountain at Disney World – completely dark, windy, and creepy. The owner, Miss Havisham, was famously jilted on the morning of her wedding, twenty-five years before Pip first meets her, and she decided that it would be a great idea to stop all of the clocks and to suspend that moment forever. Talk about making memories last.
Pip usually chills with Miss Havisham in her dressing room where her jewels, her gloves, her accessories always remain in the exact same place on the dressing table. Across the hall is the dining room where Miss Havisham has left her wedding cake untouched, and thus has welcomed spiders, beetles, mice, and other cute creatures we’d rather not think about. Outside there is an abandoned brewery where twice Pip sees the ghost of Miss Havisham hanging from a rafter, and there are also lots of dead plants, bare trees, and deformed vegetables to discover. It’s a real paradise. Well, actually, it does kind of remind of something slightly biblical – namely the Garden of Eden, but a Garden of Eden AFTER Eve takes a bite of the apple.
Everything about the mansion screams death and decay. It’s a very Gothic setting in that it possesses a slightly mysterious, horrifying, and supernatural quality. However, despite its creepy undertones, Satis House somehow is enough to make Pip yearn for the life of wealth and privilege it represents. It is the only specimen of affluence that we readers are thoroughly able to explore and, therefore, it becomes representative of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
We encounter several other places throughout the novel, namely Clara’s boarding house by the ocean where Magwitch hides, the Pocket house at Hammersmith, and the mansion at Richmond where Estella goes to live. We even catch a glimpse of the lonely hut in New South Wales where Magwitch lived all by his lonesome as he staked his claim. All of these places serve to dish up further context and to provide us with a keyhole into to the various ways in which humans live. So much of social position and social class seems to be determined in the world of this novel by where and how one lives. That being said, the warmest and coziest, Shmoop-endorsed places are the castle and Joe’s house, both of which are far away from every being confused for mansions. So what does that say about them? And what does that say about our modern sensibilities?