Great Expectations


Charles Dickens

Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on Great Expectations makes teaching easy.

Great Expectations: Allusions 7 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Book 1, Chapter 3
Explanation and Analysis—An Army in Pursuit:

When Provis is recounting what fleeing from the prison-barge he was being held on felt like, he alludes to images of the British army pursuing him through the fog using powerful sensory language. Provis's intense fear of capture makes him feel like a battalion of men is chasing him in Chapter 3, as he tells Pip:

“Why, see now!” said he. “When a man’s alone on these flats, with a light head and a light stomach, perishing of cold and want, he hears nothin’ all night, but guns firing, and voices calling. Hears? He sees the soldiers, with their red coats lighted up by the torches carried afore, closing in round him. Hears his number called, hears himself challenged, hears the rattle of the muskets, hears the orders ‘Make ready! Present! Cover him steady, men!’ and is laid hands on – and there’s nothin’! Why, if I see one pursuing party last night – coming up in order, Damn ’em, with their tramp, tramp – I see a hundred. And as to firing! Why, I see the mist shake with the cannon, arter it was broad day.

This passage makes the reader feel more connected to the danger the escaped convict is in, and emphasizes the powerlessness over the senses the marsh mist creates. The phrase "red coats" invokes the bright scarlet uniforms of British infantry soldiers in the 19th century. The grey and misty territory of the marshes, which Dickens had vividly described just before this, is imaginatively splashed with the bright scarlet of these military jackets. The sense of danger for the escaped convict is so intense that Provis doesn't just think he hears the soldiers: he says he "sees" them, vividly describing their uniforms "closing" around him. The "cannon" are so powerful that he sees and feels the "mist shake" with their reverberating sounds as he tries to file the iron from his leg.

Dickens incorporates sound, touch, and sight into this intense description, making the reader hear the "tramp tramp" of the soldiers' feet, the gunshots and the rattle of muskets, feel the push and shove of hands "being laid on them," and see the glow of red coats "lighted up by torches."

Book 1, Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—Mr Wopsle Says Grace:

Dickens makes an allusion employing a parody of the stereotypical English churchman in Chapter 4, when Pip describes how the officious Mr. Wopsle says grace at his family's table: 

It began the moment we sat down to dinner. Mr. Wopsle said grace with theatrical declamation — as it now appears to me, something like a religious cross of the Ghost in Hamlet with Richard the Third — and ended with the very proper aspiration that we might be truly grateful.

When characters act pompously in a Dickens novel, the author is most often indicating that they shouldn't be taken seriously by the reader. Mr. Wopsle is a parody of the self-important Victorian clergyman, who takes his own voice so seriously that he later moves to London to become an actor. The officiousness and silliness of Mr. Wopsle shows in his hyperbolic  "theatrical declamation" of a simple mealtime prayer with friends. This is a strange occasion to speak in "theatrical" tones, but no one except Pip seems to blink an eye at either its delivery or "aspirations." 

The "Ghost in Hamlet" and "Richard the Third" that Dickens alludes to are characters in plays by William Shakespeare. Both are kings, both are known for ominous and dramatic speeches, and both are very long-winded. It's also notable that Mr. Wopsle's silly "grace" drags on, and Richard III and Hamlet are the two longest plays that Shakespeare wrote. Pip, in his position as first-person narrator, remembers this incident with tongue-in-cheek humor, describing it in a way that his childhood self, unaware of the finer points of Shakespeare, wouldn't have understood at the time.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Explanation and Analysis—A Little Bull:

When he recounts how his family and their friends treated Pip at home, Dickens uses a simile to liken the little boy to a bull in a Spanish bull-ring. When the Gargerys have company over in chapter 4 and Pip is forced to sit at the table with them, they will not give him a moment's respite from criticism:

But they wouldn’t leave me alone. They seemed to think the opportunity lost, if they failed to point the conversation at me, every now and then, and stick the point into me. I might have been an unfortunate little bull in a Spanish arena, I got so smartingly touched up by these moral goads.

In the kind of Spanish bullfighting arena Dickens alludes to,  a young bull is aggravated by fighters who tease it into a frenzy. It is then killed by being stabbed with a sword. While none of the "company" actually want to murder Pip, part of the attraction of coming to dinner is to see him humiliated and cowed. The conversation is so "pointed" here, so cruel and critical of the little boy, that it actually "sticks" into Pip, like the spears used to enrage, confuse, and disable the bull before the matador eventually kills it. The "smarts" (little stings) he feels are the moments of shame and confusion when everyone criticizes him in a "particularly unpleasant and personal manner," as he says after this.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Book 1, Chapter 7
Explanation and Analysis—A Bramble-Bush:

Although education in Victorian England was one of the political priorities of the monarchy and the government, learning to read was by no means a guaranteed skill for Victorian working-class children. Dickens likens Pip's efforts to succeed in getting an education against difficult odds to crawling through a blackberry bush in Chapter 7:

Much of my unassisted self, and more by the help of Biddy than of Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt, I struggled through the alphabet as if it had been a bramble-bush; getting considerably worried and scratched by every letter. After that, I fell among those thieves, the nine figures, who seemed every evening to do something new to disguise themselves and baffle recognition. But, at last I began, in a purblind groping way, to read, write, and cipher, on the very smallest scale.

This passage is full of vivid descriptions of struggle, pain, and humiliation. As Pip's schoolteacher, the elderly great-aunt of Mr. Wopsle is so inadequate that he is forced to rely on the help of his friend Biddy and his "unassisted self" for his education. Blackberry (or "bramble") bushes are notoriously thorny and tangled, snagging and impeding any attempt to get through them. Dickens doesn't refer to blackberries themselves at all here, making the struggle to get through the "alphabet" by Pip seem even more difficult and (literally) fruitless. He pulls his way through in a "purblind" or half-blind way, "getting scratched by every letter" as this task is so challenging. 

The "nine figures" Pip refers to here are the Roman numerals from 1-9, indicating his attempts to teach himself math in addition to literacy. This is also a biblical allusion by Dickens to the parable of the Good Samaritan, a man who was beaten almost to death by robbers. Like the bramble-bush, Pip finds numbers, or "those thieves," to be a formidable foe in his quest for self-improvement.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Explanation and Analysis—The Catechism :

In Chapter 7, Dickens makes a verbally ironic allusion to a Biblical source, illustrating Pip's naivety and ignorance with a clever joke. Pip tells the reader that as a boy he had trouble understanding religious language:

Neither were my notions of the theological positions to which my Catechism bound me, at all accurate; I have a lively remembrance that I supposed my declaration that I was to “walk in the same all the days of my life,” laid me under an obligation always to go through the village from our house in one particular direction, and never to vary it by turning down by the wheelwright’s or up by the mill.

The Catechism, which Pip mentions here, says that Christians should "Keep God's holy will and commandments, and walk in the same." This means they should walk "in the commandments," or obey them: the naïve Pip thinks it means he always has to go home "in one particular direction." Dickens is making fun of the Church of England's failure to make clear to Pip what the "declarations" he is steadfastly making actually mean.

British children in this time were often obliged to learn large sections of the Bible and of basic Christian doctrines by heart as part of their schooling. Dickens felt, as he mentions in many of his personal writings, that having children learn things by rote did not necessarily mean they understood them or were actually being educated by this "education." This reference to the Catechism is a funny moment in the novel, and would perhaps have sparked recognition for Dickens' largely Christian English audience about their own misunderstandings of biblical phrases in early schooldays.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Book 1, Chapter 15
Explanation and Analysis—Orlick the Villain:

Joe Gargery's "obstinate" journeyman Orlick is revealed to be a violent villain long after he is first introduced. Dickens foreshadows this, however, with two allusions. In Chapter 15, Pip describes the "lazy" and unpleasant Orlick with reference to two famous "outcast" figures, rejected from society because of their hand in the deaths of good people:

He never even seemed to come to his work on purpose, but would slouch in as if by mere accident; and when he went to the Jolly Bargemen to eat his dinner, or went away at night, he would slouch out, like Cain or the Wandering Jew, as if he had no idea where he was going and no intention of ever coming back.

To give a bit of context, Cain and the "Wandering Jew" are related mythological figures. Both appear in ancient stories where they betray and hurt innocent people. Cain and Abel were sons of Adam and Eve, two of the first humans in the Bible. Cain kills his brother violently out of envy and is subsequently marked by God and forced to wander in exile and disgrace.

The Wandering Jew is another mythological character who lives in constant banishment. He is supposed to be one of the Jews who allegedly taunted Jesus on the way to the crucifixion. Because of this great offense, he was cursed with immortality and made to wander the earth alone until the eventual second coming of Christ. Both characters are cautionary tales about the perils of rashness and cruelty, and both have been used in racist, antisemitic, and anti-immigrant commentary since the medieval period. 

Orlick is compared to both of these people because of his actions, his behavior, and his overall unnerving demeanor. He eventually attempts to kill Mrs Joe out of spite and ends up permanently disabling her. He then tries to murder Pip himself out of jealousy. Like both Cain and the stereotypically antisemitic character of the Wandering Jew, Orlick is made homeless by his poor choices. He is also, like these characters, described as being physically ugly, frightening, and conniving. Just after this passage, the narrator tells their audience that 

He always slouched, locomotively, with his eyes on the ground, but when accosted or otherwise required to raise them, he looked up in a half resentful, half puzzled way, as though the only thought he ever had, was, that it was rather an odd and injurious fact that he should never be thinking.

Like Cain and the Wandering Jew, whose physical descriptions are often very unappealing, Dickens foreshadows Orlick's brutal assaults with diction and sensory language that make him frightening before he's even committed a crime. In this and the previous passage, he is always hunched and "slouching," a purposeless man in a novel full of people with ambition and vocations.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Book 2, Chapter 29
Explanation and Analysis—Worshipping the Hem:

Dickens uses a biblical allusion, "worshipping the hem of her dress," to indicate Pip's devotion to Estella as he follows her around Satis House upon his return in Chapter 29: 

So, Estella and I went out into the garden by the gate through which I had strayed to my encounter with the pale young gentleman, now Herbert; I, trembling in spirit and worshipping the very hem of her dress; she, quite composed and most decidedly not worshipping the hem of mine.

Pip is still so overwhelmed by Estella that being around her makes him tremble "in spirit." Her presence is almost holy to him. Through this reference to "worshipping the very hem of her dress," Dickens indicates to his reader that Pip has become a sort of disciple of hers, shaking at her mere presence.

In the Bible, there's a parable about a woman with an incurable disease who touched the hem of Jesus Christ's robe and was healed. Pip's "worship" likens him to that character here, in a way a Victorian audience would clearly understand. He is incurably attached to Estella, and only she can "heal" him. The traditional masculine/feminine power dynamic of the time, and also the gender dynamic of the Biblical story, are swapped in this passage. Rather than being led by Pip, the female figure in this interaction leads the way and dispenses the blessings. 

Unlock with LitCharts A+