Motifs

Great Expectations

by

Charles Dickens

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Great Expectations: Motifs 7 key examples

Definition of Motif
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the central themes of a book... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of... read full definition
Book 1, Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—People as Tools:

Dickens occasionally employs the motif of associating Joe, Mrs Joe Gargery, and Provis with commonplace household and professional tools. He does this to make a point of their hardscrabble lives and apparently simple personalities, and also to suggest how poor characters might have been viewed by their social superiors at that time. In the second chapter of the novel, Pip introduces his sister by saying she had

such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap.

Mrs. Joe has the red skin associated with hard domestic work in Victorian books, but is also symbolically linked here to a nutmeg-grater. This harsh tool scrapes away at the culinary spice nutmeg, gradually wearing it down. This gory language of "washing" with a "grater" indicates that Mrs. Joe is hard on herself, and perhaps unnecessarily uncompromising. This grating erosion is also not unlike Mrs. Joe's approach to raising Pip "by hand," ruling over her husband and all other household matters.

Provis and Joe are both associated with items commonly found in the blacksmith's line of work: respectively a metal file and a forge. The metal file, like a grater, is another tool for wearing things down. While Provis is the one who first asks Pip to fetch him a file, that tool later becomes associated with fear, criminality, and brute force solutions in the novel. Provis actually tells Pip in Chapter 43 that he was a "poor tool" in his former partner Compeyson's criminal endeavors.

Joe, who is straightforward, practical, and pure of purpose, is strongly associated with the forge. Joe is warm, and he makes things and people warm, like his own blacksmith's fire. Things like morality and common sense are simple to Joe: as he says in Chapter 9, "lies is lies." His good nature simplifies things, as metal is purified and refined when exposed to the blazing heat of the blacksmith's fire.

Provis is also in a different sense associated with "forging" things, as Dickens explains when this character later tells his life-story to Pip and Herbert in Chapter 42:

Compeyson's business was the swindling, handwriting forging, stolen bank-note passing, and such like.

In his association with Compeyson, the real villain of the novel, Provis is obliged to commit to a life of crime where he "forges" fake documents. Both of Pip's father-figures "forge" items: only one does so legally.

Book 1, Chapter 8
Explanation and Analysis—Sharing Food:

There are many scenes involving eating in Great Expectations, all of which carry some emotional weight. Dickens employs the motif of sharing food as a way of measuring the relative degrees of love between characters. For example, in Chapter 8 when the young Estella is asked by Miss Havisham to feed Pip, she humiliates him horribly by bringing

some bread and meat and a little mug of beer. She put the mug down on the stones of the yard, and gave me the bread and meat without looking at me, as insolently as if I were a dog in disgrace. I was so humiliated, hurt, spurned, offended, angry, sorry—I cannot hit upon the right name for the smart—God knows what its name was —that tears started to my eyes.

The food itself is certainly better than the slabs of bread and meager butter that Pip gets at home, but the way it is given to him implies such condescension and dislike that it ruins the experience and makes him weep. The list of adjectives Dickens gives here is almost hysterical; Pip is so offended by Estella's "insolence" that his thoughts are spluttering.

In Great Expectations the method of distribution matters almost more than the food itself. When food is given unwillingly or impolitely, it hurts the recipient greatly, and vice versa. For example, Pip doesn't care that he is eating mostly "crumbs" when he is at home with Joe, because he is eating them with Joe. When food is provided with love and eaten in good company, it nourishes Dickens's characters in more than just their bodies.

Loveless characters in this book have bad relationships with food and cannot enjoy it. The central example of this is clearly Miss Havisham's wedding-feast, which sits abandoned on a table in her house, a monument to a loving experience never to be shared. She does not even eat in public, which her lawyer Jaggers notes is a particularly sad peculiarity in Chapter 10. He asks Pip how often he has

 seen Miss Havisham eat and drink; [...] I considered, and said, “Never.” “And never will, Pip.[...] She has never allowed herself to be seen doing either, since she lived this present life of hers. She wanders in the night, and then lays hand on such food as she takes."

Not only does Miss Havisham not share food with others, she cannot eat in a normal way by herself or bear to be seen doing it by anyone else. This description contains no imagery of actual eating; instead, Havisham wanders in the night and "lays hand" on food. Dickens contributes to the ghostly imagery that already surrounds her with this language. Even alone, she doesn't consume anything tangible, but merely "lays hand" on it.

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Book 2, Chapter 29
Explanation and Analysis—Doubles :

Many critics have noted that Great Expectations is filled with the motif of doubles: characters who mirror each other in a way that allows the reader to note similarity and difference easily. These symmetrical pairs act as foils for each other and for the developing aspects of Pip's character. Each pair also contains a strong element of irony, as the novel's commentary on class structure and good behavior plays out in relation to them. 

Magwitch/Provis and Compeyson are both criminals, and yet only one is really morally corrupt. Provis stole for sustenance and fell into a life of crime by necessity, and later proves himself to be a thoughtful and caring person. Compeyson, however, is a violent, calculating thug, as Provis explains to Pip in chapter 43:

All sorts of traps as Compeyson could set with his head, and keep his own legs out of and get the profits from and let another man in for, was Compeyson’s business. He’d no more heart than a iron file, he was as cold as death, and he had the head of the Devil afore mentioned.

Dickens sets up a comparison here between a "good" criminal with an essentially kind heart (Provis), and a "bad" criminal with "traps" in him. While Provis is warm, especially later in the book, Compeyson is "cold as death," and uses his intelligence to con and harm people.

Another obvious double is that of Mrs. Joe Gargery and Miss Havisham. These women are both abusive parental figures who employ opposing techniques to change the behavior of their charges. Mrs Joe raises Pip "by hand" and shames him publicly to make him "improve." Miss Havisham, however, openly wants Estella to worsen and uses her influence to make Estella cruel and irresistible in equal measure, as Havisham says in Chapter 29:

I adopted her to be loved. I bred her and educated her, to be loved. I developed her into what she is, that she might be loved. Love her!

It might be said, given the above statement, that while Mrs. Joe raises Pip "by hand" to try and correct his faults, Miss Havisham in having mentally "bred" Estella "to be loved" has raised her to amplify her faults. Both maternal figures employ differing forms of cruelty, producing different results.

Estella and Biddy also act as foils for one another, as Estella is beautiful but bad, and Biddy is plain but good. Both of these young women are potential love interests for Pip. Both are apparently orphans, both are clever and perceptive, and both, as the novel later reveals, are from similarly unsophisticated circumstances. Estella starts the novel as an unattainable princess: by the time it ends, the reader knows she is Provis's daughter and she has been "attained" by Pip. Each pair represents two differing aspects of class and gender in Dickens's time.

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Explanation and Analysis—Insects and Decay:

Motifs of partial preservation and decay appear in almost every chapter of Great Expectations, but are often bookended with the vivid descriptions of hordes of insects, multitude of rodents, and colonies of thriving fungi in Satis House. Dickens uses these descriptions to link the natural cycles of life and development in this coming-of-age novel with Miss Havisham's bizarre choice to live in the past. When Pip enters the room where Havisham's wedding feast dries out and rots away, Dickens lavishly describes the skitter and scramble of living pests from the dead table:

 I saw it written, as it were, in the falls of the cobwebs from the centre-piece, in the crawlings of the spiders on the cloth, in the tracks of the mice as they betook their little quickened hearts behind the panels, and in the gropings and pausings of the beetles on the floor.

Almost this entire passage is made up of auditory imagery in the gerund (-ing) tense. This tense is usually reserved for things that are being done as a current action. Dickens employs it here to reinforce the vitality of the life in this room. Things are always moving and happening, even in this sepulcher. In a house where so much is still and dead, life is actually everywhere, if one looks. The list of the animals living in Satis House reads like a taxonomy, as if Pip was looking at a zoo exhibit as well as a museum of failed nuptials. 

When Pip returns to Satis House in Chapter 29 to see Estella, he actually describes the decaying manor as being like the castle in Sleeping Beauty. He feels like it's up to him to

restore the desolate house, admit the sunshine into the dark rooms, set the clocks a going and the cold hearths a blazing, tear down the cobwebs, destroy the vermin – in short, do all the shining deeds of the young Knight of romance, and marry the Princess.

The house is so dead that Pip feels a moral obligation to destroy the "cobwebs" and "vermin" that thickly coat it. He casts himself as the prince in a fairy-tale, imagining scattering the plague of insects and darkness away in front of him. This is an impossible task, however. Almost every room in Satis House is corroded with neglect, so much so that the only signs of life are these hordes of uninvited guests. 

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Explanation and Analysis—Sharing Food:

There are many scenes involving eating in Great Expectations, all of which carry some emotional weight. Dickens employs the motif of sharing food as a way of measuring the relative degrees of love between characters. For example, in Chapter 8 when the young Estella is asked by Miss Havisham to feed Pip, she humiliates him horribly by bringing

some bread and meat and a little mug of beer. She put the mug down on the stones of the yard, and gave me the bread and meat without looking at me, as insolently as if I were a dog in disgrace. I was so humiliated, hurt, spurned, offended, angry, sorry—I cannot hit upon the right name for the smart—God knows what its name was —that tears started to my eyes.

The food itself is certainly better than the slabs of bread and meager butter that Pip gets at home, but the way it is given to him implies such condescension and dislike that it ruins the experience and makes him weep. The list of adjectives Dickens gives here is almost hysterical; Pip is so offended by Estella's "insolence" that his thoughts are spluttering.

In Great Expectations the method of distribution matters almost more than the food itself. When food is given unwillingly or impolitely, it hurts the recipient greatly, and vice versa. For example, Pip doesn't care that he is eating mostly "crumbs" when he is at home with Joe, because he is eating them with Joe. When food is provided with love and eaten in good company, it nourishes Dickens's characters in more than just their bodies.

Loveless characters in this book have bad relationships with food and cannot enjoy it. The central example of this is clearly Miss Havisham's wedding-feast, which sits abandoned on a table in her house, a monument to a loving experience never to be shared. She does not even eat in public, which her lawyer Jaggers notes is a particularly sad peculiarity in Chapter 10. He asks Pip how often he has

 seen Miss Havisham eat and drink; [...] I considered, and said, “Never.” “And never will, Pip.[...] She has never allowed herself to be seen doing either, since she lived this present life of hers. She wanders in the night, and then lays hand on such food as she takes."

Not only does Miss Havisham not share food with others, she cannot eat in a normal way by herself or bear to be seen doing it by anyone else. This description contains no imagery of actual eating; instead, Havisham wanders in the night and "lays hand" on food. Dickens contributes to the ghostly imagery that already surrounds her with this language. Even alone, she doesn't consume anything tangible, but merely "lays hand" on it.

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Book 2, Chapter 38
Explanation and Analysis—Manipulation:

Dickens uses the motif of overt manipulation right from the beginning of Great Expectations. For example, in chapter 38, Pip—watching Miss Havisham twist Estella around her finger from the other side of the room at Satis House—queasily reports that:

[...] Keeping Estella’s hand drawn through her arm and clutched in her own hand, she extorted from her [...] the names and conditions of the men whom she had fascinated; [...] I saw from this that Estella was set to wreak Miss Havisham's revenge on men.

From the beginning, Havisham's manipulations are overt. She holds on obsessively to Estella's body, "clutching" her to herself and collecting data about the damage she has groomed her adopted daughter to "wreak." Miss Havisham repeatedly asks Pip about his feelings for Estella: if he thinks Estella is attractive, how she changes him, and if she hurts him. Miss Havisham wants to break Pip's heart, but she also wants him to be aware of his own struggle and not be able to escape being "fascinated" by Estella. Havisham deliberately manipulates him into believing things that give him comfort, which are, it turns out, only for the purpose of destroying him later. She sets up and massages Pip's "great expectations" for the pleasure of seeing them disappointed.

The overt and unabashed way in which she controls Estella makes her secret and subtle manipulations even more powerful when she uses her wiles, because they are unexpected. Estella has been so tangled in her web that her heart withers and dies: she has to go through a great deal of personal suffering and hardship in order to regain access to any emotions. The women manipulate each other both obviously and subtly, from ways visible from across a room, to ways that don't become apparent for years.

Having adopted and raised Estella to manipulate and destroy men through her own powers of persuasion, Miss Havisham has to keep her wits about her to keep teenaged Estella under control. Other characters regularly and effectively manipulate other people, too, of course: the convicts Provis and Compeyson manipulate with lies and threats, "The Spider" Bentley Drummle with patience, Pip himself with charm. No-one, however, does so quite as effectively or as repeatedly as the Misses Havisham. 

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Explanation and Analysis—Insects and Decay:

Motifs of partial preservation and decay appear in almost every chapter of Great Expectations, but are often bookended with the vivid descriptions of hordes of insects, multitude of rodents, and colonies of thriving fungi in Satis House. Dickens uses these descriptions to link the natural cycles of life and development in this coming-of-age novel with Miss Havisham's bizarre choice to live in the past. When Pip enters the room where Havisham's wedding feast dries out and rots away, Dickens lavishly describes the skitter and scramble of living pests from the dead table:

 I saw it written, as it were, in the falls of the cobwebs from the centre-piece, in the crawlings of the spiders on the cloth, in the tracks of the mice as they betook their little quickened hearts behind the panels, and in the gropings and pausings of the beetles on the floor.

Almost this entire passage is made up of auditory imagery in the gerund (-ing) tense. This tense is usually reserved for things that are being done as a current action. Dickens employs it here to reinforce the vitality of the life in this room. Things are always moving and happening, even in this sepulcher. In a house where so much is still and dead, life is actually everywhere, if one looks. The list of the animals living in Satis House reads like a taxonomy, as if Pip was looking at a zoo exhibit as well as a museum of failed nuptials. 

When Pip returns to Satis House in Chapter 29 to see Estella, he actually describes the decaying manor as being like the castle in Sleeping Beauty. He feels like it's up to him to

restore the desolate house, admit the sunshine into the dark rooms, set the clocks a going and the cold hearths a blazing, tear down the cobwebs, destroy the vermin – in short, do all the shining deeds of the young Knight of romance, and marry the Princess.

The house is so dead that Pip feels a moral obligation to destroy the "cobwebs" and "vermin" that thickly coat it. He casts himself as the prince in a fairy-tale, imagining scattering the plague of insects and darkness away in front of him. This is an impossible task, however. Almost every room in Satis House is corroded with neglect, so much so that the only signs of life are these hordes of uninvited guests. 

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Book 2, Chapter 39
Explanation and Analysis—Clean Money:

Dickens uses the motif of money-counting to describe the relationship between finance and avarice in Great Expectations. Receiving money or having too much of it is regularly linked with eventual guilt and shame. For example, in Chapter 39 Pip attempts to return some money that Provis had sent him from Australia, to an unexpected result. Pip says:

"I was a poor boy then, as you know, and to a poor boy they were a little fortune. But, like you, I have done well since, and you must let me pay them back.” [...] I took out my purse. [...] He watched me as I separated two one-pound notes from its contents. They were clean and new, and I spread them out and handed them over to him. Still watching me, he laid them one upon the other, folded them long-wise, gave them a twist, set fire to them at the lamp, and dropped the ashes into the tray.

 Pip tries to pay Provis back, this time with bills that aren't creased and filthy from their long overseas journey. However, by setting fire to the bills in this long-winded and dramatic way, Provis indicates that repayment, no matter how "clean and new" the bills are, is not the point. The point was what the money was doing. As he has secretly been Pip's patron, his "recompense" for his cruel actions, as Provis explains just after this, was to "back" him with money so he could "become a gentleman." Though money would solve Pip's problems, money from this source horrifies the young man. Dickens also suggests through this metaphor that in a society like Pip's,  all money is fundamentally "tainted." 

Dickens also links a small gift of money to another dramatic reversal of fortunes in the book. Provis's own criminal downfall truly starts when Compeyson gives him five shillings to come on as his "man and pardner" in crime. When he and Compeyson are charged with the felony that actually convicts them, it is fittingly for "putting stolen notes in circulation," as Provis tells Pip in Chapter 42.

It should also be said that rich characters in the novel, like Miss Havisham, are not made happy by their money. This is another aspect of Dickens's social commentary on wealth disparity. An excess of money doesn't necessarily provide freedom. Indeed, for characters like Miss Havisham, it only serves to gild their prisons and to complicate their relationships.

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Book 3, Chapter 42
Explanation and Analysis—Doubles :

Many critics have noted that Great Expectations is filled with the motif of doubles: characters who mirror each other in a way that allows the reader to note similarity and difference easily. These symmetrical pairs act as foils for each other and for the developing aspects of Pip's character. Each pair also contains a strong element of irony, as the novel's commentary on class structure and good behavior plays out in relation to them. 

Magwitch/Provis and Compeyson are both criminals, and yet only one is really morally corrupt. Provis stole for sustenance and fell into a life of crime by necessity, and later proves himself to be a thoughtful and caring person. Compeyson, however, is a violent, calculating thug, as Provis explains to Pip in chapter 43:

All sorts of traps as Compeyson could set with his head, and keep his own legs out of and get the profits from and let another man in for, was Compeyson’s business. He’d no more heart than a iron file, he was as cold as death, and he had the head of the Devil afore mentioned.

Dickens sets up a comparison here between a "good" criminal with an essentially kind heart (Provis), and a "bad" criminal with "traps" in him. While Provis is warm, especially later in the book, Compeyson is "cold as death," and uses his intelligence to con and harm people.

Another obvious double is that of Mrs. Joe Gargery and Miss Havisham. These women are both abusive parental figures who employ opposing techniques to change the behavior of their charges. Mrs Joe raises Pip "by hand" and shames him publicly to make him "improve." Miss Havisham, however, openly wants Estella to worsen and uses her influence to make Estella cruel and irresistible in equal measure, as Havisham says in Chapter 29:

I adopted her to be loved. I bred her and educated her, to be loved. I developed her into what she is, that she might be loved. Love her!

It might be said, given the above statement, that while Mrs. Joe raises Pip "by hand" to try and correct his faults, Miss Havisham in having mentally "bred" Estella "to be loved" has raised her to amplify her faults. Both maternal figures employ differing forms of cruelty, producing different results.

Estella and Biddy also act as foils for one another, as Estella is beautiful but bad, and Biddy is plain but good. Both of these young women are potential love interests for Pip. Both are apparently orphans, both are clever and perceptive, and both, as the novel later reveals, are from similarly unsophisticated circumstances. Estella starts the novel as an unattainable princess: by the time it ends, the reader knows she is Provis's daughter and she has been "attained" by Pip. Each pair represents two differing aspects of class and gender in Dickens's time.

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Explanation and Analysis—People as Tools:

Dickens occasionally employs the motif of associating Joe, Mrs Joe Gargery, and Provis with commonplace household and professional tools. He does this to make a point of their hardscrabble lives and apparently simple personalities, and also to suggest how poor characters might have been viewed by their social superiors at that time. In the second chapter of the novel, Pip introduces his sister by saying she had

such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap.

Mrs. Joe has the red skin associated with hard domestic work in Victorian books, but is also symbolically linked here to a nutmeg-grater. This harsh tool scrapes away at the culinary spice nutmeg, gradually wearing it down. This gory language of "washing" with a "grater" indicates that Mrs. Joe is hard on herself, and perhaps unnecessarily uncompromising. This grating erosion is also not unlike Mrs. Joe's approach to raising Pip "by hand," ruling over her husband and all other household matters.

Provis and Joe are both associated with items commonly found in the blacksmith's line of work: respectively a metal file and a forge. The metal file, like a grater, is another tool for wearing things down. While Provis is the one who first asks Pip to fetch him a file, that tool later becomes associated with fear, criminality, and brute force solutions in the novel. Provis actually tells Pip in Chapter 43 that he was a "poor tool" in his former partner Compeyson's criminal endeavors.

Joe, who is straightforward, practical, and pure of purpose, is strongly associated with the forge. Joe is warm, and he makes things and people warm, like his own blacksmith's fire. Things like morality and common sense are simple to Joe: as he says in Chapter 9, "lies is lies." His good nature simplifies things, as metal is purified and refined when exposed to the blazing heat of the blacksmith's fire.

Provis is also in a different sense associated with "forging" things, as Dickens explains when this character later tells his life-story to Pip and Herbert in Chapter 42:

Compeyson's business was the swindling, handwriting forging, stolen bank-note passing, and such like.

In his association with Compeyson, the real villain of the novel, Provis is obliged to commit to a life of crime where he "forges" fake documents. Both of Pip's father-figures "forge" items: only one does so legally.

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Book 3, Chapter 51
Explanation and Analysis—Partial Truth:

The satirical motif of unpleasant and slippery lawyers upholding unfair, cluttered, and archaic legal systems is common to many of Dickens's novels. Lawyers are not obligated to tell the truth, but Dickens pushes this further, caricaturing them as people who won't disclose anything whatsoever if they can help it. Mr Jaggers, a wealthy and famous lawyer who acts as Pip's guardian and middleman, displays this tendency to equivocate in Chapter 51:

Mr. Jaggers nodded his head retrospectively two or three times, and actually drew a sigh. “Pip,” said he, “we won’t talk about ‘poor dreams;’ you know more about such things than I, having much fresher experience of that kind. But now, about this other matter. I’ll put a case to you. Mind! I admit nothing.” 

As he explains to Pip what has really transpired between Estella's parents, he dodges all responsibility for not only his actions, but the information itself. Rather than saying he knows what has happened, he "puts the case" to Pip, speaking only in abstraction and hypotheticals. He also asks Pip if he understands the "imaginary" case concerned, and repeats that he himself "makes no admissions." Jaggers goes on to recount the entire story in short bursts, using this phrase "put the case" 12 times in three pages. This repetition contributes to the satirical tone of the passage, as it is repeated so often as to be completely redundant. 

In Great Expectations lawyers never seem to have to tell the whole truth in order to deliver a version of justice, or even to commit themselves to advocating for a true story, in order to be enormously successful. Jaggers alludes to this when he says that Pip knows much more about "poor dreams" than he does; he's been wealthy for a long time. His success as a lawyer is due in large part to getting murderers acquitted; including, it transpires, the woman who is actually Estella's mother.

Dickens employs many methods to criticize the flawed British penal system and the uneven application of the nation's law to its citizens in Great Expectations.His depiction of lawyers as being clever manipulators is one of the most evident. Jaggers is depicted as being a man who lets no emotional excess taint his judgement. He also never commits his opinion or feelings to passing judgement. He does not confirm or deny anything, so he cannot be caught in a lie. Because of this slipperiness, the author seems to suggest that where there are lawyers, there is almost never uncomplicated justice. 

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