Narrative Techniques in "Great Expectations"

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Narrative Techniques in "Great Expectations"
Dickens often uses cinematic narrative techniques in "Great Expectations." ( Images)

Charles Dickens' 1861 classic "Great Expectations" depicts a coming-of-age story against the backdrop of Victorian England in which the protagonist, Pip, rises from humble beginnings to become a city gentleman. Written with Pip as the first person narrator, the book employs narrative techniques to capture and amplify the themes of social class and ambition in a society transformed by the Industrial Revolution.

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Narrator Remembering the Past

"That was a memorable day for me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same way with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been." (Chapter 9) Here we see in Dickens' novel "Great Expectations" the narrator Pip recalling a day when he spent a day with Miss Havisham and Estella for the first time. He reflects back on this day from the point of view of the present, adding commentaries that he would not have been able to provide as the younger version of this narrator.

Reportorial Description

"She was dressed in rich materials - satins, and lace, and silks - all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on - the other was on the table near her hand - her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking glass." (Chapter 8) In this passage we see Dickens giving a close observation of the details of a scene: that of Miss Havisham in her room. The narrative technique here is absent emotive words and focus on "facts" in the way that a reporter might relay a spectacle. The reader is left to fill in any meaning himself, from the mass of details.

Cinematic Style

"I stood with my lamp held out over the stair-rail, and he came slowly within its light. It was a shaded lamp, to shine upon a book, and its circle of light was very contracted; so that he was in it for a mere instant, and then out of it. In the instant, I had seen a face that was strange to me, looking up with an incomprehensible air of being touched and pleased by the sight of me." (Chapter 39) Dickens employs cinematic touches through his reference to lighting, shining and seeing, thus conjuring up ambience and mood, as when Magwitch comes to reveal himself to Pip.


"It was not a verbal remark, but a proceeding in dumb-show, and was pointedly addressed to me. He stirred his rum and water pointedly at me, and he tasted his rum and water pointedly at me. And he stirred it and he tasted it; not with a spoon that was brought to him, but with a file." (Chapter 10) In another dramatic technique, Dickens repeats words and phrases to heighten tension, such as when he uses "pointedly at me" to build up suspense in the scene when the strange man shows Pip his file. The recurrence of "pointedly at me" may also be seen as cinematic in that it provides a cue to look from one character to another, visually.

Interrupted Dialogue

"All the truth of my position came flashing on me; and its disappointments, dangers, disgraces, consequences of all kinds, rushed in such a multitude that I was borne down by them and had to struggle for every breath I drew. . . . I could not have spoken one word, though it had been to save my life. . . . The abhorrence in which I held the man, the dread I had of him, the repugnance with which I shrank from him, could not have been exceeded if he had been some terrible beast. . . . In his heat and triumph, and in his knowledge that I had been nearly fainting, he did not remark on my reception of all this. It was the one grain of relief I had." (Chapter 39) In "Great Expectations," the narrative or dialogue is not unbroken, as it can be interspersed as in the above with personal commentary by Pip while another speaker is talking. In the passage, Pip reveals his interior thought process concurrently as Magwitch addresses him through a monologue.

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