Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

Discovering Dickens

Community Reading Project

Charles Dickens

Great Expectations

Historical Context



<i>Great Expectations</i>


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The illustration below, by Marcus Stone, appeared in the 1862 edition of Great Expectations. The original serial (1860-1) and the 1861 editions of the novel were not illustrated.



Cain or the Wandering Jew: When Pip says that Orlick "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" (Ch. 15), he compares Orlick to famous outcast wanderers in Christian tradition. Cain, a son born to Adam and Eve after the Fall, killed his brother Abel, and was condemned by God -- "[A] fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth" (Genesis 4:12). The Wandering Jew was, according to legend, a man who insulted Christ as he bore the cross to Calvary, and was doomed to walk the earth until the Second Coming. Versions of the story vary; an early one has it that the Wandering Jew was a porter belonging to Pontius Pilate, "who, when they were dragging Jesus from the Judgment Hall, had struck him on the back, saying 'Go faster, Jesus, why dost thou linger?', to which Jesus replied, 'I indeed am going, but thou shalt tarry till I come'" (Oxford Companion 1052).

A perfect Fury: Mrs. Joe, working herself into a rage, becomes like "One of the avenging deities, ... dread goddesses [in Greek and Roman mythology] with snakes twined in their hair, sent from Tartarus to avenge wrong and punish crime" (OED, "Fury").

George Barnwell: The "affecting tragedy" in which Wopsle "invested sixpence, with the view of heaping every word of it on the head of Pumblechook, with whom he was to drink tea" (Ch. 15), is a play by George Lillo, first produced in 1731. The "identification of the whole affair with [Pip's] unoffending self" (Ch. 15) is apparently suggested to Wopsle on account of the similarity between Pip's condition (as an apprentice) and that of the title character, George Barnwell. The Oxford Companion to English Literature summarizes the play as follows: "Based on an old ballad, it tells the story of an innocent young apprentice, Barnwell, who is seduced by a heartless courtesan, Millwood. She encourages him to rob his employer, Thorowgood, and to murder his uncle, for which crime both are brought to execution, he profoundly penitent and she defiant. It was frequently performed at holidays for apprentices as a moral warning" (393). Mr. Wopsle, as the "ill-requited uncle of the evening's tragedy," who "fell to meditating aloud in his garden at Camberwell" and, later in the performance, dies there, is dramatizing the part of the murdered uncle.

From the "Prologue" of George Barnwell:

A London 'Prentice ruined is our theme,
Drawn from the fam'd old song that bears his name.
We hope your taste is not so high to scorn
A moral tale esteem'd ere you were born;
Which, for a century of rolling years,
Has fill'd a thousand thousand eyes with tears.
If thoughtless youth to warn, and shame the age
From vice destructive, well becomes the stage;
If this example innocence insure,
Prevent our guilt, or by reflection cure;
If Millwood's dreadful crimes, and sad despair,
Commend the virtue of the good and fair;
Tho' art be wanting, and our numbers fail,
Indulge th' attempt, in justice to the tale. (lines 21-34)

Died ... exceedingly game on Bosworth Field, and in the greatest agonies at Glastonbury: Mr. Wopsle offers the diversion of several death scenes on the walk home, including that of Richard the Third, who died anything but "game" on Bosworth Field: Failing to defeat Richmond (afterwards King Henry VII), who stages an invasion, Richard III finds himself is a tight spot, unmounted and vulnerable, and shouts -- famously, in Shakespeare's version -- "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" (V.iv.7). Wopsle's agonies at Glastonbury are harder to trace. The critical consensus seems to be that Dickens confuses Glastonbury with Edmundsbury, where King John dies of poison in Shakespeare's King John (Mitchell 492). There is, in any case, no Glastonbury in Shakespeare.


Bow-street runners: The "Bow-street men from London" who linger in the house after the attack on Mrs. Joe, and whom Pip calls "the extinct red-waistcoated police" (Ch. 16), were a force of London policemen replaced by the Metropolitan Police in 1829 (the attack on Mrs. Joe would have occurred around 1820) (Meckier 181). These policemen were called "Bow-street runners" after the metropolitan police station located on Bow-street, near Covent Garden, in London (OED, "Bow-street").

Guinea: Miss Havisham's gift of a guinea to Pip in Chapter 17 is a gift of slightly over a pound (21 shillings, where 20 shillings equaled a pound). For the significance of this coin as Miss Havisham's legal tender, see the note on guineas in Issue 4.

Journeyman: Orlick, whom "Joe [keeps] at weekly wages" (Ch. 15), is a journeyman -- "One who, having served his apprenticeship to a handicraft or trade, is qualified to work at it for ... wages; ... a qualified mechanic or artisan who works for another. Distinguished on one side from apprentice [like Pip], on the other from master [like Joe]" (OED, "journeyman"). Alternate definitions of "journeyman" give a more proverbial flavor -- "One who is not a 'master' of his trade or business"; "One who drudges for another; a hireling, one hired to do work for another." Perhaps the condition implied by these alternate definitions is a contributing factor to Orlick's ill temper.

Newgate: When Pip says that "when Mr. Wopsle got to Newgate [in his dramatic reading], I thought he never would go to the scaffold" (Ch. 15), he refers to the trajectory of prosecution in London: Newgate Prison, part of the complex of legal buildings in London called the Old Bailey, stood near the Sessions House, where trials were held. As it is described in Tallis's Illustrated London (1851-2, vol. 1), its "front occupies nearly one entire side of the Old Bailey, and extends to Newgate-street, of which it forms a corner" (27). In the case of conviction and execution, prisoners were taken from captivity in Newgate and hanged publicly in front of the Old Bailey.

Small-coal: Small-coal, according to the OED, refers to charcoal, "small or refuse coal," or slack. When Pip says he feels "dusty with the dust of small-coal, and [that he] had a weight upon his daily remembrance to which the anvil was a feather" (Ch. 14), he recalls the discomfort of his conscience according to the physical conditions of the forge.

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