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.



The coroner, in Mr. Wopsle's hands, became Timon of Athens; the beadle, Coriolanus: Wopsle, dramatizing an account from the paper of a "highly popular murder" and its aftermath (Ch. 18), performs the coroner and the beadle like the title characters in two of Shakespeare's plays. In Timon of Athens, Timon -- formerly a wealthy man -- becomes embittered when he experiences a reversal of fortune and discovers that none of those to whom he was previously generous will help him; he becomes a hermit and a misanthrope. In Coriolanus, the title character is a successful but haughty Roman general. He returns to Rome after conquering the Volscians, but find that his unpopularity -- he is scornful of the people -- causes the Romans to banish him. He then leads the Volscians against Rome, but relents when his mother, wife, and children are sent to plead with him. The Volscians, however -- despite a treaty made in their favor with Rome -- view his retreat as a breach of promise, and kill him. Wopsle's coroner is apparently misanthropic; his beadle is apparently haughty and overbearing.

The rich man and the kingdom of Heaven: The passage that Pip hears read out in church is from the gospels, either Matthew (19:24), Mark (10:25), or Luke (18:25). According to the version in Matthew, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

Mother Hubbard's dog whose outfit required the services of so many traders: The children's book The Comic Adventures of Mother Hubbard and Her Dog gives the story of Mother Hubbard and her "Favorite Animal." The book begins with the still-familiar rhyme, "Old Mother Hubbard / Went to the Cupboard / To give the poor Dog a bone; / When she came there / The Cupboard was bare, / And so the poor Dog had none." The rest of the story, in verse, concerns Mother Hubbard's efforts to equip the dog with bread, a coffin (when she finds him playing dead), tripe, beer, red and white wine, fruit, and various garments. For the latter, she goes to the tailor, the hatter, the barber, the cobbler, the sempstress, and the hosier's -- hence Pip's reference to the "services of so many traders." The following illustrations, from an 1832 edition of the story, show Mother Hubbard's attempts to clothe her dog.



Flip: Flip is a hot alcoholic beverage -- a "mixture of beer and spirit sweetened with sugar" (OED, "flip").

Liver wing: The liver wing, a choice cut of meat, is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the right wing of a fowl, etc. which, when dressed for cooking, has the liver tucked under it."

Transported a long way off: Imperial England sentenced many of its convicts to transportation -- deportation to its colonies. After 1776, America's declaration of independence meant that England could no longer send its convicts there (Mitchell 486); thus, starting in 1787, convicts were transported mostly to the penal colonies of Australia. New South Wales and Van Dieman's Land were the two largest (Australian) colonies, though small penal colonies also existed on Norfolk Island -- a volcanic island off the coast of Australia -- and in Bermuda ("Report [of 1838] from the Select Committee on Transportation" 603).

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