Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Dickens’s work is its structural intricacy and remarkable balance. Dickens’s plots involve complicated coincidences, extraordinarily tangled webs of human relationships, and highly dramatic developments in which setting, atmosphere, event, and character are all seamlessly fused.
In Great Expectations, perhaps the most visible sign of Dickens’s commitment to intricate dramatic symmetry—apart from the knot of character relationships, of course—is the fascinating motif of doubles that runs throughout the book. From the earliest scenes of the novel to the last, nearly every element of Great Expectations is mirrored or doubled at some other point in the book. There are two convicts on the marsh (Magwitch and Compeyson), two invalids (Mrs. Joe and Miss Havisham), two young women who interest Pip (Biddy and Estella), and so on. There are two secret benefactors: Magwitch, who gives Pip his fortune, and Pip, who mirrors Magwitch’s action by secretly buying Herbert’s way into the mercantile business. Finally, there are two adults who seek to mold children after their own purposes: Magwitch, who wishes to “own” a gentleman and decides to make Pip one, and Miss Havisham, who raises Estella to break men’s hearts in revenge for her own broken heart. Interestingly, both of these actions are motivated by Compeyson: Magwitch resents but is nonetheless covetous of Compeyson’s social status and education, which motivates his desire to make Pip a gentleman, and Miss Havisham’s heart was broken when Compeyson left her at the altar, which motivates her desire to achieve revenge through Estella. The relationship between Miss Havisham and Compeyson—a well-born woman and a common man—further mirrors the relationship between Estella and Pip.
This doubling of elements has no real bearing on the novel’s main themes, but, like the connection of weather and action, it adds to the sense that everything in Pip’s world is connected. Throughout Dickens’s works, this kind of dramatic symmetry is simply part of the fabric of his novelistic universe.
Throughout Great Expectations, the narrator uses images of inanimate objects to describe the physical appearance of characters—particularly minor characters, or characters with whom the narrator is not intimate. For example, Mrs. Joe looks as if she scrubs her face with a nutmeg grater, while the inscrutable features of Mr. Wemmick are repeatedly compared to a letter-box. This motif, which Dickens uses throughout his novels, may suggest a failure of empathy on the narrator’s part, or it may suggest that the character’s position in life is pressuring them to resemble a thing more than a human being. The latter interpretation would mean that the motif in general is part of a social critique, in that it implies that an institution such as the class system or the criminal justice system dehumanizes certain people.