Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Satis House

In Satis House, Dickens creates a magnificent Gothic setting whose various elements symbolize Pip’s romantic perception of the upper class and many other themes of the book. On her decaying body, Miss Havisham’s wedding dress becomes an ironic symbol of death and degeneration. The wedding dress and the wedding feast symbolize Miss Havisham’s past, and the stopped clocks throughout the house symbolize her determined attempt to freeze time by refusing to change anything from the way it was when she was jilted on her wedding day. The brewery next to the house symbolizes the connection between commerce and wealth: Miss Havisham’s fortune is not the product of an aristocratic birth but of a recent success in industrial capitalism. Finally, the crumbling, dilapidated stones of the house, as well as the darkness and dust that pervade it, symbolize the general decadence of the lives of its inhabitants and of the upper class as a whole.

The Mists on the Marshes

The setting almost always symbolizes a theme in Great Expectations and always sets a tone that is perfectly matched to the novel’s dramatic action. The misty marshes near Pip’s childhood home in Kent, one of the most evocative of the book’s settings, are used several times to symbolize danger and uncertainty. As a child, Pip brings Magwitch a file and food in these mists; later, he is kidnapped by Orlick and nearly murdered in them. Whenever Pip goes into the mists, something dangerous is likely to happen. Significantly, Pip must go through the mists when he travels to London shortly after receiving his fortune, alerting the reader that this apparently positive development in his life may have dangerous consequences.

Bentley Drummle

Although he is a minor character in the novel, Bentley Drummle provides an important contrast with Pip and represents the arbitrary nature of class distinctions. In his mind, Pip has connected the ideas of moral, social, and educational advancement so that each depends on the others. The coarse and cruel Drummle, a member of the upper class, provides Pip with proof that social advancement has no inherent connection to intelligence or moral worth. Drummle is a lout who has inherited immense wealth, while Pip’s friend and brother-in-law Joe is a good man who works hard for the little he earns. Drummle’s negative example helps Pip to see the inner worth of characters such as Magwitch and Joe, and eventually to discard his immature fantasies about wealth and class in favor of a new understanding that is both more compassionate and more realistic.

The Forge

Joe’s forge out on the marshes symbolizes the inherent goodness and respectability of Pip’s childhood and the opportunity it offers him to become a self-made man. Despite the threats of Mrs. Joe and the Tickler that Pip faces in his home, the space of the forge, with its large fire and associations with Joe, is warm and familiar. The light emanating from it makes stand out among the dark mists of the marsh, an image which symbolically suggests that life in the forge can offer Pip a path to happiness regardless of his surroundings. Of course, Pip himself “[believes] in the forge as the glowing road to manhood and independence” until Estella’s condescension convinces him otherwise. Although his perspective evolves and he aims to reject the forge, it remains a steady and strong anchor in his family’s world. The forge’s stability, which the metals inside it represent, contrasts significantly with the turbulent life Pip pursues in London. While Pip faces heartbreak, resentment, fear, and loss, the forge never loses its warmth and security.

Beyond the comfort and stability that Pip misses out on, his flight away from life at the forge also strips him from the opportunity of becoming a self-made man. The act of creation is ultimately at the heart of working in the forge, and, in addition to creating and shaping metals, Pip could have discovered his own sense of self while working there as Joe did. As Joe admits to Pip in Chapter 27, his identity is inextricably linked to his work as a blacksmith. This identity, however, allows him to feel secure and, more importantly, is one of his own creation. In contrast, Pip’s values and self-worth rely on the input and validation of others. When Estella leaves and Magwitch dies, the life that Pip tried to climb his way into falls apart around him. Pip may not have taken forge’s offer of a life with “sufficient means of self-respect and happiness,” but it continues to stand as a symbolic beacon of possibility throughout the novel nonetheless.