In my previous post, “Versions of Reality”, I suggested that there is no singular thing that we can call realistic mimesis, because people see reality differently. Realism is at best a family of styles, a family of attitudes. In this post I want to examine the edges of the realistic family in some passages of description from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The passage is long, but I think you need to read the whole thing to get the feel for what he’s doing. At the end I will add some comments, based on the three-part schema (synthetic, mimetic, thematic) that I’ve been exploring.
These passages come from early in the book, Chapter 8, when Pip is a young boy. He lives with his much older sister and her husband Joe. Joe is a blacksmith, and Pip expects to become a blacksmith himself. But one day he is invited to pay a visit to Miss Havisham, a mysterious recluse who lives in a large but decaying house and defunct brewery called Satis House. When he gets to the house, he is met by a young girl—Estella, who will be the love interest of the story. She takes him into the house and up a staircase and leaves him at a closed door. He knocks and enters and finds himself in a large room, with no daylight, but lit by candles. He notices various pieces of furniture, including a fine lady’s dressing-table.
“Whether I should have made out this object so soon, if there had been no fine lady sitting at it, I cannot say. In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see.
“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 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.
“But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the round figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone.
“Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.” (Chapter 8)
The strange lady, Miss Havisham, talks with Pip for a few minutes, and then she has him call to Estella so that the two children can play cards together. The description continues:
“It was then I began to understand that everything in the room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago. I noticed that Miss Havisham put down the jewel exactly on the spot from which she had taken it up. As Estella dealt the cards, I glanced at the dressing-table again, and saw that the shoe upon it, once white, now yellow, had never been worn. I glanced down at the foot from which the shoe was absent, and saw that the silk stocking on it, once white, now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without this arrest of everything, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave-clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud.”
A later visit reinforces that lesson. This time Pip is shown into another dark and airless room. Everything in this room is covered with dust and mould.
“The most prominent object was a long table with a table-cloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An épergne or centrepiece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest importance had just transpired in the spider community.
“I heard the mice too, rattling behind the panels, as if the same occurrence were important to their interests. But, the blackbeetles took no notice of the agitation, and groped about the hearth in a ponderous elderly way as if they were short-sighted and hard of hearing, and not on terms with one another.
“These crawling things had fascinated my attention and I was watching them from a distance, when Miss Havisham laid a hand upon my shoulder. In her other hand she had a crutch-headed stick on which she leaned, and she looked like the Witch of the place.” (Chapter 11)
The reader may figure out the backstory here, but it’s not until late in the book that Pip learns (from Herbert Pocket) the details: the young Miss Havisham had been jilted on the very morning of her wedding, while she was still getting dressed, and she has attempted to stop time at that moment. (There’s much more to the backstory, but the rest isn’t relevant here.)
Now for some commentary. I will take up the synthetic, the mimetic, and the thematic in that order. In this set of essays I’m concentrating on the mimetic, but I want to emphasize a point I have made before: these three aspects are simultaneous, and dividing them up is artificial.
The synthetic aspect: There are (at least) two ways of thinking about the synthetic aspect of this, or any, passage: how is the passage itself constructed? and how does it fit into the overall construction of the novel? The first kind I will call local synthesis and the second I will call global synthesis. I begin with a brief comment about the global synthesis of these passages. The plot of Great Expectations is very well constructed, it’s perhaps the best Dickens ever contrived, and Miss Havisham’s story turns out to be crucial to the plot in more than one way. It’s introduced early on, the first major episode after Pip’s encounter with Magwich, and it continues, in a way, to the very last page. The plot deserves a separate essay, but not here.
Now on to local synthesis. There are several verbal repetitions—of “white”, “jewels”, “sparkled/sparkling”, “bride/bridal”, “dress”, “brightness”, “figure”—as well as a striking example of anaphora—”Once, I had been taken…”. (Repetition is also part of the thematic aspect, since Miss Havisham is trying to create an endless repetition of one moment in time.) The contrast of “white” and “yellow” is particularly interesting. The usual antithesis of “white” is “black”, and towards the end of the passage we read about “black fungus”, but through repetition Dickens has created an antithesis between “white” and “yellow”, which serves as a contrast between something like “fresh” and “faded”.
Dickens hardly ever writes a “transparent” style, and he has not done so here. I’ve written extensively on Dickens as a stylist, so I will say no more about style here, but I will comment below on the synthesis of the mimesis.
The mimetic aspect: I picked this passage because its descriptions test the boundaries of realism. Dickens—Pip—begins his description by characterizing Miss Havisham as strange. He then shows her strangeness through objects which are the external manifestation of her internal being. Strangeness is relative to the norms of a narrative world—and relative to the manner of mimesis. We have seen in previous posts that Dickens freely admits metaphors and personifications in his descriptions—the skylight in Mr. Jaggers’ office is patched like a broken head and the adjoining houses seem to peer down at him—but this kind of strangeness is figural, not the reality of the world. In this description the strangeness of the woman he describes is real and not a figure of speech.
It’s impossible to separate the description of the things in Satis House from the description of Miss Havisham herself. Dickens is always good at linking objects and characters, and this is one of his best examples. The strangeness of Miss Havisham is reflected in the strangeness of the world she has created around herself.
The description is vivid. Vividness in traditional rhetoric is called “energeia”; I’ve always thought that this was one of the least useful of the rhetorical terms. What good does it do to say that a description is vivid? I want to know “How is it vivid? How does it achieve its vividness?”
The description is vivid partly because it is full of sensory detail: the rich fabrics, the sparkling jewels, the flowers in Miss Havisham’s hair, the confused heap of watch and chain and handkerchief and gloves and flowers and prayer-book around the looking glass, and then the table hung with cobwebs, the rotting feast, the mice, the speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies, the blackbeetles. Pip’s perception of all this is doubled: what seemed white at first now is yellow, the flowers are now faded, and the woman herself, once a young girl, is now like a skeleton.
Does this description count as realistic? The world inside Satis house is continuous with the world outside. There is no suggestion that the reader has been transported into another realm, a wonderland or fairy world. Nothing in these descriptions is impossible, but the boundary of the realistic is being tested. Pip begins his description by saying that Miss Havisham is strange, and he ends it by saying that she looked like the Witch of the place. He doesn’t directly say that Miss Havisham is a witch, only that she looks like a witch, and so he keeps just this side of fantasy, but he’s at the edge. You could imagine much of this description applied to a witch in a fairy tale.
The thematic aspect: The meaning of this passage grows directly from the mimesis, which in turn grows out of the synthesis. Miss Havisham has tried to stop time at the moment she learned she was jilted. She stops all the clocks (I am reminded of James Thurber’s great story “The Thirteen Clocks”) and she has refused to finish dressing. Her world is an externalization of her inability to move beyond that traumatic moment. She is stuck. But time moves on anyway. Miss Havisham’s clocks have stopped, but time’s inexorable arrow does not, and the result is the decaying and rotting world she has created around herself.