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Understanding Great Expectations: Writing Elements of Charles Dickens

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 2/14/2012

Learn a little more about the writing style of Charles Dickens to gain a better understanding of Great Expectations.

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    The Writing Elements of Charles Dickens

    Charles Dickens' writing style may prove difficult for modern readers. A study of the writing elements of Charles Dickens, however, makes the novel more easily understood and more enjoyable. Keep in mind the following as you read.

    • Although Dickens' character descriptions are wordy, there are no wasted words. His wordiness is often used to create humor as are his characters' names--Wopsle, Pumblechook, Startop, for example.
    • Dickens' character descriptions reveal character traits: Orlick slouches, a sign of moral degredation; Jaggers has a long pointer finger, apt for a lawyer; Drummle looks like a spider, symbolic of his venomous nature.
    • Dickens uses first person narration. Keep in mind that the Pip narrating the story has grown and matured and reflects on events that happened years ago. Pip the narrator, therefore, is not the same as Pip the character.
    • Dickens uses archaic expressions (of course they were not archaic at the time). Read a copy of the novel that has side notes and foot notes to help you with words no longer in use.
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    Styles & Themes Used

    Once you understand these Dickens' stylistic devices, you'll be writing your own Great Expectations Study Guide:

    1. Irony - When reality contradicts what is expected.
      • "There's Matthew!" said Camilla. "never mixing with any natural ties, never coming here to see how Miss Havisham is!"
      • Matthew is the only one who actually cares for Miss Havisham and is not after her money.
    2. Hyperbole- An extravagant, and often outrageous exaggeration used for either humor or emphasis.
      • Jagger's pointer finger, Orlick's slouching, Mrs. Joe's red face, Pumblechook's pompousness, and Wopsle's incompetence are all examples of hyperbole.
    3. Paradox - A statement which contradicts itself. Although it may seem absurd, it often contains a normally hidden truth.
      • The felicitous idea occurred to me a morning or two later when I woke that the best step I could take towards making myself uncommon was to get out of Biddy everything she knew.
      • Pip going to someone as common as he to become uncommon is a paradox; we discover later, however, that Biddy's wisdom is superior to any one Pip befriends as a gentleman.
    4. Allusion- A reference to a mythological, literary, historical, or Biblical person, place, or thing.
      • Dickens alludes to many London landmarks in his narrative. Use footnotes and sidenotes to make sense of them.
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    Literary Devices

    1. Parallelism - The use of identical grammatical constructions in corresponding clauses or phrases.
      • In a most irritating manner he instantly slapped his hands against one another, daintily flung one of his legs up behind him (both phrases have adv, past tense verb, prepositional phrase), pulled my hair, slapped his hands again, dipped his head, and butted it (past tense verb, direct object) into my stomach.
    2. Anaphora - The deliberate repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of several parallel clauses or paragraphs.
      • A man with no hat and with no shoes and with an old rag tied around his head.
    3. Epistrophe - The deliberate repetition of a word or phrase at the end of several parallel clauses or paragraphs.
    4. Antithesis - Placing contrasting ideas side by side using parallel structure.
      • So new to him; so old to me; so strange to him; so familiar to me.
    5. Polysyndeton - Using several conjunctions in close succession, especially where they are usually replaced by commas.
      • A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars.
    6. Asyndeton - a style that omits conjunctions between words, phrases, or clauses.
      • The winking lights upon the bridges were already pale, the coming sun was like a marsh of fire on the horizon.