The landscape Pip describes seems to alter as he moves across it. In his nightmarish journey across the marshes to take provisions to Magwitch in Chapter 3 the finger post is all but invisible in the mist until it presents itself as ‘a phantom devoting me to the Hulks’. Gates, dykes and banks come ‘bursting’ at him and in his terror, he finds himself explaining his conduct to a curious ox.

A comparison of his carefully detailed account of his movements with a map drawn up in the 1820s reveals further optical illusions – the hulks Pip describes are almost certainly miles from where he places them and the finger post is also in the wrong place. But as his main reference points, the marshes and Rochester confirm the stark contrast he himself sets up between stifling gentility and brutal survival. Whether the 21st century visitor sets out on an actual ‘pilgrimage’ or follows Pip’s progress on a map, the fascination of these ‘mobile landscapes’ lies precisely in their ability to symbolise darkness and the guilt of impossible choices. The curated walk that follows offers one suggestion for how we might enter and interpret that lost world.

Philip Pirrip tells us in his very name that he is trapped in language. Hardly surprisingly the child cannot perform this tongue twister and reduces his name to an inarticulate stutter: Pip. According to this logic his full name must be pronounceable as ‘Pip Pip’, which would become a slang term for ‘goodbye’ in the twentieth century. As Joe will later say to him, ‘life is made of ever so many partings’1.

But the novel insists that Pip does have choices. He keeps his encounter with Magwitch a secret. He accepts the offer of a mysterious benefactor to transform him into a gentleman, largely in hopes of winning Estella. He puts up at the Blue Boar on his return from London rather than staying with Joe at the forge. The starkness of these choices is symbolised by the accusatory finger post at the end of the village. Pointing both towards town and in the opposite direction towards the marshes and the church, this signpost offers two mutually exclusive paths for Pip to take whenever he leaves the village. This road does not exist on maps of the time, or at least there is no road that obviously leads in both directions in the direct way that Pip suggests. The moral imperatives, which he will increasingly ignore, are symbolically mapped by the guilty character himself.

But even the village is an ambiguous and largely unprotected space. Going through it means passing the ‘school’ run by Mr Wopsle’s superannuated great aunt, who has taught Pip nothing at all, although it is the unlikely setting for his early relationship with the saintly Biddy (another of Pip’s poor choices is failing to fall in love with her). He must also pass the Three Jolly Bargemen, the pub where Joe enjoys an occasional glass of beer, but also where Magwitch’s mysterious emissary has ostentatiously shown Pip the blacksmith’s file. This pub will become the scene of Pip’s first condign punishment in the narrative, following his own apprenticeship.

In a resonant scene, Pip witnesses Joe’s defence of his wife when Orlick dubs her a ‘foul shrew’, and notes admiringly that even this ‘giant’ of an apprentice is unable to stand up to his normally gentle master in a fist fight. Immediately afterwards he visits Miss Havisham, who maliciously taunts him with Estella’s superior class status, and returns more ashamed of Joe than ever. Going home in the dusk, Pip is not surprised when Orlick, despite his great strength, accosts him in the mist to say that he has been waiting for company before braving the misty and unlit road home. Two more convicts have escaped from the nearby hulks and it is perfectly reasonable for the villagers to feel wary. But as they pass the Jolly Bargemen they learn that something has happened at the forge. On arrival they will find Mrs Joe prostrate on the floor, with an old leg iron lying near her.

But the finger post also conveys the boundaries of Pip’s world. The novel is imprecise about the location of the village, but it must be somewhere between Rochester and Cooling (around six miles to the north), and is widely believed to be Chalk. Pip’s description of the marshes conveys a huge expanse. When he first meets the convict Magwitch in the churchyard he is both terrified by the open space he must cover to get home, and conscious of the boundary line of the river far behind him. The river curves round to his right, marking the limits of his usual walk to the battery, and metaphorically charting the point beyond which the respectable citizen cannot go - moving East in this direction, an hour’s walk brings Pip and the soldiers, with the unsuspecting Joe, to the landing place where the hulks are stationed. In terms of mobile landscapes, here we have a prime example, a la Betsy Trotwood’s cottage, of a real landscape giving way to a fictional one. There is no evidence of hulks at Gravesend, though there almost certainly was a battery. The hulks Dickens would have seen would most probably have been at Chatham. He just chooses to move them a few miles westward up-river.

Little wonder that the route into Rochester seems more appealing. But here too there are obstacles and pitfalls. To reach Miss Havisham’s Satis House ‘up town’, Pip must first navigate the High Street. This means passing Pumblechook’s house and the provincial majesty of the Guildhall where he will feel like a convict himself when he is formally apprenticed to Joe, as well as braving the many watchful eyes of the town dwellers.

At Satis House itself Pip’s initial reception is humiliating. Mocked by Estella for his coarse hands and thick boots, he determines to become a gentleman and rid himself of these outward signs of low status. Estella’s own pretensions are undermined when it transpires that she is the daughter of a convict and a murderer. In a surreal twist to the story of this dignified young woman, Restoration House was bought and restored in the 1980s by entertainer Rod Hull and his irrepressible puppet Emu.

On a visit to the town after his succession to fortune Pip will be taunted by the unimpressed Trabb’s boy, who ducks in and out of the backstreets of the town to appear in front of him jeering, finally ‘crowing and pursuing me across the bridge with crows, as from an exceedingly dejected fowl who had known me when I was a blacksmith’. This untoward reception and final triumph of the tailor’s assistant over the product of expensive clothing ‘culminated the disgrace with which I left the town, and was, so to speak, ejected by it into the open country’2.

Later events will force Pip to reassess his own past and what it means to be a ‘gentleman’. Thackeray famously said that it took three generations ‘to make a gentleman’; Magwitch believes that through his hard work and self-denial he has ‘made a gentleman’; Pip’s unlikely counterpart Estella is the most obviously constructed character in the novel and herself has to be ‘educated for a lady’. A mature Pip will provide the only possible answer to this conundrum when he describes Joe as ‘this gentle Christian man’.

Pip himself seems about to come full circle in returning to the marshes with Magwitch as they row down the river from London. Towards the end of the novel he is not far from this point when he and his friends stop with Magwitch at the Ship Inn at the end of their abortive attempt to smuggle him out of the country. While Pip has never before seen this stretch of river he recognises at once that ‘It was like my own marsh country, flat and monotonous, and with a dim horizon; while the winding river turned and turned, and the great floating buoys upon it turned and turned, and everything else seemed stranded and still.’3 But his return is thwarted when Magwitch is hunted down by Compeyson and dies of his injuries, possibly compounded by a river infection. A sadder and wiser Pip finally realises what Joe was trying to tell him years before - there is no way back save in the imagination.

This curated walk is also available as a video.


Magwitch is tried under the Bloody Code

Find more open access articles associated with Great Expectations through the JSTOR Understanding series here.

  1. http://www.literaturepage.com/read/greatexpectations-250.html 

  2. http://www.literaturepage.com/read/greatexpectations-273.html 

  3. http://www.literaturepage.com/read/greatexpectations-490.html