Both Dickens and Plath use a variety of writing techniques to create sympathy for the two main characters – Pip and the narrator. Although the writing styles and settings are very different, first person narrative from a child’s point of view are used to effect in both stories to develop characters with which readers can identify.
This narrative perspective conveys emotions effectively from the opening paragraphs of both stories. Dickens’s Pip is first pictured sitting on a gravestone in an isolated churchyard, his loneliness and fear emphasized by his murky surroundings of death. His depiction of himself as a ‘small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all’ conveys his youth and innocence to the reader, immediately suggesting very early on in the novel just how unloved and isolated within his own vivid imagination Pip actually is. Plath uses the young narrator’s thoughts and dreams to create empathy in a very different way, creating a bright and happy atmosphere through simple, childish pleasures in the bright lights of an airport, and exciting ‘technicolour dreams.’ The security and happiness she takes so for granted is emphasized by Plath’s portrayal of her almost religiously significant dreams of flying – describing them as the girl’s ‘Jerusalem’ to convey her wide-eyed purity. Also, the depiction of her uncle as ‘Superman’ – a character who personifies safety and reliability – helps to highlight just how secure the narrator is, within her family and within her imagination and dreams.
Pip’s own family is gravely mentioned in relation to their tombstones, their descriptions based on ‘the shape of the letter’s on their graves. The childish and innocent misconceptions of death- something with which Pip is tragically familiar with at such a young age- are comical and also rather pathetic. Dickens uses them to emphasize the sad resignation of Pip to a life devoid of family security as well as the youth and dependence of his character.
The humour within Great Expectations is largely due to the sense of an adult looking back on his childhood, highlighting the darkly comic nature of Pip’s horror and vulnerability. The ability to judge the figures within his childhood with the eyes of an adult gives the reader a fuller and more rounded conception of the characters – Joe described ‘a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness’, and Mrs Joe depicted as a fearsome, ugly being with no shred of affection for the brother seen as no more than a burden and a duty. The way first person narrative is used gives a very biased view of events, creating a greater opportunity for Dickens to stir sympathy for Pip through his memories – and a persons’ memories are often distorted in favour of themselves.
Plath makes good use of this chance in the same way, the fear and isolation her character feels later on in the story contrasting poignantly with the security of the beginning. When the narrator is pictured ‘vomiting’ up the childish symbols of birthday cake and ice cream, their innocence only emphasizes the horror of the situation, as though she is losing the last shreds of her childhood and all the bright security that came with it. The isolation of the narrator, her loneliness and friendlessness is all the more poignant because of the loss of her colourful imagination and dreams, which Plath’s use of first person narrative made to seem very real.
The naivety of Plath’s narrator, her innocence and unquestioning belief in the world and her place within it, is used to provoke sympathy when this trust and contentment is shattered by the shadow of the Second World War. Plath uses this wartime setting to convey the tragedy of the end to childhood every person must face. The girl’s life is shaken to the core by the signs of war creeping into every aspect of her life. She describes practising for air raids in the cellar of her school , surrounded by crying children with the ‘bare ceiling lights on the cold black stone.’ Plath’s use of this hard, bare imagery captures the mood of the narrator when she talks of the eerie ‘threat of war,’ but it is when the character of Superman, who epitomizes the contentment and security she feels within her family no longer appears in her dreams, that the reader realises her childhood is gone. She laments that ‘no crusading figure came roaring down,’ and with this her innocence and trust in the world comes to an end, cruelly ripped away by the ruthlessness of war.
On one level, Plath portrays Paula’s bullying as an allegory of the persecution and horrific unfairness of war, scaled down to a level the narrator can understand. When she realises that her carefully constructed imaginary world can no longer protect her, it is as though ‘nothing held, nothing was left.’ The theme of war is vital in this story as a way to evoke sympathy for the little girl who is forced to realise that the world is not always as it ought to be, and her beloved family cannot always protect her.
Dickens’s Pip has never had any sense of family security, which makes his terror and guilt all the more pitiable. Great Expectations is set in an era where every family is steeped in death and illness, and Pip’s pathetic acceptance of how alone and unloved he is cannot but stir sympathy for him. From the morbid opening setting, the tone is set for a story filled with depictions of degeneration and death, the eerie Miss Havisham and the lonely end to the life of Pip’s beneficiary convict are taken in the stride of a character born in a society so used to the reality of death.
Everything was very rigidly divided into right and wrong in the days in which Pip grows up, corporal punishment considered necessary and fear seen as a proper incentive to doing good. In a society very much lacking of pity and softness, there were no moral scruples about human rights, pain or imprisonment. Pip is very much aware of this, and his intense horror at suddenly finding himself a thief leaves him with ‘no home of deliverance.’ He views convicts as personifications of evil, another race, and the awfulness of finding himself suddenly forced into this terrible category is very real to his childish mind. His place in the world now uncertain, he is in ‘mortal terror’ of himself, finding himself suddenly on the other side of what he knows as the very definite divide between right and wrong. Dickens makes full use of the harshness of his society to allow the reader to identify with his very human character; the misery Pip’s transgressions bring him evoking sympathy from readers who can undoubtedly remember how awful their own seemed to them at the time.
The words and imagery used by both Dickens and Plath emphasise the pitiable situations their characters find themselves in, the vivid pictures created causing the reader to realise the full extent of both Pip and the narrator’s misery and fear. The initial happiness of Plath’s narrator is highlighted by the use of bright colour imagery and the constant, comforting presence of Superman – whose importance in the girl’s life is portrayed by the childish imagery used to herald his arrival: ‘I could hear the wings of a hundred seagulls, the motors of a thousand planes.’ Superman is the narrator’s dream of flight personified, with the comforting loud presence of the uncle she loves so dearly and is used to symbolise her contentment.
Plath uses light and colour imagery to map the character development of the girl in the way in which children break events into simple forms such as good or evil, dark or light. In the beginning she talks about the ‘shooting stars’ of the beloved airport, which, always a sign that dreams will come true, convey the extent of her longing to fly. The lights that ‘blazed and blinked’ in her life symbolise everything that makes her happy, which causes her fear and isolation to seem much more pitiful when even the ‘bright squares of light’ of her home wink out and leave her with nothing but the ‘black shadow’ of war to haunt her shattered dreams. In the same way, Plath’s imagery of the ‘clear and definite’ colours of the beginning, the ‘technicolour dreams’ -which signify both the narrator’s view of life and her childhood itself – fade and dull as war creeps up on the world. When the story draws to a close the narrator’s perfect innocence and trust is ‘wiped away like the crude drawings of a child in coloured chalk.’ As colour symbolises her childhood, the loss of it signifies its end, and the dreams that once brought happiness are now recalled with a bitter disdain that the reader cannot but find pathetically sad.
Dickens, too, maps his plot with use of imagery- although much more subtly. From the opening paragraph, the imagery used to highlight Pip’s fear serves as a foretelling of his future, with signs of death, pain and imprisonment surrounding the frightened character. He describes the convict as ‘eluding the hands of the dead people, stretching up…to pull him in.’ Not only does this show how completely Pip views transgressors as inhabitants of a different, sinister world like to that of death itself,. but it refers to the future of the prisoner, as, indeed, his whole life is a flight from the gallows.
Imagery in Great Expectations often reflects the prevalent theme of death and the morbid view Pip has of the world. The pathetic fallacy Dickens uses in the graveyard is intensified by his character’s almost fevered view of the setting, the images of the misty ‘distance savage lair’ of the sea causing his vision to appear distorted and therefore much more frightening. The emotive language and physical descriptions Dickens uses emphasizes how small and helpless Pip is and how horrifically he is being treated by the fearsome convict. The fact that his terror only grows once the convict is gone heightens the sympathy the reader feels towards him, enforcing once again the terrible strength of the character’s imagination.
Imagery used to portray Pip’s family creates a sense of unfairness and insecurity in the same way as it does in the graveyard. Mrs Joe is depicted as having a face so red it seemed ‘she washed herself with a nutmeg grater instead of soap’ – a humorous observation with all the weight of grave childish innocence behind it that allows the reader to sympathise with Dickens’s character against the fearsome Mrs Joe. As with much of Dickens’s imagery, this has more than one meaning and implies a warped and angry character as well as an unfortunately ugly face.
Just as the imagery in both stories helps influence sympathy for the characters through the vivid pictures of their thoughts and dreams, the moral aspects heighten the sympathy felt because of the fear of Pip and the narrator, isolated within their vivid imaginations. Plath’s narrator sees herself as an outcast from society from the beginning, a sense of not belonging pervading even the opening paragraphs amongst her security and happiness. Describing herself as an ‘outlaw,’ the reader identifies with the narrator as somebody special and misunderstood, viewing the other children through the eyes of a girl whose imagination has perhaps turned her against her more than in reality.
Because of her initial isolation within her own peaceful world, the brutality for Paula’s treatment towards her is more of a shock, an indication that horror, on any scale, is not just limited to the far off lands of war. The ‘strange joy flickering’ in the eyes of the other children opens up the narrator’s mind to the twisted, animal aspect of human nature – something that hurts her much more than the shocking reality of the war video did. The unfairness and cold, calculated nature of the attack inspires indignant sympathy for Plath’s character, a girl who lives within her dreams and demands nothing of anyone With this incident Plath is hammering home the message of her story, that life – from war to the backyards of suburban America- is not always just.
This feeling only intensifies when the narrator escapes to the ‘bright squares of light’ of home, the only beacon of hope in a world swiftly becoming enveloped in darkness, and finds that even her family are not the omnipotent heroes she sees them as. The reader can only sympathise as the girl is forced to realise that the Superman of her childhood, the security and comfort of her dreams, are no longer within her control. The final bitterness of her wonderful uncle’s rejection is highlighted by Plath by his gentleness and love towards her in a bitter mockery of what the narrator once believed him to be – his face ‘featureless’ as though she doesn’t even know him anymore. When he walks away and shuts the door on her it is as though even her family are abandoning her to darkness. The narrator is forced to accept that there are not always happy endings, that the war seeping in through the cracks in her armour is evil and unfair but as unstoppable as Paula’s cruelty, and an ugliness that connect be remedied by dreams.
Pip, too, has his view of the world challenged by the events that take place at the beginning of Great Expectations. Near to the beginning some of the main themes are highlighted and their effects on Pip are seen from early on. The theme of guilt especially is used effectively by Dickens to provoke sympathy for his character, mainly due to Pip’s helplessness within the events he is forced into. At no point in the early chapters of the story does he question the truth of the morals drilled into him from his cradle, despite the horrible nature of Mrs Joe. This unquestioning trust only found in childhood makes his undeserved guilt more pitiable and the terrible light he sees himself under more pathetic. He describes his ‘effort of resolution’ as ‘quite awful,’ conveying the extent to which he is fighting what he sees as his awful fate. The fact that his fear defeats even such a strong sense of conscience depicts how enormous his fear is, and sympathy is evoked as the reader realises Pip has been forced to revoke such strong morals and beliefs by terrible forces beyond his control. Another method Dickens uses to evoke sympathy for Pip is through humour, an aspect unexplored in ‘Superman.’
The grave childish views of the world Pip has is often very comical, allowing readers to identify with him as a very human character with different aspects to his personality. Dickens makes use of hyperbolic fear to describe events such as the ‘winking’ hare, which not only provokes humour by sympathy for Pip, whose imagination often causes him to feel quite unreasonable fear. This imagination also evokes similar feelings of being an outcast as those felt by Plath’s narrator, especially within his family situation. Mrs Joe epitomizes Pip’s view of parental control and responsibility, her failings ruthlessly depicted by her younger brother.
Shhe is all he has to depend and rely on, his role model and guardian, and that she makes such a poor mother figure stirs empathy for the little boy treated so harshly. Pip has always been aware of the flaws in his family, by only at the end of the second chapter does he truly become aware of the flaws in himself, claiming his is ‘afraid to think’ of what he might have done under the influence of his fear. Pip later learns that a persons place in life is not always determined by their character and morals, but upon a rigid nobility ladder that condones ignorance and sin by will not tolerate poor parentage or less than aristocratic blood. The incident with the convict is the first step in teaching Pip of the harsh reality of the world, provoking more sympathy at his confusion as why even with the best intentions, he cannot always follow the path of good.
To conclude, both Dickens and Plath use similar techniques to create sympathy for their characters, manipulating the wide-eyed innocence of youth to covey the ways in which society alters humans and their morals just as much as humans alter society itself. Adults always assume that they understand the world better than their children, but when children first realise that everything is never as it ought to be, they fully understand the injustice of humanity best of all.