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Essay: Dickens and Brontë – childhood / pillar of identity

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  • Dickens and Brontë - childhood / pillar of identity
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The use of hindsight within the first person narration is an effective technique in both novels. In addition to providing distinctly clear detail surrounding events, it also presents a perspective garnered by maturity that a child would not have had. In Jane Eyre, this maturity is demonstrated through the language and the complexity of the ideas used.

However, Dickens mostly attempts a realistically childlike and basic narrative in Great Expectations than Brontë. In his use of language, Dickens utilises structured childlike, exhaustive listing of events. For example, he writes ‘He turned it about in his mouth much longer than usual, pondering over it a good deal, and after all gulped it down like a pill.’ Typically the tone changes to one that is of far greater intricacy, often to something directed at the audience of the period or an adult joke, such as referencing the ‘moneybox into which all my earnings were dropped. I have an impression that they were to be contributed eventually towards the liquidation of the National Debt’ . As a result of this, Dickens could be considered less loyal to his characters true characterisation than Brontë is, as he consistently introduces his own personality into his main character’s thoughts and dialogue.

Though, this does not imply that the authors wrongly applied these techniques in their books; perfect memory of the past is an accepted convention of first person narration, and is not unrealistic. However, it is worthy to note that though many authors draw attention to differences between childhood and adulthood, and the significance of transitioning between, in Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, Pip and Jane are treated more like adults than children. Dickens and Brontë use the same tone and dynamic throughout regardless of the age of the protagonists at that point in the novel. This is likely a comment on the period in which the books were written. Current culture often depicts children as being without much or any morality; specifically early on when children lack empathy that adults tend to possess. Contrastingly, in Great Expectations and Jane Eyre, Pip and Jane are depicted as very moral beings. Interestingly, the deterioration of morality occurs later in life for Pip.

This can be witnessed at the beginning of Jane Eyre. Although still young, Jane expresses strong moral feelings against the injustice she suffers at Gateshead. She states ‘”Unjust – unjust!” said my reason, Forced by the agonizing stimulus into precocious though transitory power ’ . One might argue that Jane’s moral development is as a result of the challenges she faces. This is a stark juxtaposition since the same moral conviction proves to be one of her greatest assets in the future. In Great Expectations, Pip’s moral code is more ubiquitous than is his strict accordance to it. For example, when Pip steals the file and brandy from the forge and the pantry, his conscience will not allow him to ignore his transgressions. He tells us ‘I got up and went down stairs; every board upon the way, and every crack in every board, calling after me, “Stop thief!” and “Get up, Mrs Joe!”’ We see this again within his lies to Mr Pumblechook and Mrs Joe Gargery when, after hearing them explain his outrageous lies to Joe, he is moved to confess, although only to Joe. This shows, for Pip, it is only those who behave with moral correctness who deserve moral treatment, and it is this realisation that drives him to him confess to Joe.

In both books, the purity of childhood is a shared notion. The fact that Jane and Pip’s strong moral alignment as youngsters draws attention to the corruption of adulthood and somewhat the supposed intrinsic goodness of children. This comparison is made overtly in Great Expectations through Pip’s growth from childhood into adulthood. Upon returning to the moors, he greets characters from his childhood with conceited resentment and his morality wavers.

Another distinct parallel between the tales is identified within the protagonists both being orphaned. Both raised begrudgingly by relatives. In Pip’s situation it is ‘by hand’ of his ruthless sister, and for Jane it is by the cold-hearted Mrs Reed at Gatehouse manor, where she is seen as nothing more than a ‘dependant’ . Identity and family are prominent themes in the novels, with vagueness clouding the origins of the children: the wish of Jane’s father upon his deathbed that she should be taken care of by Mrs Reed and the fact that Pip’s sister was designated responsibility for his upbringing.

Jane and Pip both suffer at the hand of those assigned a duty of care to them, and there are noticeable similarities between the two. Whilst Jane is supposedly cared for at Gateshead, she is ‘trodden on severely ’ by her antagonist Mrs Reed. As a result of a life-altering change, Jane is able to leave and gain freedom from the oppression at Gateshead manor, which she suffered under the roof of. ‘”Good-bye to Gateshead!”’ is her subtly joyous exclamation as she journeys to Lowood School. Despite this change, it cannot be said that she does not endure hardship or encounter injustice at Lowood, but there she does find friends, whereas at Gateshead it was quite the opposite scenario.

Similarly, Pip is repeatedly berated by his sister. Mr Wopsle and Pumblechook through their self-righteous rule also have a significant impact on Pip. Pip is able to take solace in Joe, who is a character of simple nature but in great kindness we hear that ‘he always comforted me when he could, in some way of his own’ . There is a powerful similarity in that Pip and Jane may both be downhearted and worn away but they are not without their supporters.

Aside from their family, Jane and Pip have minor contact with other children. In early life, Jane lives with the two daughters of Mrs Reed and her older son, and later she befriends girls from Lowood School. Pip on the other hand, does not have any explicit contact with other children at the beginning of Great Expectations. It is however implied that he does know other children, when he meets Estella and the pale young gentleman.

While staying at Gateshead, Jane is lonely and her experiences are unpleasant. She is a victim of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of John Reed. In one instance, we see the extent of his violence towards her as she states, ‘The volume was flung, it hit me, and I fell, striking my head against the door and cutting it. The cut bled, and the pain was sharp.’ Though Georgina and Eliza do not majorly contribute to Jane’s mistreatment, they shun her and speak against her to the other members of the household, including the help and her own mother. She is constantly far removed from the family life, as she describes when Mrs Reed ‘with her darlings about her’ sits on the couch and she is required to sit somewhere else until she can ‘acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition.’

Once she is free of Gateshead, Jane begins to associate and bond with other children, and is able to escape her previous oppression. On one occasion her past at Gateshead does return to haunt her; when Mr Brocklehurst calls her up in front of all the girls at the school when she accidentally drops her slate, saying ‘”no single deformity points her out as a marked character. Who would have thought the Evil One had already found a servant and agent in her?”’ , implying that she has ties with the devil and preaches falsehood. This introduces a new theme for the novel, one that remains at the forefront of the text: how events in the past and the ill effects that follow these have a direct impact upon life in the future.

Upon moving to Lowood and beginning to make friends with other girls there, it is easy to see that Jane favours being liked and worthy of being shown appreciation by Helen and Mrs Temple. She favours this occurring in poor living conditions and living a materially lower quality state of life than being hated and abused in a rich, luxurious environment by The Reeds. This creates a positive reflection upon her character, shifting the focus and tone the novel away from the bitter hatred of her oppressors and into a socially healthier intermediary stage in her life.

Pip’s introduction to Estella represents a lesser significant shift in the plot in Great Expectations than Jane’s move to Lowood. We are introduced gradually and in small amounts to Mrs Havisham and Estella, which creates tension and heightens the intrigue of Pip’s visits to the decrepit mansion. This plot element only occupies around half the text, with the remaining interwoven sections portraying Pip’s family life. In direct contrast to chronologically ordered introduction of Jane and Helen and the compatibility of their characters, Estella is not good, genteel and worthy, but instead sharp-tongued and spiteful. After Pip’s visits to Miss Havisham’s mysterious household come to a conclusion, he is significantly affected by Estella’s beauty and her scathing attacks on his common roots, calling him ‘”a common labouring-boy!”’ It is this slew of insults that motivates his resolve to become a gentleman and ‘oncommon scholar’ , with the aim of self-improvement becoming a theme at the forefront of both novels.

Jane too endeavours to improve herself and overcome her ignorance, putting into practice her ‘fondness for some of my studies, and a desire to excel in all’ . She proves to succeed in doing so, by the time she becomes a teacher she has risen ‘to be the first girl of the first class’ . The great expectations of both Pip and Jane aspire and achieve contrast significantly. Jane Eyre represents a feminist message from Brontë, and Great Expectations represents a moral one from Dickens.

After examining the relevant evidence, neither of these books could be argued to be dealing with childhood as a central theme, but it is a vital inclusion of the protagonists’ childhood that contributes to some of the largest sections of prose in each text. These features are an intentional and relevant addition by the authors, which help to serve the overall messages conveyed. Children offer a perspective through which Dickens and Brontë can portray the adult world and its hypocrisy with a view founded upon innocence, unaltered and free from the influence of preconceptions and expectations of adults. This technique is used to the detriment and downfall of the adult antagonist characters such as Mr Wopsle, Mrs Reed, Mr Pumblechook and Mrs Gargery. On the contrary, it is also used in emphasis of the beneficial and supportive adult characters such as Joe and Mrs Temple.

In conclusion, childhood is treated as the first and one of the primary pillars of the identity of our protagonists. Pip’s childhood is pivotal in the creation of his identity, which becomes so vitally important later, not only as a theme independently in Expectations. In Jane Eyre, Jane’s moral commitment and dedication to honesty and justice can be related to her mistreatment in childhood. This knowledge of her childhood allows the reader to her later actions in context, their influence from the past upon her present life and therefore, her identity.

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