Colonial Themes in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations

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The empire was a favoured topic of many Victorian novelists, and Dickens was no exception. Like many other authors, Dickens found it a useful narrative device - as Leon Litvack observes in 'Dickens, Australia and Magwitch' (Dickensian 93, 1998), the colonies could function as a kind of theatrical 'green room' from which characters could appear, or to which they could vanish having fulfilled their dramatic function. Either way, Britain's imperial hold of so many far-off places meant that characters could appear and disappear with impunity - if an English gentleman decided he would go to Africa, it was perfectly acceptable that he should do so. Hence we get Walter Gay's departure and return in Dombey and Son, the Micawbers' and Peggottys' emigration in David Copperfield and of course, Pip's 'getting away from it all' in Clarriker's in Egypt with Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations.

All these examples play very minor roles in Dickens' fiction - they serve as narrative devices and little else. However, one other consequence of Britain's colonial process - the policy of transportation - plays a far more fundamental part in Great Expectations. It is true, however, that, as Donald Simpson asserts in 'Charles Dickens and the Empire', the concept of transportation offered Dickens a perfect plot device - 'a transported convict exactly meets the need for a benefactor who can make a substantial fortune yet who has to remain anonymous, and of whom Pip will eventually be ashamed.The capital law against returning from transportation sharpens the impact of the later chapters, when Pip sheds his pretensions as well as his wealth.' Thus Dickens, like so many Victorian authors who used the colonies as 'places to transfer burned-out characters or from which to retrieve characters' (Jonah Raskin in The Mythology of Imperialism (New York:Random House,1971)), uses this aspect of colonialism as the dramatic cornerstone for his novel.

The fact that Dickens sees the peripheral...
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