Pre 1900 Prose Assignment - Charles Dickens

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Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on 7th February 1812 in Portsmouth. He was the second eldest of the eight children of John Dickens, two of those eight died in childhood. John Dickens was a clerk in the Naval Pay Office, but he was occasionally brought into debt even though he was hard-working. Charles Dickens spent his early childhood in Portsmouth, London and Chatham as his fathers work took him from place to place. In 1823, Charles was employed in a blacking business to help out with the family’s financial disaster.

Just before this, John Dickens was arrested for debt and not long after the whole family, with the exception of Charles, joined him in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. The Monthly Magazine was the magazine where Dickens’ first story, ‘A Dinner at Poplar Walk’ was published. A year later Dickens becomes a reporter on the Morning Chronicle and not long after that he got engaged to Catherine Hogarth. In 1836 he marries Catherine.

Dickens was soon a father of a son, the first of ten children, following ‘The Pickwick Papers’ publication.

The Dickens family then leave for Italy, Switzerland and France in 1844, but he returns to London briefly to read ‘The Chimes’ to friends before its publication in December. Seven years later, his father dies, during in which time he had moved back and forth from London, Italy, Switzerland and France. Dickens’ mother and his son Walter die in 1863, five years after his separation from his wife. In 1867, Dickens started to become very ill and it got worse and worse for the next two or three years until he died on 9th June, collapsing at Gad’s Hill, aged fifty-eight.

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Charles John Huffam Dickens was buried in Westminster Abbey. In this essay I am going to examine the techniques used by Charles Dickesn to create atmosphere and character in ‘The Signalman’ and extracts from Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. ‘The Signalman’ is a short story by Charles Dickens. It was published in 1866 and the terrible train crash Dickens was involved in at Staplehurst, Kent, a year before had inspired him to come up with this story. The story is told in first person by the narrator and starts with his first encounter with a signalman working in a solitary and dismal place.

They talk about the signalman’s post and his present job, however, on leaving, the signalman admits that he is troubled and they agree to meet again the following night. The next evening, the signalman tells that he sometimes sees a spectre near the entrance of the tunnel warning him by waving and shouting “For God’s sake, clear the way! ” He says that he has seen the same thing twice before, each time shortly before a tragedy involving death. After leaving the signalman, the narrator decides to take him to a doctor next time he is off duty.

When he goes back to the Line, however, he sees other men around. They tell him that the signalman was killed by and engine because he was not standing clear to the lines and did not react to the whistle no the waving and shouting of the driver. The spectre, the narrator and the engine driver had all waved ad shouted the same words. ‘Halloa! Below there! ‘ is the first sentence of ‘The Signalman’ and Dickens uses assonance to create an echo sound as if the narrator was in a tunnel. This sentence, therefore, cleverly allows Dickens to introduce the setting immediately.

All the way through the story Dickens uses lots of personal pronouns such as he and him, ‘When he heard a voice thus calling him,’ doing this he forms an atmosphere of mystery. ‘Where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly over his head,’ gives an important perspective of how steep the descent will be when the time comes for the narrator to make his way down the cutting. Also it makes it sound dangerous and inhospitable. When the narrator uses the words ‘foreshortened and shadowed’ it makes you think that the signalman is sly and evil, but then you realise that the sunset did not shine down the ‘trench’.

This again creates an unsafe and hostile feel to the setting. Dickens sometimes uses the surroundings to reflect the state of mind of the characters and so ‘an angry sunset’ could mean that the narrator or the signalman was angry, this is personification. Using this imagery, he has therefore created this scene in the evening, when darkness is about to fall. ‘A vague vibration in the earth and air’ creates description from the use of the senses. It suggests that there is something dangerous in the distance. Then it follows that on with ‘a violent pulsation’ hinting that the danger is coming ever close.

After that ‘an oncoming rush’ and ‘vapour’ rising sounds as though it’s an earth-shaking monster, and the vapour is like smoke from a mouth. They are all violent hints that there is a hostile creature but really it’s the effect of a train. Dickens uses phrases such as ‘a rough zigzag descending path’ and ‘the cutting was extremely deep’ to make it sound a hazardous place and a very deep descent. Also the word ‘unusually’ creates a sense of this place being out of the ordinary and sounds as though the narrator is leaving the natural world, thereby introducing the reader to the idea of the supernatural.

It was made through a clammy stone that became oozier and wetter as I went down’. The words clammy, oozier and wetter are all damp, slimy words and they describe the cutting as dull and depressing, which gives an unpleasant impression of the place. This makes the reader feel uneasy about the setting. Furthermore, if you look back tot the previous quotation, Dickens makes it more and more negative as the narrator descends. The signalman is described as ‘a dark sallow man with a dark beard… ‘ Repetition of the word ‘dark’ creates an idea that the signalman is evil and dangerous; death is related to darkness as well.

His post has been written as a ‘solitary and dismal’ place, giving a feeling that he is lonely and his job is very remote. The line ‘a dripping wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky. ‘ is used to make the signalman appear as if he has been imprisoned in his job. It describes the setting in a degrading way. ‘Great dungeon’, again shows that he has been imprisoned by his job. This makes the reader wonder what he has done to deserve his ‘sentence’. Also the quotes: ‘a gloomy red light’, ‘the gloomier entrance’, ‘a black tunnel’ relate to the word dark.

The setting of the line reflects the description of the signalman, making the reader feel uncomfortable and anxious. The words ‘barbarous’, ‘depressing’, ‘forbidding’ and ‘deadly’ are used to make the setting seem even more dangerous than before and like the narrator shouldn’t be there. Later on in the story, when the signalman gives his account of when he saw the spectre, Dickens created a sense of confusion by using lots of question marks: ‘What’s wrong? What has happened? Where? ‘ Dickens has used many techniques to generally create a dangerous and hostile atmosphere.

This was very effective by creating suspense and linking the setting with the ‘dark’ signalman. Also he set the scene and setting at the very start of the story. In ‘The Signalman’, there are just the two characters, the narrator and the signalman. The signalman himself is described through the observations of the narrator, so we get a second hand view of him. ‘The monstrous thought came into my mind as I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man. ‘ The narrator is more difficult to get a picture of as the reader has to look at what he says and how he says it to find out the type of character he is.

The narrator is in the dark about some aspects of the story as first person is the kind of narrator being used. This adds tot the atmosphere of mystery and suspense. The signalman, through the narrator, chose his words and replied carefully, which seems as though the signalman was well-educated and intelligent. ‘He replied to my remarks with readiness and in well-chosen words’. He explained to the narrator that he was a student of natural philosophy, but had made many mistakes and didn’t come back from them ‘but he ran wild, misused his opportunities, gone down, and never risen again.

Himself saying this must mean he understood what he had done and didn’t have any complaints. This furthers the reader’s confusion about his character. ‘I had proved the man to be intelligent, vigilant, painstaking, and exact’, this was how the narrator described the signalman from what he knew. He seemed trustworthy, unless it got out of hand, and wanted to help the signalman. Great Expectations was first published weekly in 1860 and finished in 1861. In Chapter 1: ‘Appointment Made’, Pip visits the graves of his parents and five brothers.

A strange convict leaps out at Pip and orders him to bring food and a file the following morning. The convict threatens Pip that a “young man” will rip out his heart and liver if Pip does not carry out the orders. The first paragraph is Pip re-telling his past and recounting his childhood. ‘My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name being Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip. It tells us how and why he is now called Pip.

Pip sounds like a nickname given to a boy who is energetic, young and maybe a pickpocket, but in fact It was just given because he couldn’t pronounce his own full name. This sets his character out straight away. ‘I never saw my father or my mother’ lets us know that he is an orphan and this makes us sympathise with him. Pip is taken as imaginative and tries to think what his parents must have looked like by using unusual things to create an odd idea, ‘the shape of the letters on my father’s gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout dark man, with curly black hair.

The next paragraph is in 3rd person and is very effective in giving a wider picture. ‘And that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip. ‘ Also by using 3rd person in a 1st person story gives a different perspective to how Pip might feel, but can create confusion as well. The narrator in this paragraph gives an insight into the character and makes Pip sound more vulnerable than he already is. ‘Low leaden line beyond was the river’, alliteration appears in this and Dickens has created description from the use of the senses. The Signalman’ created description from the uses of the senses as well and this is one similarity in both extracts. ‘And that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip. ‘ This sentence finishes the 3rd person’s view on Pip and is one way in which Dickens has made him look vulnerable and weak. The story goes straight back into 1st person when the convict appears on the scene to confront Pip.

Dickens has most probably done this so we can see how Pip feels through his own mind and what he was thinking during the meet between him and the evil convict. Whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin. ‘ ‘”Hold your noise! ” cried a terrible voice’ starts the arrival of the convict in the story. It makes him sound impolite and intimidating straight away. ‘Hold your noise’ is a strange way to tell someone to be quiet and suggests that the story is set a long time ago and this helps set the scene for the whole story. The convict is described through the senses again and is seen as threatening and frightening, ‘all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg’ is one part of the description.

Other that make him seem menacing are; ‘old rag tied round his head’, ‘smothered in mud’, cut by flints’, ‘stung by nettles’ and also ‘who limped and shivered, glared and growled’. Pip reveals how frightened he actually is by saying ‘”Oh! Don’t cut my throat, sir. ” I pleaded in terror. “Pray don’t do it, sir. “‘ He uses the term ‘sir’ when talking to the convict and this gives an immediate effect of respect, or in this case fear. ‘”Pint out the place! “‘, ‘”what fat cheeks you ha’ got. “‘, ‘”and if I han’t half a mind to’t! “‘ are all quotations where an accent is visible from the convict.

An accent might create confusion as Pip might not be able to understand him and also lets us know he probably is foreign. When the convict asks where Pip’s mum was, and Pip answered ‘”There, sir! “‘ the convict, acting as though he wasn’t scared and was scary until then, runs away. This suddenly brings to mind that he isn’t as threatening as he was thought to be. ‘”Who d’ye live with – supposing you’re kindly let to live, which I han’t made up my mind about? “‘ The convict is re-affirming that he is still dangerous and delivers a threat if Pip doesn’t answer.

He makes an even greater threat not long after when he wants food and a file, ‘”You get me a file. ” He tilted me again. “And you get me wittles. ” He tilted me again. “You bring ’em both to me. ” He tilted me again. “Or I’ll have your heart and liver out. ” He tilted me again. ‘ The convict backs this threat up by scaring Pip when he ’tilts’ him back and back. In this extract, Dickens has again used effective techniques to create an atmosphere where Pip is frightened and vulnerable. At times, though, he has made the convict look slightly afraid and sometimes you feel sorry for him because of how he has been described.

The scene and setting changed as the extract went on, one part was when Pip was described as petrified in his point of view, and another was a different perspective of Pip. Also the convict, when he first arrives on the scene he is described as intimidating and a scary person but your opinion changes as the extract goes on. ‘The Signalman’ is quite a bit different to this extract from Great Expectations as Dickens doesn’t try and use the same techniques to create the same effect. Oliver Twist was one of Charles Dickens most popular novels and was first published between 1837 and 1838.

It centres on the hardship of the dispossessed and those of outside ‘civilised’ society. The extract that I am analysing is Chapter 47: ‘Fatal Consequences’ and focuses mainly on a discussion between Fagin and Bill Sykes, and then at the end of the chapter, Bill murdering Nancy. The first paragraph is basically a very long sentence; it is over five lines long and goes on to set the scene and atmosphere. ‘It was nearly two hours before daybreak’ tells us that it is still dark and darkness can be seen as where all evil takes place. This immediately sets a dangerous and frightening atmosphere, just like Dickens did with ‘The Signalman’. That time in which the Autumn of the year’. This backs up the evil part as autumn is barren and hibernation takes place. Dead is related to evil and darkness and the next quotation is just part of the description of the setting but we already know that the atmosphere is dangerous and scary. ‘May truly be called the dead of night’ is also very negative and nothing good is said. ‘The dead of night’ is personification and so is ‘sounds appear to slumber’. The first quotation ‘the dead of night’ could mean that at night everything seems dead as it could be ‘silent’ and maybe unsettling.

The next quotation ‘sounds appear to slumber’ suggests that because it was silent it felt that all sounds were sleeping and fits in with the danger atmosphere. Personification was used in ‘The Signalman’ so again this extract has similarities with the short story. Fagin was first described as though he was evil and dead, and went well with the description of the setting. ‘Fagin sat watching in his old lair, with face so distorted and pale, and eyes so red and bloodshot’ makes us create an image of Fagin which was quite frightening.

That he looked less like a man, than like some hideous phantom, moist from the grave, and worried by and evil spirit’ finishes of that fearsome picture of Fagin in our minds and describes him as though he had died long ago and risen up from his grave. Dickens uses ‘evil’ again to tell us about a spirit and this helps with the frightening atmosphere if the character is like it. Fagin is then portrayed as being an animal or monster, ‘he sat crouching over a cold hearth’, ‘his toothless gums’ and ‘fangs’ are all features or characteristics of an animal such as a dog. ‘”At last. ” He muttered, wiping his dry and fevered mouth.

At last! “‘ This quotation suggests that Fagin was expecting Sikes, but he might have been late. It could mean that Fagin is impatient. Sikes is described as soon as he comes through the door and creates an image of him being the brawn of the two, whereas Fagin is the brains. ‘The man displayed the burly frame of Sikes. ‘ ‘Bur he did not take his eyes of the robber’ shows that Fagin does not trust Sikes and shows that he fears him a bit. Dickens has given Sikes an accent ‘”Damme” said Sikes’, and this has made Sikes foreign, more dangerous as he is from another county and harder to understand.

Sikes lacks security, ‘feeling in his breast with a look of alarm’, which has made us feel that he is unstable and that he needs protection. It also shows that Sikes mistrusts Fagin as well. ‘”Nance will think I’m lost. “‘ Gives a little glimmer that Sikes is caring and humanises him to his first description. Fagin uses blackmail a few times to persuade Sikes ‘”What if I did it! ” cried Fagin, almost in a yell. “I, that know so much and, could hang so many besides myself! “‘ This blackmail is strong and is showing that what Fagin is trying to persuade Sikes to do is important.

Sikes changes back to his violent self after he is humanised and he makes brutal threats to match Fagin’s blackmail. ‘”And beat your brains out afore the people”‘ and ‘”that I could smash you head as if I a loaded wagon had gone over it”‘ are two quotations showing the violence in him. Dickens has gone further than Sikes being just violent and has also created an image that he is not even afraid of death, ‘”I’d do something in the jail that ‘ud get me put in irons”‘ This finishes our image of the character Sikes in our heads and it is a cruel aggressive one, no sign of the caring part as he is willing to kill anyone who betrays him. ”

When Sikes comes into Nancy’s room, Dickens makes Nancy feel vulnerable and we can sympathise for her. Even when Dickens uses ‘double-locked the door’ it shows that she wants some security. ‘The girl was lying, half dressed, upon it’. ‘Girl’ is used to again go further on her vulnerability and that she’s not a woman but a defenceless young girl. Nancy is said to be pleased with Bill’s return and she thinks of him as a guard or some protection, or it shows that she might love him, ‘with an expression of pleasure at his return. ‘

During the murder of Nancy, she was said to be praying on her knees and this helps for Dickens to make us feel sorry for her. Also ‘a white handkerchief’ makes her appear helpless and weak This extract from Oliver Twist has most of the atmosphere techniques at the start of it, so as to create an image of the scene as quickly as possible. ‘The Signalman’ and this extract are very similar in the techniques used to create atmosphere as Dickens is trying to build up a dangerous and evil place. Techniques used to create character are used throughout the extract and each character has been given different characteristics so there would be conflict.

Fagin is very sly and evil, Sikes is violent and aggressive and Nancy is vulnerable and weak. ‘The Signalman’ and Great Expectations both have two characters and centres mainly on the atmosphere and less on the them, whereas Oliver Twist uses techniques more to describe the characters. I found that ‘The Signalman’ and Oliver Twist were the more effective of the three. I think I thought this as there was a lot of detail on the atmosphere of ‘The Signalman’ and had conclusions to what the signalman was like, in his job and what is personality was actually like.

Oliver Twist went into great detail with the characters and I liked this as I could create an image of all three characters and then I imagined what the atmosphere was like around them after. Dickens in Great Expectations, though, didn’t use as many effective techniques to describe the characters. The atmosphere was being described through the use of the senses and there weren’t that many other techniques. This is why I thought that Great Expectations was less interesting and therefore less effective in building atmosphere and character.

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Pre 1900 Prose Assignment - Charles Dickens. (2017, Oct 14). Retrieved from

Pre 1900 Prose Assignment - Charles Dickens
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