A Feast for the Senses: The Significance of Meals in Dickens’ Great Expectations

In “A Feast For The Senses”, Tan Jia Hui explores the significance of meals in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Not only are meals significant in bringing out central themes in the novel such as family, social class, as well as charting the moral growth and development of the protagonist Pip, Tan observes how food is symbolic in defining various aspects of love, desire, social ambition, want, gratitude, charity, and sundry moral values. In comparing across mealtimes in the novel, we learn how these values can be summed up as good appetite without greed, hospitality without show, and ceremony without pride and condescension.

Meals, along with literary devices that allude or refer to the idea of them, hold symbolic value in Great Expectations. These meals are located on a spectrum of levels: they range from being materially rich, yet impoverished in spirit, to the opposing end, whereby they are characterized by pure simplicity, wholly lacking in any grandeur, yet compensated by the rich warmth of love, charity and spirit. The partaking and imbibing of foods and drinks do indeed evince genial, amicable settings, showcasing warmth in human interactions, imbuing them with a general sense of commemoration and grandness. Food is symbolic in that it is used to define various aspects of love, desire, social ambition, want, gratitude, charity, and sundry moral values—in Great Expectations, we find such values being summed up as good appetite without greed, hospitality without show, and ceremony without pride and condescension.

Firstly, meals are seen to function as Dickens’ critique on dysfunctional and exploitative familial relationships, subverting and perverting idealistic parent-child relationships, drawing on child exploitation, a preponderant thematic concern during his prolific career.  In the Gargery household, Pip is given sufficient food to fill himself, however this food is not given with love. Dickens juxtaposes Mrs Joe’s pincushion breast and her dispensation of bread, contrasting the former soft texture, with the latter’s forceful aggression, as seen from the violent diction used, ‘jammed the loaf hard and fast’, ‘using both sides of the knife with a slapping dexterity’, and ‘sawed a very thick round off the loaf’, connoting a forceful, unceremonious dispensation of the meal of bread-and-butter, symbolizing the utter lack of love in this meal: it is a meal meant to satiate physical pangs of hunger rather than to initiate or exemplify maternal warmth and love or familial interactions. Although Mrs Joe’s brusque and forceful characterization is caricatured to provide comic relief, her role as Pip’s surrogate mother-figure is symptomatic and evidently a grim attack by Dickens on the maternal image, complementing his critique on dysfunctional parent-child relationships. Similarly, maltreatment of Pip is seen during the Christmas feast, where acquaintances and relatives like Uncle Pumblechook are invited to. Ostensibly, one would expect a Christmas feast to be suffused with an air of joviality, warmth, love, generosity and true charity. The antithesis of this happens: through tactile imagery, ‘I was squeezed in at an acute angle of the table-cloth, with the table in my chest, and the Pumblechookian elbow in my eye’ we learn that Pip is thoroughly uncomfortable in his physical setting.His physical surroundings mirror his inner unsettled emotions—desperate to be ‘le[ft] alone’, this accentuates the intense discomfort Pip feels, rather than the expected warm, loving Christmas spirit. This thus elucidates Dickens’ critique on dysfunctional familial relationships whereby Pip is made to feel guilty for ‘contumaciously refus[ing] to go’ to his ‘grave’, thus subverting and warping the ideal loving parent-child relationship. However, Joe acts as a foil to Mrs Joe, with his superfluous provision and offering of gravy being symbolic of his love and care for Pip: the food is simple, yet full of warmth and compassion, thus acting as a counterpoint to this false ceremony of hospitality and giving embodied by Mrs Joe and Pumblechook respectively which otherwise characterized the Christmas dinner as such.

Next, meals are seen to function as Dickens’ critique on exploitative parent-child relationships, whereby parental figures like Miss Havisham and Magwitch are seen to use their children as vehicles to achieve their own selfish ambitions and desires. Rather than explicitly referencing to a meal between Miss Havisham and Estella, Dickens implicitly connects the idea and motif of meals to the duo’s relationship through the notion of hunger, where they share an almost parasitic relationship, with Miss Havisham living vicariously through Estella to attain her selfish desire to avenge herself by wreaking havoc on men. The motif of eating is brought out through employment of anaphora, ‘she hung upon Estella’s beauty, hung upon her words, hung upon her gestures’ and diction relating to consumption, ‘hung upon’, ‘reared’, ‘devouring’, ‘extorted’, connoting and bringing about an intense sense of hunger. Additionally, the motif of hands, when Miss Havisham kept ‘Estella’s hand drawn through her arm and clutched it in her own hand’, emphasizes the close proxemical distance between the duo, and this tactile imagery also creates a sense of dependency on Miss Havisham’s part, where she feels the need to assert her control by ‘clutch[ing]’ Estella, feeding off the stories Estella tells her, firmly rooting the notion of a parasitic relationship. The selfish, manipulative diction in Pip’s narration of Miss Havisham, ‘malicious’, ‘lose’, and ‘revenge’, reveals her ultimate aim of exploiting Estella to capture and shatter the hearts of men.  She feeds her hunger and need for vengeance by exploiting her adoptive daughter, Estella as a vehicle to satiate this desire of hers, establishing the dysfunctional and exploitative parent-child relationship they share, subverting her supposed intended role as a figure of maternal affection, care and love. Mirroring such an exploitative parent-child relationship is the one Magwitch and Pip share, on account of Magwitch’s molding of Pip to fulfill his own selfish desires in attaining vengeance against an unjust social system.

Next, Dickens also condemns social class being used as a basis for biased treatment, through the juxtaposition of the Christmas meal and the personal meal shared by Pip and Pumblechook. During the Christmas dinner, when Pip is still seen as being fortune-less, Pumblechook employs repeated use of imperatives such as ‘be grateful’ to command and reproachfully order Pip around, similarly employing the same derogatory addressing term ‘boy’ to refer to him. However, this sense of importance and social superiority that Pumblechook blatantly possesses is juxtaposed with his obsequious behavior to Pip during the meal at his house after he has found out Pip’s rise in social position brought about by his ‘great expectations’. Pumblechook’s unctuous behavior is seen in the employment of repetition, where he repeatedly asks ‘May I?’ to shake hands with Pip, with the motif of hands acting as a symbol of intimacy, of sociability between the two parties. Shaking hands with Pip establishes Pumblechook as being on familiar terms with a gentleman, thereby elevating his own self-importance and social class by association, exerting his social ambition. His intimate addressing of Pip as his ‘dear young friend’ starkly contrasts with his previous superior commanding of Pip as ‘boy’, rendering his flattering and celebrating as a travesty of the love feast. Verbal irony is employed through Pumblechook’s assertion that he has always said of Pip, ‘That boy is no common boy, and mark me, his fortun’ will be no common fortun’ ’, inciting humour as his pretentiousness is glaringly obvious. This meal is rendered to be a comic situation, whereby Pumblechook’s hypocrisy and turn-about in character is ludicrously contemptuous, evincing Dickens’ condemnation of social class being used as a basis for biased treatment. The two meals—the Christmas dinner and Pumblechook’s hosting of the dinner both offer and provide rich, sumptuous food; with the latter meal boasting of wine, chicken, and tongue had round from the Boar, and are also similar in that they are symbols of sociability, given the amount of visitors and special seasonal celebratory occasion for the former, and the repeated ‘warm’ interactions between the characters in the latter. Yet, the Christmas dinner is seen to be a false ceremony of hospitality and generosity, while the private dinner is seen to be symbolic of greedy desire—a love for social ambition and mobility, also being symptomatic of a false ceremony of love: the celebratory meal of Pip’s great fortune before he leaves for London proves to be devoid of any true love, but is rather characterized by Pumblechook’s hypocrisy and appalling sycophantic behavior.

Lastly, in the novel, Great Expectations, meals are seen to function as symbolic markers of time, charting Pip’s moral growth and development. The motif of meals is brought out through the two parallel meals Pip share with Magwitch, and they are juxtaposed by how the meals work in almost antithesis of each other. The first meal is characterized by the poor physical setting of the marshes, but is filled with graciousness and fraternal love for a poor human soul. The visual imagery and animalistic diction associated with Magwitch, ‘strong sharp sudden bites’, ‘snapped up’ is summed up with Pip’s eventual determination that ‘in all of which particulars he was very like the dog’. It is apparent that Pip’s naïve comparisons to the dog neither hold social implications nor denote social superiority. Despite the host being terrorized, and the guest being pushed to the precipice of desperation, Pip gives with love and charity, ‘I am glad you enjoy it’ qualifying this meal as a ceremony and proof of sociability because of the love, generosity and gratitude which suffuse it despite the two being utter strangers. Pip’s social innocence and accepting love is evidently compromised in the parallel second meal, when Magwitch discloses the identity of Pip’s benefactor to be himself, causing it to form a perfect antithesis in that the physical setting is much more luxurious and grand, yet the spirit of the meal is incontrovertibly spiritually and emotionally impoverished. Again, animalistic diction ‘ravenous way’, ‘strongest fangs to bear upon it’ is used to associate Magwitch to a dog, but this time, the reference is noted with repulsion and disgust, with the food no longer sauced with ceremony. The repetition of the uncouth eating, the hunger, and the comparison with the dog from the first meal on the marshes evince the dichotomous juxtaposition between the two meals: in the first, young Pip gives love generously in the meal that is unceremoniously demanded of him by a pure stranger, while in the second, the older Pip treats his benefactor who has provided him with all that he has with utter contempt, marking the moral and behavioral change in him, highlighting Dickens’ demonstration of  the moral corruptions of the upper-class society into which Pip has successfully moved, whereby class boundaries and social superiority transcend the moral values of charity, love and generosity, suggesting that just as his class position progresses, so too, do his morality and values regress, in terms of the conspicuous shift in his treatment and perception of others. Next, the meals Joe and Pip share are seen to function as symbolic markers of time, charting Pip’s moral growth and development. Once he has left for London, he begins to lose sight of his moral compass and moral superiority of the person who had hitherto been most important to him, his loving but child-like father, Joe.  Through Pip’s severe lapses in both judgement and behavior, Dickens demonstrates the corrosive nature of the upper-class society into which Pip has successfully moved. When Pip and Herbert are entertaining Joe to breakfast, Pip’s failure in hospitality is made apparent, ‘I had neither the good sense nor the good feeling to know that this was all my fault’, with his innate embarrassment of Joe, which even Joe recognizes, ‘You and me is not two figures to be together in London’, exemplifying the greater social gulf and shame that such social progression brings. Joe functions as the paragon of moral excellence, despite his vernacular tone in dialogue, something which Pip only understands nearing the end of the novel. Yet, this ‘embarrassing’ meal is juxtaposed with how tenderly Joe cared for Pip when he fell ill, despite the implicit simplicity of the meal, consisting of ‘wine-and-water’, and ‘supper’. Pip’s reaction to this meal is most telling of all, with his gratitude and epiphany arising from the care Joe devoted him: Pip’s realization ‘I feel thankful that I have been ill, Joe,’ with Joe’s response that Pip has ‘a’most come around’ is symbolic. Although he has indeed been literally physically ill, so have his moral condition and values symbolically equally deteriorated. It is through the ceremonial love meal that Joe loyally provides that Pip’s moral condition is restored, resulting in the motif of meals illuminating how the journey that Pip has undergone encapsulates the novel’s essential moral theme—that it is the inner quality of the individual that really counts, not the eminence of their social position.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Ed. Margaret Cardwell. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. Oxford World’s Classics.


TAN JIA HUI is currently a sophomore at Yale-NUS College. A fan of both Dahl and Dickinson, she enjoys a medley of high and lowbrow literature on the side. Her previous works have appeared in The Straits Times, Prestige Magazine, The Octant and poem anthologies amongst others.

Photo credit: Rachel Eng