Dust and Time in “In Memoriam” and “Great Expectations”

While reading the beginning of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, I experienced a fair amount of anticipation with regards to meeting the infamously eccentric character, Miss Havisham. I knew that Miss Havisham would be dressed in her signature yellowed, grandiose gown since, when I was younger, my grandmother gave my brother a copy of Great Expectations that portrayed Miss Havisham and her interesting choice of dress on the cover. Indeed, when Pip first meets the iconic woman, he is confounded by her appearance and by the state in which the room she occupies is in. According to Pip, Miss Havisham is clad in all “satins, and lace, and silks” (Dickens 18) with white shoes, a fine assortment of jewels, a veil, and wears flowers in her hair. However, Pip also observes that all of these fine objects have either faded to yellow or have withered, as is the case with the flowers in Miss Havisham’s hair and Miss Havisham herself. Additionally, Pip notices that Miss Havisham only wears one shoe and that she has never worn the other, which rests on the table. As evidence of this lack of use, Miss Havisham’s stocking on her unshoed foot is worn away.

Prior to making these observations, Pip informs his audience that the clock and the watch in the room are permanently stopped at the particular time of “twenty minutes to nine.” Thus, Pip muses that, though time seems to have stopped for Miss Havisham, the effects of time, the yellowing of her clothes, the withering of her flowers, have persisted. Pip thinks to himself that Miss Havisham would crumble to dust with the “admission of natural light,” as he has heard to be the case with recently discovered ancient corpses. The word “dust” and the juxtaposition between Miss Havisham’s appearance and the clock and watch’s establishment of frozen time both cause me to think back to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam. The epic elegy mentions the word “dust” 18 times and it is often used to reflect themes of decay, loss, insignificance, and the relentless passage of time. The word “dust” seems to be serving a similar purpose in Great Expectations, as well. Indeed, the mention of “dust” demonstrates the effects and amount of time that has ravaged Miss Havisham’s outer appearance, presumably against her will, as the reader may be lead to assume that she has forcibly stopped time for the room’s clock and her own watch.

Furthermore, both Tennyson and Miss Havisham seem to be mourning the passage of time. In the case of Tennyson, it is known that In Memoriam discusses the tragic loss of Tennyson’s dear friend. The elegy laments the fact that Tennyson’s grief inevitably ebbs and flows, grows and fades, across the span of many Christmasses, in turn, causing Tennyson much frustration and chagrin. One can similarly assume then that Miss Havisham’s desire to stop time is spurred by a tragic incident from her past. However, as observed through Tennyson’s repetition of the word “dust” and Pip’s hyperbole that one beam of the sun would turn Miss Havisham to dust, the passage of time ultimately appears to “win” over Tennyson’s and Miss Havisham’s desire to preserve the memory of the past and what they have each presumably lost.

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