Wednesday, January 29, 2014

soaped, and kneaded, and towelled, and thumped, and harrowed, and rasped - the hygiene theme in Great Expectations

I will go one more day pretending everyone knows what happens in Great Expectations, perhaps because they read an extended summary of it in 10th grade.  An orphan, a convict, Miss Havisham, the Aged Personage, etc.  And the defense attorney Jaggers, who “smelt of scented soap” (Ch. 11).

Dolce Bellezza put a bar of soap atop her Great Expectations post, accompanied by a description of Jaggers washing himself: “he would wash his hands, and wipe them and dry them all over this towel, whenever he came in from a police court or dismissed a client from his room” (Ch. 26).   The narrator Pip identifies Jaggers with “the halo of scented soap which encircled his presence,” mentioning it the first two times Pip meets Jaggers, in Chapters 11 and 18, long before he actually sees him wash.  Dickens is planning his book in advance, finally.

Jaggers’s compulsive washing is very close to psychology, the only evidence that his life in a world of thieves, murderers and liars has any effect on him.  I have been told that Dickens characters are flat, are caricatures.

Pip, as a young boy, gets a taste of soap himself, when he is first cleaned up to visit Miss Havisham – “I was soaped, and kneaded, and towelled, and thumped, and harrowed, and rasped, until I really was quite beside myself” (Ch. 7).  His sister attempts to wash Pip’s life at the blacksmith’s forge, like Jaggers’s among the criminals, right off of him.  She is just about as effective.

Dickens ingeniously includes a scene with the same action but the opposite meaning.  Joe is Pip’s salt o’ the earth brother-in-law, the idealized Biddy a childhood confidante.  Pip, elevated to gentility, is being a snob about Joe:

“O, his manners! won't his manners do then?” asked Biddy, plucking a black-currant leaf.

“My dear Biddy, they do very well here – “

“O! they do very well here?” interrupted Biddy, looking closely at the leaf in her hand.

[skipping some leaf-free lines]

Biddy, having rubbed the leaf to pieces between her hands, – and the smell of a black-currant bush has ever since recalled to me that evening in the little garden by the side of the lane, – said, “Have you never considered that he may be proud?”  (Ch. 19)

Pip is sensitive to odors.  From “the quantity of people standing about smelling strongly of spirits and beer, I inferred that the trials were on” (Ch. 20).  Inside, some prisoners “went out chewing the fragments of herb they had taken from the sweet herbs lying about” (Ch. 56), herbs brought in by onlookers to cover the horrible stench.  Pip has described the odors earlier, “that curious flavor of bread-poultice, baize, rope-yarn, and hearthstone, which attends the convict presence” (Ch. 26), and again when he visits Newgate Prison in Ch. 32 (“I beat the prison dust off my feet…  I exhaled its air from my lungs”).  Simple association with criminals, or prison, is contaminating.  Pip can always smell it.

A lot of the odors in Great Expectations are not so tied to the thematic center of the novel, or I do not see how they are.  Just a page after that last quote, Pip takes his dreamgirl Estella out for a hideous tea in an inn room where “the air of this chamber, in its strong combination of stable with soup-stock, might have led one to infer that the coaching department was not doing well, and that the enterprising proprietor was boiling down the horses for the refreshment department” (Ch. 33).

I believe that is embellishment rather than melody, but perhaps there is a running soup or horse or gelatin theme I missed.  I have been told that Dickens is wordy.  What abridgment would improve that description?


  1. Do you think Jaggers's washing is meant to reference Pontious Pilate? He seems to be washing himself of criminality and of responsibility. I do like this topic.

    I've always felt that Dickens was wordy and that every word was terrific. Try Victor Hugo sometime. He's also wordy and I wouldn't remove a single word.

  2. Right, not excessively wordy but abundantly wordy.

    Pilate - yes, good, likely.

  3. I love what you did here, Tom, putting together all kinds of instances revolving around scent. I was very touched by the scene wih Biddy, trying ever so gently to remind Pip of who Joe is, and it's very telling to think of Pip's sister trying to wash the forge off of him. To no avail in either his, nor Jaggers' case indeed.

    Perhaps the abridgment pointed these things out, too. Or maybe there's an SRA card on Great Expectations?

  4. But I left out the tar-water! Oh well.

    The scene with Biddy is wonderful. Any good writer would understand that it cannot be all dialogue, that Biddy needs something to do, but few would create the parallel Dickens did, that symbolic washing with the leaf's juice, which means nothing by itself but only takes on meaning set beside the other "washing" scenes.

    I could work in the knitting theme, too - Dickens so often tells us what people are doing with their hands.

    1. Yeah, the woman in The Tale of Two Cities always "knitting, knitting, knitting." My beloved father remembers that from his High School days in the 40's, and murmured it the whole time I was reading that book in his vacation home in Florida.

    2. Estella, too, is always knitting. GE was begun only a year after ToTC ended.

  5. Quite a lovely scene, and while I've done it (that kind of "leaf-washing," I mean - there are so many deliriously fragrant plants in the California coastal chaparral that one sometimes just wants to be covered in their scent), I don't believe I've ever encountered it in literature before.

  6. What gets me especially is the second mention, pre-washing, where Biddy's attention is divided, where she is "looking closely at the leaf in her hand."

    Why is that mentioned? Why does Pip include it?