#17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, was first published in serial form in the publication All the Year Round from 1 December 1860 to August 1861 and has been adapted for stage and screen over 250 times.
Great Expectations is a bildungsroman, a novel depicting growth and personal development (in this case, of Pip), and is written in the first person from the point of view of the orphan Pip. The novel, like much of Dickens’s work, draws on his own experiences of life and people. It uses language and grammar that has fallen out of common use since its publication, and it made it difficult to understand, at times, what was happening in the novel. The title Great Expectations refers to the ‘Great Expectations’ Pip has of coming into his benefactor’s property upon his disclosure to him and achieving his intended role as a gentleman at that time.
Some of the major themes of Great Expectations are crime, social class, empire and ambition. From an early age, Pip feels guilt; he is also afraid that someone will find out about his crime and arrest him. The theme of crime comes in to even greater effect when Pip discovers that his benefactor is in fact a convict on the run. Pip has an internal struggle with his conscience throughout the book. Great Expectations explores the different social classes of the Georgian era. Throughout the book, Pip becomes involved with a broad range of classes, from criminals like Magwitch to the extremely rich like Miss Havisham. Pip has great ambition, as demonstrated constantly in the book.
When Dickens started his thirteenth novel, Great Expectations, in 1860, he was already a national hero. He had come from humble beginnings, working as a child in a shoe polish factory while his family was in debtor’s prison, to become the quintessential Victorian gentleman. He was involved in all aspects of English life: writing, acting, producing, going on book tours, publishing magazines, and, as always, active in social welfare and criticism. Amidst all this, however, Dickens’ private life had entered a dark period. Dickens had just separated from his wife two years earlier, there were rumors of an affair with a young actress in the newspapers, and he was spending more and more time at his home in Chatham. Dickens himself had risen to achieve greater expectations than any clerk’s boy could expect, but he had not found happiness. The idea that one must search beyond material wealth and social standings and look within themselves for happiness becomes the major theme in Great Expectations.
Some time in 1860, Dickens had started a piece that he found funny and truthful and thought it might do better as a novel: “…it so opens out before me that I can see the whole of a serial revolving on it, in a most singular and comic manner,” he wrote. Dickens had told friends that he had gone back and read David Copperfield and was quite struck by the story now that he looked back upon it. Copperfield was a happy novel, the story of a young man who came into his fortune though hard work and luck. Its influences and similarities are seen in Great Expectations. There are, however, some major thematic differences.
Though not considered as autobiographical as David Copperfield which he had published some ten years earlier, the character of Pip represented a Dickens who had learned some hard lessons in his later life. Especially strong throughout the novel are the concepts of fraternal and romantic love, how society thwarts them, how a man should find them.
For financial reasons, Dickens had to shorten the novel, making it one of his tighter and better written stories. It was published in serial form, as were all of his novels, and the reader can still see the rhythm of suspense and resolution every couple of chapters that kept all of England waiting for the next issue.
Though a dark novel, Great Expectations was deliberately more humorous than its predecessor A Tale of Two Cities, and even while it presented Dickens’ ever present social critique, it did so in a way that made people laugh. The greatest difference between Great Expectations and Dickens’ earlier novels is the introduction of dramatic psychological transformations within the lead characters, as opposed to characters that are changed only through their circumstances and surroundings. The story of Pip is a Bildungsroman — a story that centers on the education or development of the protagonist — and we can follow closely the things that Pip learns and then has to unlearn.
All in all, Great Expectations is considered the best balanced of all of Dickens’ novels, though a controversy still persists over the ending. Dickens had originally written an ending where Pip and Estella never get back together. Many critics, including George Bernard Shaw, believe that this rather depressing ending was more consistent with the overall theme and tone of the novel, which began, continued, and perhaps should have finished with a serious, unhappy note. Nevertheless, Dickens published the ending where all is forgiven and Estella and Pip walk out of the Satis House garden together. It was, perhaps, an ending that Dickens would have like to have had for his own life. Dickens published one more novel, Our Mutual Friend, before dying in 1870.