Valerie Sander argues, “The best autobiographical evocations of nineteenth-century boyhood, in its full imaginative complexity, are to be found in David Copperfield and Great Expectations " (54). Most scholars would agree that these Dickens works are his most autobiographical, as argued by David Cody in his essay, “Autobiographical Elements in Dickens's Great Expectations ."
Shortly before he began to write Great Expectations , Dickens wrote a fragment of an autobiography, which he kept to himself. A short time later he sorted through, re-read, and burnt many personal letters, and also re-read David Copperfield, perhaps the most overtly autobiographical (in a psychological or a symbolic sense) of all his novels. It is impossible to read Great Expectations without sensing Dickens's presence in the book, without being aware that in portraying and judging Pip he is giving us a glimpse of a younger self. In it he explores and perhaps exorcises the sense of guilt and shame that had haunted him all his life, as he rose from humble beginnings to success and wealth and fame.
In Great Expectations , we could trace what Dickens thought about his life and the people around him because it contains so many autobiographical elements. But what about the elements he does not touch upon?
Flaubert's Parrot is a postmodern biographical fiction whose main character, Geoffrey Braithwaite, tries to fully understand Gustave Flaubert by tracing a parrot mentioned in one of the author's works. Braithwaite uses an analogy to describe the task of organizing a biography:
You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on your point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with string.
You can do the same with a biography. The trawling net fills, then the biographer hauls it in, sorts, throws back, stores, fillets and sells. Yet consider what he doesn't catch: there is always far more of that. (Barnes 38)
Braithwaite extends this analogy of the net with the idea that what the writer never wrote, his apocrypha, is also important. What ideas did the writer think about but did not write down — or want to write down? Scholars are finding out more about the private side of Dickens's life and, like Braithwaite, are examining the author from every angle in an attempt to fully understand him.
Dickens mainly wrote about orphans because he felt abandoned by his parents as a child. His father, John Dickens, was imprisoned in Marshalsea Prison for debt in 1824, and Dickens was forced to labor at Warren's Blacking Factory, which was a damaging psychological experience in itself, but his mother compounded the injury when she insisted that he continue working there, even after the debtor's prison released his father. In Great Expectations , Pip is left an orphan while his older sister and her husband serve as his substitute parents. Pip does not have a high opinion of his older sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, because he recounts:
She was not a good-looking woman, my sister; and I had a general impression that she must have made Joe Gargery marry her by hand .... My sister, Mrs. Joe, with black hair and eyes, had such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap. She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron ... [and] she made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against Joe, that she wore this apron so much. (Dickens 8)
Mrs. Joe wore the pants in the household, while Joe serves as an effete and effeminate child-like figure. Pip never refers to his sister by her given name; she always retains the masculine name of her husband, an indication that she has taken over much more than masculinity from Joe. Dickens never fully forgave his parents, and they would appear as characters in unflattering incarnations within his works. His father would remain destitute, and his family would repeatedly be after him for money. His father's artlessness with finances compounded with his mother's domineering personality probably made Dickens view his father as weak and, at least psychologically, castrated, which Joe reflects in his hen-pecked position.
A short time before writing Great Expectations , Dickens had separated from his wife, began an affair with Ellen Ternan, quarreled with his old friend Thackeray, and burned many of his personal letters. Dickens's capricious emotions may cloud his memory of his past, just as Pip may not be reliable as a narrator because he narrates through memory. Either as a narrative element or through the author's mistake, Pip confuses the amount of money given to him by Miss Havisham.
"Pip has earned a premium here," she said, “and here it is. There are five-and-twenty guineas in this bag. Give it to your master, Pip?" [They return home and Joe asks Mrs. Joe to guess how much money they received from Miss Havisham.] ... “Then to make an end of it," said Joe, delightedly handing the bag to my sister; “it's five-and-twenty pound."
"It's five-and twenty pound, Mum," echoed that basest of swindlers, Pumblechook, rising to shake hands with her; “and it's no more than your merits (as I said when my opinion was asked), and I wish you joy of the money!" ... And there my sister became so excited by the twenty-five guineas, that nothing would serve her but we must have a dinner out of that windfall. . . . [Dickens 99, 102, 103]
We know that Pip's perceptions are unreliable because all of his expectations turn out to be wrong. Another difficulty is that these memories are from Pip's childhood, not exactly the most ideal time for objective and clear observations. Pip's dominant emotions seem to be guilt arising from his misconceptions about his fault in the other's troubles and shame from his lower class status. The emotion/memory effect and Pip's errors in perception pose significant problems for Pip's fictional autobiography. We have to be careful — is Pip telling us his story as a way of absolving his guilty feelings?
Dickens's support of improvements in child-labor laws and in prison conditions may make him seem to be an admirable person. However, Dickens was not as amiable a person as one might think from reading his fiction. Fiction is the operative word, because it is not real. After his 1842 visit to America, Dickens disillusioned his American readership by publishing an account of the visit entitled American Notes. Dickens started his visit of America with great expectations, but he soon found himself, like Pip, to be in error. The conditions of slavery and of prisons, the behavior of the worshipping crowds (unlike the civility of Merrie Olde England), the behavior of politicians, and many other unique American mannerisms exasperated him.
In Cody's “Dickens: A Brief Biography," he recounts events that shed a bit more light on Dickens's personality.
The Dickens family spent the summer of 1857 at a renovated Gad's Hill. Hans Christian Anderson, whose fairy tales Dickens admired greatly, visited them there and quickly wore out his welcome .... More importantly, it was in that year that, after a long period of difficulties, he separated from his wife. They had been for many years “temperamentally unsuited" to each other. Dickens, charming and brilliant though he was, was also fundamentally insecure emotionally, and must have been extraordinarily difficult to live with.
Admirable people do not always have admirable characteristics. Scholars can only trace historical documents relating to Dickens's character to find proof of his personality. However, if the author is still alive, it provides both a bane and a benefit to scholars.
Last modified 1996