Decorrated Initial 'D' ickens reworks his own childhood once again as a first-person narrative in Great Expectations, his thirteenth novel but only his second use of this highly subjective narrative point-of-view — the first being David Copperfield (1849-50), which encorporates the autobiographical fragment that Dickens never published. Unlike his earlier picaresque young heroes such as Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewit, Pip (more properly, Philip Pirrip) and David are fully-developed, 'round' characters. Just as a child would, Dickens divides his settings and characters in both novels into the categories of “secure" and “threatening." But Dickens continues to prize distinctiveness in the drawing of the supporting characters. Uniqueness of identity in both major and minor characters makes the relatively 'flat' hero and heroine seem normal by comparison to such odd ducks as Orlick and Wemmick. As in the earlier, looser works such as The Pickwick Papers (1837) Dickens uses natural dialogue to reveal character subtly and indirectly.

Critics such as biographer Fred Kaplan have repeatedly pointed out that Pip and David are portraits of the novelist as a young man, something that the similarity in the initials of the novelist hero of the 1851 novel suggest. The futile love affair with Estella — bright, and distant, and cold as the stars for which he has named her — reflects young Dickens' own hopeless infatuation with a banker's daughter, Maria Beadnell. Significantly, in the original ending Dickens did not reward Pip for his struggles by arranging the traditional happy ending for the lovers.

In his novels Dickens sees the chief problem in life as being people's failing to understand one another clearly, to see the emotional and spiritual reality beneath the surface. This problem is reflected in such matters as the harshness of employers, the disinterestedness of government, the biases of the penal and justice systems--in short, the sheer inhumanity of British social institutions. “What is a gentleman, what is true gentility?" are the questions Dickens poses his reader in Great Expectations . He shows the development of Pip from an innocent, unsophisticated orphan to a pseudo- aristocrat and snob tinged by the taint of the prison house. The desire of the animalistic and brutal Orlick for personal vengeance reflects what Dickens sees as the fearful revolutionary potentialities of the masses so well exemplified by that tigress Madame Defarge in his previous novel in All the Year Round, A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Estella, cold and distant as the stars that hold the mysteries of our fates, makes Pip painfully aware of his humble condition and motivates him to strive to be something better, worthier of her love (which she can never bestow). Perhaps both learn their social-climbing at Satis House, and then demonstrate that they have unlearned those childhood lessons in the final scene there, in the revised ending that novelist Sir Edward G. D. Bulwer-Lytton and Dickens's mistress, Ellen Ternan (perhaps a model for Estella) preferred.

Wholesale trade was finally considered genteel in the second half of the nineteenth century--as is the case with the proud, haughty Miss Havisham, a brewery heiress who fancies herself an aristocrat. Pip begins with iron chains at Joe's forge but yearns for golden chains, those which also bind Miss Havisham to her past and her thirst for vengeance. At the close of Ch. 19 Pip changes clothes (an act symbolic of his changing class) and leaves his true friends, Biddy and Joe, for the vain and superficial society of London. Like Martin Chuzzlewit in the 1843 picaresque novel, Pip leaves the unspoiled countryside for a city of filth, crime, and oppression. However, Pip becomes a gentleman only in the true sense when he learns from the mouth of his benefactor the actual source of his great expectations; he proves his fundamental humanity by deciding to assist Magwitch, his great-hearted fairy- godfather who is to Pip what Miss Havisham is to Estella. Abel Magwitch, victim of the aristocratic and depraved Compeyson (Cain?), is Dickens' s indictment of nineteenth-century British society's callous disregard for the welfare of the lower orders. From him Pip unlearns the lessons of Miss Havisham, Jaggers, and Wemmick; once again he values people for what they are rather than for their 'portable property' and pocketbooks. The central plot-- with its secrets that Magwitch is responsible for Pip's fortune and that he is Estella's father--is obscured by surprisingly few digressions; the book's action is tight and well-knit, owing in part perhaps to its weekly as opposed to Dickens's usual monthly serial structure. Like its weekly-serialised brethren, Hard Times (1854) and A Tale of _____. (1859), the 1861 novel has fewer characters and little subplotting. Expectations and exploitation are its organizing and unifying motiffs.

And, like its weekly-serialised brethren, Great Expectations lacks both the exuberance and melodrama of Dickens' s earlier, picaresque works. Rigorously maintaining the first-person point-of-view (rather than his avuncular, Fieldingesque point of view of so evident in earlier works such as Martin Chuzzlewit), Dickens deftly suggests a small boy's perspective in the childhood section by limiting himself strictly to what a child would see and feel. The opening is especially effective in this regard, as the convict turns both Pip and his small world of marshes and dykes upside-down.The scene between the two fellow- victims (Magwitch, a victim of legal and social injustice, an escapee from the hulks; Pip, an orphan only temporarily free of the dictatorship of his sister when he visits his parents' grave) is sensational and dramatic because of the strongly-sensed undercurrent of violence and menace below the humorous, initially- tranquil surface. Magwitch presents Pip with a moral and physical dilemma. Joe, Mrs. Joe, and Biddy present him with a choice of adult characters to emulate. Uncle (in effect, step-father) Joe and Mrs. Joe's Uncle Pumblechook, artisan and merchant, present Pip with value choices. Joe is animated by the doctrine of love, Miss Havisham by that of hate. Matthew and Herbert Pocket repeat the selfless kindness and companionship of Biddy and Joe. These characters constitute Pip's social environment: we note that, although an orphan, Pip has no shortage of step-fathers and step- mothers.

Through them Pip must learn how to achieve human happiness. Through them Dickens shows how from infancy the individual is oppressed, moulded, and channelled into his adult identity: “The Child is father of the Man" (Wordsworth). Satis House and London are a complementary microcosm and macrocosm. Dickens's symbols generally and of the world-as- prison metaphor in particular involve mud, dust, gardens, seeds, the courts, and the river. He contrasts the purity of the Thames in the marsh country, at its mouth, with its pollution and corruption in the metropolis. Dickens' s ability to build suspense through adapting the devices of the late eighteenth-century's Gothic novel (the eerie setting, the child or young woman in danger, the evil and deformed monster, the plausive and villainous aristocrat, the nightmare, and so on) has served as a model for later novelists. Dickens uses the persecution and exploitation of children and the theatricality of funerals to build pathos.

However, Dickens is best remembered, perhaps, for his ability to create humour out of farce, nonsense, lampoon, slapstick, and satire, using such stock types as the drunk, the eccentric, the ham actor, the buffoon, the paltroon, the hypocrite, the mercenary physician and his accomplice, the undertaker, and such subjects as education, child abuse and neglect, and keeping up with the Joneses. In “On Some Aspects of the Comic in Great Expectations “ ( Victorian Newsletter 42, Fall 1972) Henri Talon proposes that the style of humour in this novel differs from that of Dickens's earlier works in that here humour is an aspect of the first-person perspective:

The detachment that comic observation demands comes not only of the lapse of time but of the maturity and inner poise that the narrator has achieved at the time he is writing. Because he has out-grown his past errors he can speak about them. First and foremost, Pip's humorous self-portrait evinces his belated self-knowledge. He was ridiculous because of his illusions and comparative self-ignorance (6-7).


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens

Last modified 31 July 2004