The Subgenre of Great Expectations
One may attempt to position Great Expectations within the context of the Victorian novel (1837-1901), or within the history of Dickens's artistic output (1834-1870). The thirteenth of his novels, it is one of three relatively short novels designed for weekly magazine serialisation rather than monthly “part" publication, the other two being Hard Times (1854) for Household Words and A Tale of Two Cities (1859), the first novel serialised in All the Year Round. It is also his third major work to employ the first-person narrative point of view, the other two being the quasi-autobiographical David Copperfield (1849) and (at least, in part) Bleak House (1852). The modern reader sees this novel as a retrospective, first-person confessional. Alternatively, one may attempt to classify Great Expectations in terms of the various subgenres of the Victorian novel, for, unlike his earlier attempt at pseudo-autobiography, David Copperfield, Great Expectations does not fit so neatly into the German-inspired Bildungsroman (novel of development, or growing up).
To counter the lack of humour in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens set out to provide character comedy, situation comedy, and especially (like W. M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair) social satire. Dickens makes us laugh at a society that values wealth and class, that condones snobbery and social injustice, that transports felons for relatively minor crimes, and that has allowed a great national institution, the theatre, to deteriorate. Although the utterances and actions of many of the characters make us laugh, each character evokes a different kind or quality of laughter.
The Novel of Crime and Detection
A relatively new form (probably an outgrowth of the Newgate Novel of Ainsworth, Thackeray, and Bulwer-Lytton), the Novel of Crime and Detection (sometimes mislabeled “The Murder Mystery") has influenced the characterization and the plot of Great Expectations. Like many of Wilkie Collins's novels, Great Expectations introduces us to figures from the criminal underworld, in this case a lawyer and his nefarious clients, in particular, the escaped convict Abel Magwitch, the swindler Compeyson, and the murderess Molly Magwitch. The reader must puzzle out what the relationship of such characters is to Miss Havisham, and if her eccentricity about Satis House's clocks and her wedding dress is somehow associated with them in the past.
Silver Fork Novel
Charles Lever's A Day's Ride, which began in All the Year Round in July, 1860, concerns a class and a lifestyle that Dickens personally held in contempt but that fascinated many of his readers. We may, at one level, regard Great Expectationsas an “Anti-Silver Fork" novel, a satire upon the pretentiousness and money morality of the aristocracy, as represented by the brewery heiress Miss Havisham, her grasping relatives the Pockets, and the fatuous Uncle Pumblechook. Indeed, the very title of the novel may be meant ironically because the collapse of Pip's great expectations leaves him with no alternative but the bourgeois course of working for a living.
A form of fiction pioneered by Thackeray in Catherine, Ainsworth in Rookwood, and especially by Dickens himself in Oliver Twist (1837), this subgenre involves underworld types such as the fence (receiver of stolen goods), the pickpocket, the criminal mastermind, the highwayman, the housebreaker, the prostitute, the murderer, and the thief-taker (informer). This aspect of Great Expectations is embodied in the relationship between Magwitch and Compeyson, and in the plot gambit regarding the fate of Magwitch should the authorities discover that he has returned to England. This aspect is reinforced by references to George Lillo's George Barnwell in The London Merchant and Pip's feelings of guilt and betrayal, ironically stemming from his theft of the brandy, the pie, and the file to aid Magwitch (who rewards Pip for what he misinterprets as compassion rather than his actual motivation: fear).
The Gothic Novel
The tradition of the novel of suspense, horror, fear, and superstition that began with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), continued into the nineteenth-century with the novels of Anne Radcliffe (notably, The Mysteries of Udolpho), Sir Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor, Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (a satire on the form), and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The melancholy ruin of Satis House, the bride frozen in time, the domineering aristocrat Bentley Drummle, the child (young Pip) and the young woman in distress, the monster (Orlick), and the suspenseful entrapments of Pip and Magwitch are all Gothic aspects of Great Expectations.
Each part or instalment both advances the action, resolves previous problems, and poses fresh difficulties for the protagonist. Each part must be coherent and complete in itself, yet make connections (through continuing, easily recognized characters and settings) to what has gone before. Customarily, each part will end at a moment of crisis (for example, Pip's running off to the marshes to deliver the food and file to the convict at the end of part one) which the next will resolve--these complementary closings and openings are termed “curtains."
An older form than the novel, this genre continued into the nineteenth century with Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Romance subordinates realism to emotion, and offers intensely personal rather than rational or objective responses. Pip's hopeless obsession with Estella ripples all the way through Great Expectations, and is in fact his chief motivation for becoming a “gentleman." The fairy-tale patterns derived from “Hansel and Gretel" and “Cinderella" contribute to the novel as romance.
Many of the novels of Wilkie Collins, Dickens's protégé, fall under this heading since they advocate legal and social change--his Heart and Science, for example, attacks animal vivisection. Since Dickens described himself as “first and last, a reformer," Great Expectations' exposing the need for penal and educational reforms is consistent with this subgenre and Dickens's agenda throughout his works. His higher “purpose" is connected with the simple question, “What is a gentleman?" If we read the text properly, humble Joe Gargery rather than arrogant Bentley Drummle and his frivolous Finches of the Grove should be our answer.
Although the pattern of a story's originating in the past and moving forward to the year of publication is not uncommon in Victorian fiction, Great Expectations begins just after the Napoleonic Wars and proceeds to recount events in detail until approximately 1830-35 before jumping ahead eleven years (1840-5, the major period of England's railway construction) to close the story.
Dickens carefully implants details in the text of the narrative to suggest that events therein described are very much “of the past." For example, since the one-pound notes mentioned in Ch. 10 were out of circulation from 1826 until 1915, the story must open prior to 1826. Since the death sentence which hangs over Magwitch as a transported felon was eliminated in 1835, and since the very end of the story transpires eleven years after Magwitch's death, Dickens concludes the story no later than 1846. The paddle-wheeler, a species of which mortally wounds Magwitch, was supplanted by the screw-propeller in 1839, thereby reinforcing a terminal date sometime in the mid-1840s. The gibbet specifically noted at the opening reflects the practice abandoned in 1832 of leaving condemned criminals to rot where they were hanged. The king specifically mentioned at the beginning of the novel is George III, who died in 1820, when Pip was seven or eight. Thus, Dickens, born in 1812, seems to be identifying himself with his protagonist. The guinea, mentioned in Ch. 13, went out of circulation in 1817, yet young Charles Dickens arrived in London by coach from Chatham, the marsh country of the tale, at the age of ten (1822). Pip is about 23 in the middle of the book, and about 34 at the end; since Dickens turned 34 in February, 1846, he seems to be inviting his readers to connect the author and the narrator.
Related Materials for Positioning Great Expectations
- The Genres Great Expectations (1861)
- The Overlapping Intertextualities of Great Expectations (1861)
- The Biographical Context of Great Expectations (1861)
Last modified 9 March 2001