[This essay has appeared in English Language Notes. 41, 3 (March 2004): 50-56.]

Question from high school student: When Pip sees the “shadows" around Estella, is he seeing Miss Havisham's influence, or is it a second-sight type of thing? Why is there still no shadow in the original ending?

decorated initial 'A'mong Dickens's short novels, a subdivision that ranges from A Christmas Carol (1843) to Great Expectations (1861), the word “shadow" and its cognates “shadows," “shadowy," “shadowed," and “shadowing" are most concentrated in the two Christmas Books, The Haunted Man (.01516%) and A Christmas Carol (.01199%). The occurrence of this cluster of terms is much lower proportionately in Great Expectations (.00257%), and yet several appearances of the word “shadow" in a figurative sense are extremely important. Like many other writers, Dickens often uses the word “shadow" and its variants to describe a literal interruption of light, particularly in phrases such as “When the shadows of evening were closing in" (Great Expectations, Ch. 35). He also uses “shadow" in a quasi-figurative or not-quite-literal sense in such expression as “the heavy shadow of Temple Bar" (A Tale of Two Cities, Book II, Ch. 1) since shadows have no weight, but this shadow is more ominous because it is associated with capital punishment. Finally, Dickens often uses “shadows" allegorically to imply memories, premonitions, or foreshadowings, as in Scrooge's question to the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come: “Are these the shadows of things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?" (A Christmas Carol, Stave III).

Exactly what is the sense, then, of the shadows that Pip sees around Estella? Is he seeing the influence of Miss Havisham (the past imposing itself upon the present), or is he having a premonition (seeing a projection of the present in the future)? The words “shadow" and “shadows" occur a total of fifteen times in Great Expectations, but only two of these occurrences involve Estella. While eleven of the fifteen occurrences of these words are literal, the instances associated with Estella are allegorical. The first is justly famous since it is part of a deliberate attempt to generate suspense at the very end of a chapter:

. . . when I saw her face at the coach window and her hand waving to me. What was the nameless shadow which again in that one instant had passed? (Chapter 32)

Since at the beginning of the next chapter (still within the 13 April 1861 instalment, and therefore not a serial “curtain") Pip comments that he “saw Miss Havisham's influence in the change" in Estella's manner towards him, many readers would be inclined to conclude that the “nameless shadow" implies an imprinting of Miss Havisham's personality upon Estella's. However, as the discussion of the two Richmonds reminds us, there are two fairy-godparents who cast their shadows upon their adopted children. The influence Pip detects may be Miss Havisham's, but the word"shadow" in the sense of “reflection," “phantom," or “copy" is pointing towards her natural parents, Molly, Jaggers' maid, and the convict on the marshes, Magwitch, for in Estella's face and hand he sees their reflections.

This recognition is not conscious, of course, since Pip the protagonist (not be confused with the Pip the narrator, who knows all even from the first) does learn the identity of benefactor until Chapter 39, and does not receive confirmation that Molly is Estella's mother until Chapter 48: “I thought how the same feeling had come back when I saw a face looking at me, and a hand waving to me, from a stage-coach window . . . ." By the close of Chapter 50, Pip has pieced together the identity of Estella's parents. In a moment of epiphany, “like lightning" the knowledge has “flashed" upon him, dispelling the mysterious shadow that has hung about Estella. Thus, in Chapter 32 the word “shadow" is both obscuring darkness, dim recognition, and premonition of a truth to be revealed later. Since in dining with Jaggers at his Gerrard Street 26, his beginning to connect Molly and Estella in Chapter 32 is subconscious deduction on the part of the protagonist, but conscious manipulation of the reader on the part of the narrator, for in that moment Pip is preparing us for the revelation of Estella's parentage, a mystery of importance equal to that of his benefactor's identity and motivations.

The “shadow" in Chapter 32 that Pip is trying to penetrate challenges conscious thought and temporarily defeats it. The “shadow" which has blocked the light of recognition is also a fleeting impression and a reflected image. The hand is the objective correlative that has prompted the (as yet) unconscious recognition, so that it constitutes a symbol, prefiguration, or foreshadowing. In that it connects present with past, the hand has momentarily summoned up a spectral form. Thus, like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Pip has connected “the shadows of things that have been" with “the shadows of things that Will be" revealed in time. “Readers of the novel may perceive Pip's inability to name this �shadow' as just one example of his struggle to understand the riddles of his past" (Thomson 94) and how these riddles will affect his romantic longings for Estella in the future.

However, that Pip in his capacity of narrator does not “name" the shadow in Chapter 32 is not a mark of ignorance but of guile; if the explosive truth of Estella's parentage is to flash like lightning upon us, we must be kept in a state of anticipation."Dickens uses a convention he perfected in serial fiction to engage reader interest and expectations, and to advance the plot" (Guiliano and Collins, II: 985). He leaves both his readers and his narrator in the dark in Chapter 32, although his narrator-protagonist is in fact withholding the truth from us, his readers, as it was so long withheld from him. The question which closes chapter 32 places us as readers in doubt and suspense for another nine chapters, and, in fact, is not fully answered until Jaggers �puts the case' in Chapter 51. If we regard the deluded protagonist and deluding narrator as opaque rather than transparent, as manipulative and unreliable rather than wholly honest, then the “shadow" at the close of Chapter 32 is “The faint appearance of something seen through an obscuring medium" (OED IX: 591) such as a stage scrim, as well as a prefiguration and spectral form of past incidents that, if only apprehended, would confer present identities.


The second significant association of Estella and shadows occurs at the very close of Dickens's revised ending of the novel, the validity of which has been much debated by twentieth-century readers and critics. In the first or original ending, there is a carriage, Estella's face and hands — but no shadow. After all these years, despite Pip's failure to name the Shropshire doctor whom Estella has married (and thereby acknowledge that she has taken another man's name), everything seems perfectly clear — or should one say “prosaically" clear? There is nothing in the ending that Dickens read to Ellen Ternan and Bulwer-Lytton that connects either of the story's principal characters to the novel's Manichaean conflict between the forces of darkness (of retribution, ignorance, of willfulness, of self-interest, of class and gender exploitation, of Id-like Orlick and egotistical Drummle) and those of light (of spiritual and emotional resurrection, human sympathy, of justice, of compassion, of Jaggers' secret altruism, of Pip's love for those closest to him, of the developing superego that is Pip). And the power that Dickens's novels continue to exert upon readers is that these stories sweep us up in this whirl-wind struggle, then deposit those readers upon the moral high ground of a better world, a world where Uncle Scrooge can join in the party games at Nephew Fred's and restore Tiny Tim to health; where the children and children's children of Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette play in the light of freedom; where young Pip growing up under the loving guidance of Joe, Biddy, Uncle Pip, and Aunt Estella will not make the errors his namesake made; where Milly and the children, Tetterbys, and Swidgers join hands in a circle that encompasses not only England but all people in all times and places.

As Edgar Rosenberg and others have noted these last twenty years, there are in fact six endings, the first of which Dickens cancelled following the promptings of a fellow writer and the young woman who was his lover, and his own intuition as a populist writer. The remaining five, the textual history of Dickens's fine-tuning what he knew to be the right ending, all involve a resolution to the conflict of light and shadow. The walls of Satis House have been torn down , so there are no shadows in the desolate place at sunset, and no shadows as the post-lapsarian moon rises:

as the morning mists had risen long ago when I fist left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they show to me I saw. . . . (Chapter 59)

But precisely what Pip saw Dickens laboured over, like Leonardo with The Mona Lisa. In the serial, Dickens had written “the shadow of no parting, but one" and then cancelled “but one," realizing that there must be no more shadows between Pip and Estella if they have really escaped Miss Havisham's teachings and can approach each other upon an equality of intellect and sentiment. Dickens maintained this reading in the 1861 first volume edition, wishing to suggest, perhaps, that Pip “now realizes that he, not some shadowy other, controls his actions, and [that] he can see Estella for who she is, not as the fiction of great expectations" (Thomson 95). Syntactically and logically, however, Pip does not see a shadow at all if “but one" does not conclude the sentence. The shadow of death, “of another parting," is tantalizingly ambiguous here because Pip avoids “naming" it — or is he still the flawed, ignorant first-person narrator who cannot see it, though its shadow would be detectable to a superior consciousness? If Pip has really stepped into the light of self-knowledge and mutual understanding with Estella, no such ambiguity should exist. “Death may have its dominion over Pip and Estella, but is not to be mentioned here and now" (Rosenberg 94) — or rather, like the love of Eloise and Abelard or that of Romeo and Juliet, this love will utterly disavow Death's dominion.

Consequently, in the 1862 Library edition and the 1868 Charles Dickens edition, the line reads “no shadow of another parting from her" — a reading followed by all modern editions because it represents the novelist's final intention. If Pip sees “no shadow," Dickens is affirming that Pip has freed himself from the legacy of the past, of egotism, of the class system, so that he can see Estella as herself rather than extension of Miss Havisham or the scion of a convicted felon and a dubiously exonerated murderess. The emphatic, adjectival “no" before “shadow" may be indicative, as Rosenberg posits, of Dickens's effort “to stress the intensity of Pip's emotional response to someone not only capable of evoking but of deserving it" (97). However, when the Miltonic mists rose before, at the close of the “first stage" of Pip's Expectations, Pip was still in the dark of self-delusion as well of an ignorance imposed by others, so that the mists had only seemed to rise — who is to say that, after all, Pip is not still an unreliable narrator as he sees the mists rise again?

Appendix: Rank Ordering of Dickens's Short Novels by Occurrences of “Shadow"

1.The Haunted Man and The Ghost's Bargain (1848) 196,542 characters shadow (14) shadows (8) shadowy (1) shadowed (1) shade (5) shades (1) = 30 occurrences (.0001526 of total words).

2. A Christmas Carol (1843) 166, 758 characters shadow (10) shadows (7) shadowing (1) shade (2) = 20 occurrences (.0001199 of total words).

3. A Tale of _____. (1859) 794,453 characters shadow (33) shadows (22) shadowy (2) shady (1) shade (5) shaded (3) = 66 occurrences (.000083 of total words).

4. Hard Times for These Times (1854) 603, 258 characters shadow (11) shadows (11) shade (5) shading (1) shaded (4) shady (2) = 34 occurrences (.0000563 of total words).

5. The Cricket on the Hearth (1845) 184,682 characters shadow (6) shadows (1) shadowy (1) shade (1) = 9 occurrences (.0000487 of total words).

6. The Battle of Life (1846) 176, 532 characters shadow (2) shadows (3) shadowy (1) shaded (1) = 7 occurrences (.0000396 of total words).

7. Great Expectations (1861) 1, 010,137 characters shadow (10) shadows (5) shadowy (3) shading (1) shade (1) shaded (5) shade's (1) = 26 occurrences (.0000257 of total words).


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Written 2001; last modified 29 April 2004