Throughout Great Expectations, a theme repeatedly emerges concerning the notion of interpretation and misinterpretation. The novel itself is formulated as Pip's retrospective account of past actions, emotions, behaviors, and beliefs, and thus, the entire work is constructed as an interpretation of events that have already taken place. Just as the audience gains an account of the events in Pip's lives by reading the progression of events as the tale unfolds, so too is Pip concurrently “reading" his own life as he depicts the story of this life. What becomes apparent throughout the course of the novel is that Pip often misreads the plot of his life. Pip continuously ascribes characteristics and emotions to characters which they do not in fact possess. In doing so, the main character creates a false picture of such literary figures; Pip both reads and interprets others in his life according to notions of how he would like them to be, rather than how they actually are. This is most obvious in how Pip perceives Estella, both as a youth and as a young adult. After Estella returns to Satis House from her studies abroad, Pip visits Ms. Havisham's lair and finds his love obsession even more beautiful than before she left. It is this beauty that continuously blinds Pip to realities of Estella's cold-hearted nature.
“You must know," said Estella, condescending to me as a brilliant and beautiful woman might, “that I have no heart — if that has anything to do with my memory."
I got through some jargon to the effect that I took the liberty of doubting that. That I knew better. That there could be no such beauty without it. [Chapter 29; location in complete text of the novel]
Pip's most significant misinterpretation of his autobiographical plot, however, does not concern his misreading of other's lives and characteristics, but instead a misreading of the facts of his own life. From the age when Pip is first endowed with his “great expectations" to the time when Magwitch enters his life in his twenty-third year, the young man bases his life upon the assumption that he is living off the generosity of Miss Havisham, and that this material endowment inevitably includes an eventual union with his beloved Estella. How Pip treats such characters as Joe and Biddy and how he reacts to Miss Havisham and Estella are very affected by this misinterpretation; Pip's wrongly-laid assumptions create a plot in his autobiography that is divergent from the reality in which he is living. It is not until Magwitch admits to his involvement in Pip's life that the plot is no longer subverted by Pip's misinterpretations — it is at this point in the novel, that Pip begins to correctly “read" his own life.
“May I make so bold," he said then, with a smile that was like a frown, and with a frown that was like a smile, “as ask you how you have done well, since you and me was out on them lone shivering marshes?"
"Ah!". . . .
When my lips had parted and had shaped some words that were without sound, I forced myself to tell him (though I could not do it distinctly), that I had been chosen to succeed to some property.
“Might a mere warmint ask what property?", said he.
I faltered, “I don't know."
“Might a mere warmint ask whose property?", said he.
I faltered again, “I don't know."
“Could I make a guess I wonder, I wonder," said the Convict, “at your income since you come of age! As to the first figure now. Five?"
With my heart beating like a heavy hammer of disordered , I rose out of my chair, and stood with my hand upon the back of it, looking wildly at him.
"Concerning a guardian," he went on. “There ought to have been some guardian, or such-like, while you was a minor. Some lawyer, maybe. As to the first letter of that lawyer's name now. Would it be a J?"
All the truth of my position came flashing on me; and its disappointments, dangers, disgraces, consequences of all kinds, rushed in in such a multitude that I was borne down by them and had to struggle for every breath I drew.
What does this revelation reveal about authorship in the novel? Are there many authors to this tale? Does the author change with the twist in the plot (i.e. Magwitch's return) and the consequent destruction of Pip's imagined plot? Is there an ultimate authority in Great Expectations ?
Is there a purpose to Magwitch's very drawn out questioning of Pip? Do you see any relation between the process Magwitch uses to reveal the truth to Pip and the process of literary suspense as a whole? (building of expectation, climax, etc.)
Where else is this theme of “misreading" revealed throughout the novel?
How does this concept of misinterpretation and reinterpretation affect the reader's belief in the legitimacy of the autobiography? Does the sequence of events in Pip's life, and his consequent failure to interpret these events correctly, make you doubt the veracity of the novel as a whole? Does this question of reality matter to your understanding and appreciation of the novel?
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Ed. Edgar Rosenberg. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.
Last modified 16 February 2004