Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, first published in 1861, is a classic of 19th-century English literature.

The novel’s importance

Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, first published in 1861, is a classic of 19th-century English literature. It is one of the best-known and most admired novels written by an author whose contributions to the form are inestimable. In Great Expectations, Dickens weaves the story of the orphan Pip, charting his journey from a humble childhood to a life of wealth and status, and the many trials he faces along the way.

Great Expectations, like all of Dickens’s work, has endured because it is an immensely entertaining and engrossing read. The story is full of memorable characters — including the reclusive Miss Havisham and the gruff but kind-hearted Joe Gargery — and Dickens’s gift for bringing scenes and individuals to life with vivid detail is on full display. But the novel is also an important exploration of themes such as wealth and poverty, love and rejection, and the quest for one’s own identity.

Key themes

One of the key themes of Great Expectations is the idea of social class and mobility. Dickens explores how aspiration and opportunity can have a profound impact on a person’s life, as illustrated by the protagonist Pip’s journey from humble beginnings to relative wealth and status. Through this, Dickens critiques the rigidity of the Victorian class system, and asks questions about the nature and possibility of social advancement.

Another central theme is the tension between guilt and innocence. The novel forces its characters into morally ambiguous situations, and challenges us to consider the extent to which they are culpable for their actions. 

Perhaps most notably, Pip’s secretive, almost shame-filled relationship with the convict Magwitch drives much of the plot, and forces us to consider whether either character is truly “good” or “bad.” Through these themes, among others, Dickens explores key ideas about human experience, and encourages us to think deeply about our own lives in relation to them.

Historical context

Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations in the mid-19th century, a time of monumental changes in England. The Industrial Revolution had transformed the face of society, spurring urbanization and propelling huge numbers of people into the middle class. The rising prominence of the middle class, and the accompanying social instability, provided a wealth of new subject matter for novelists like Dickens. As a result, many of his novels – including Great Expectations – grapple with themes of social class, wealth, and ambition.

Great Expectations was also shaped by the wider literary and cultural context of the time. Dickens was writing during the Victorian era – a period that, among other things, was known for its formal, moralizing tone. Many Victorians held conservative values, and they often expected the works they consumed to reflect those values. In Great Expectations, Dickens adheres to some of these expectations (e.g. he frequently punishes wrongdoers), but he also pushes the boundaries by incorporating elements of the emerging realist and sensation fiction genres.

Intellectual and cultural context

Great Expectations was published in 1861, during a time when serialized novels were gaining popularity in England. A pioneer of the form, Charles Dickens had already written a number of successful novels, including Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and A Tale of Two Cities. Many of his early works blended social critique and satire with compelling storytelling, and Great Expectations was no exception.

In terms of its literary influences, many critics say that Great Expectations owes something to the Gothic tradition, with its themes of mystery, dread, and unfulfilled desire. The novel also echoes some elements of the bildungsroman, or “coming of age” genre, as it follows the journey of the protagonist, Pip, from childhood to adulthood.

Great Expectations stands alongside other classic Victorian novels such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, and Middlemarch by George Eliot.

Plot

Great Expectations begins with the protagonist, Pip, as a young boy, living with his abusive older sister and her husband, Joe. One day Pip meets an escaped convict, Magwitch, who demands Pip help him. This encounter changes the course of Pip’s entire life. As the story progresses, Pip learns of an unknown benefactor who wants to help him become a gentleman of high class. As Pip undertakes this new life in London, he meets a cast of characters who both influence his path and reveal much about human nature.

The novel grapples with our expectations of other people and of our lives, and how often they can be proved wrong. It is also deeply concerned with how our desires and aspirations can shape who we become. Dickens also explores ideas of love, class, and gratitude. Throughout the book, Pip undergoes intense changes as he aims to reconcile his new identity with the humble beginnings that shaped him.

Narrative structure

One of the defining characteristics of Dickens’ Great Expectations is its complex narrative structure. The story is presented as a first-person retrospective, with Pip recounting his life story as an adult. This approach allows readers to follow his journey from childhood to adulthood, witnessing the ways in which his outlook, aspirations, and relationships change over time. As a result, we are encouraged to reflect on themes such as personal growth, identity, and society.

The use of a first-person point of view is also significant, as it enables us to see Pip’s story through his own eyes. This enables us to sympathize with him and understand his choices, even when they are questionable. At the same time, as readers we must be cautious about taking Pip’s account for granted, as we are only privy to his interpretation of events. This inherent ambiguity adds another layer of intrigue to the novel, keeping readers engaged throughout.

Key characters

One of the most important characters, other than Pip himself, is Miss Havisham, a wealthy, reclusive woman who was jilted at the altar decades ago. Miss Havisham has never quite been able to let go of the past, and as a result, surrounds herself with decay – her mansion, clothes, and even the wedding cake from that fateful day are all left to rot. Miss Havisham plays an important role in shaping the protagonist Pip’s life, as she teaches him about heartbreak and bitterness.

Another key character in the novel is Estella, Miss Havisham’s adoptive daughter. Estella grows up to be a beautiful, but cold, young woman. Pip is instantly smitten with her, but she continually rebuffs his affections. Despite her aloofness, Estella is a significant character in the book because she forces Pip to reevaluate what he values and desires. The dynamic between Pip and Estella, as well as their individual relationships with Miss Havisham, helps to drive the novel forward.

Literary devices

One of the key literary devices that Dickens employs in Great Expectations is symbolism. Many of the characters and objects in the novel represent more than just their superficial selves; for example, the convict Magwitch can be seen as a symbol for redemption and the power of kindness. Miss Havisham’s rotten wedding cake is a symbol of disappointed ambitions, and the danger of not letting go of the past.

Great Expectations has a huge cast of some of the most memorable, lively characters in English literature. They have very memorable names such as Abel Magwitch and Joe Gargery. They also often have distinctive characteristics. Magwitch is instantly recognisable from his manner of speaking. This means Dickens can simply give the reader a line from Magwitch and they’ll instantly know who is speaking, without having to say ‘Magwitch said …’.

Strong, memorable characters were very important when the novel was being published chapter-by-chapter in weekly magazines. By creating such vivid characters, Dickens was ensuring that his readership could remember the story more easily when catching up with that week’s chapter.

Symbolism

In Great Expectations, Dickens makes frequent use of symbolism to communicate messages and ideas to the reader. Frequently, this symbolism centers on concepts of class and social status. For example, the decaying mansion of Miss Havisham symbolizes her own state of decay – as well as the decay of aristocratic power in a changing society. The contrast between Pip’s humble beginnings and his desires for a more respected social position is also communicated through symbolism. Pip’s social ambition is foregrounded in his interactions with Estella, whose beauty and aloofness represents everything he wants to attain.

Dickens also employs metaphor and analogy to emphasize themes of guilt and redemption. The motif of the prison, for instance, appears repeatedly throughout the novel. Characters such as Abel Magwitch and Molly (Jaggers’ housemaid) are literally imprisoned, while other characters carry psychological burdens that metaphorically imprison them.

Critical readings

One common reading of Dickens’ Great Expectations is as a bildungsroman, a novel that tells the story of a character’s growth and development. From this perspective, readers tend to focus on how Pip changes over the course of the novel, how the various characters and experiences he meets affect him, and how they inform his sense of self and morality.

Another way that critics have interpreted Great Expectations is through its exploration of class and social mobility. Dickens was no stranger to these themes, with many of his novels featuring characters from different walks of life, and in Great Expectations he examines how wealth, and the quest for wealth, can fundamentally change a person’s character. Critics who focus on this perspective may consider the ways in which Pip’s pursuit of riches leads him to be unkind and uncaring, or how it drives a wedge between him and his loved ones.

Influence

Great Expectations has had a significant and long-lasting impact on people, culture, and literature since its first publication in the mid-19th century. Many readers can relate to Pip’s story of overcoming personal struggles in pursuit of a better life, and the novel has directly impacted and shaped the lives of countless individuals over the years. The themes of love, compassion, and forgiveness that Dickens employs continue to resonate even today, and the focus on how hard life could be in Victorian England led to genuine change in British society.

Additionally, Great Expectations has influenced plenty of other novels that succeeded it, especially in terms of its bildungsroman structure and its attention to issues of social class. As such, the novel occupies a significant and enduring position in the history of English literature.

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