Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Great ExpectationsGreat Expectations by Charles Dickens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The author’s penultimate finished novel, Great Expectations (1861) was the introductory Dickens novel of choice for many late 20th century readers—particularly American high schoolers, who often encountered 19th-century English fiction first through this novel. I credit Dickens’s move, toward the end of his career, from monthly to weekly serialization for the novel’s success with modern readers. The longer, looser novels of his early and middle period—Oliver Twist, for example, or David Copperfield—come down from the rambling and rumbustious 18th-century novel, from Defoe and Fielding. By contrast, Great Expectations, written on the threshold of late middle age, with its short swift chapters, its relative brevity, and its lyrical look back in the chastened first person over a disappointed life, will satisfy tastes trained on The Great Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises. (Bleak House, I should say, is also a 20th century novel in its way: the novel as city-system and language-system for readers of Joyce and Pynchon.)

While there is much of the “Dickensian” in Great Expectations, where that word connotes the performer-author’s comic grotesquery of characterization and ingenious intricacy of plotting, the dominant note is wistful reverie:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

The novel’s title is an ironic one. When the main character, Pip, who comes from a laboring background in the marshes of England, is made rich by an unknown benefactor, the guardian to whom he is entrusted, a jaded London lawyer named Jaggers, remarks that he is a boy of “great expectations.” Jaggers ostensibly means that Pip will enjoy a large fortune and lead a life of wealth and leisure. This, however, stands in contrast to Dickens’s own sentimental, Christian philosophy.

Great Expectations follows Pip through the first half of his life, leaving him by the end around age 35, in Dante’s middle of the walk. At the novel’s beginning, Pip is a youthful orphan living with his cruel, abusive sister and her kind husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery. In the exciting first chapter—Dickens’s genius as a popular entertainer makes itself felt immediately—Pip helps a shivering convict to escape from the prison ships near the marshes by fetching him some food and a file to remove his leg iron. This scene, which seems to have no bearing on the rest of the novel, will by its final third, prove to be the trigger of its whole complex plot.

Later in the book, a wealthy woman named Miss Havisham enlists Pip in her services, to entertain her adopted daughter, Estella, in her vast ruined mansion, called Satis House. (Note Dickens’s famous method, derived from the comedy of manners, of symbolic naming: Havisham will show herself false, Estella will be the star that dazzles Pip, and “Satis” signifies “enough,” bolstering the novel’s polemic against superficies of wealth and status.) Miss Havisham is a bitter woman, as ruined and dilapidated as the house she lives in; once jilted by a man she dearly loved, she went into seclusion in Satis House and never recovered from the emotional ravage of her rejection. In the novel’s most memorable passage, a Dickensian excursion into the Gothic mode, we see the mansion’s dim and labyrinthine interior and ruined garden. All of the house’s clocks are stopped at the moment of Miss Havisham’s jilting. She wears her tattered wedding gown around her aged and withered body, with one shoe off and one on, as she hadn’t finished dressing before her betrothed refused her. Her wedding cake still stands, though riddled with insects:

Certain wintry branches of candles on the high chimney-piece faintly lighted the chamber; or it would be more expressive to say, faintly troubled its darkness. It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing in it was covered with dust and mould, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstances of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.

Miss Havisham is cold and vindictive, and has molded Estella to be the same to revenge herself on the world of men and society. Inevitably—for Dickens is more the fairy-tale artist and romancer than a realist in the manner of a Tolstoy or George Eliot—Pip falls in love with the beautiful Estella though he cannot have her, an attraction to grace and refinement that leaves him ashamed of his coarse background and even of his tender and generous surrogate father, the preternaturally kind-hearted blacksmith Joe.

Soon, Pip’s dalliance at Satis House and his apprenticeship to Joe are alike interrupted when a mysterious benefactor bequeaths a fortune on Pip and entrusts him to the aforementioned London lawyer, Jaggers, a remote figure symbolizing the abstract amorality of the law. In London, Pip leads an idle life with his enterprising friend, Herbert Pocket, who improbably and somewhat cloyingly calls Pip “Handel” on the grounds that the composer wrote a piece called “The Harmonious Blacksmith.” He moreover strikes up a friendship with Jaggers’s clerk, Wemmick, who leads a cozy domestic life in the country that belies his cool cynicism in Jaggers’s city office—as if Dickens wished to emphasize that kindly and homely sentiment cannot be reconciled with the lawful and unlawful corruptions of the filthy metropolis:

It was wretched weather; stormy and wet, stormy and wet; and mud, mud, mud, deep in all the streets. Day after day, a vast heavy veil had been driving over London from the East, and it drove still, as if in the East there were an eternity of cloud and wind.

Pip believes Miss Havisham to be his benefactor and remains in contact both with her and with Estella, anguished and obsessed by his impossible and unrequited love for the frigid girl. She, for her part, seems bound to marry a dissolute aristocrat who will inevitably mistreat her. Pip has by his emergence into adulthood all but forgotten, except to be ashamed of it, the life he once led on the marshes with the kindly Joe. But by his 23rd birthday, and by the novel’s final third, Pip discovers the identity of his benefactor, a truth that shatters his illusions and spoils his expectations. For Pip’s benefactor is none other than Abel Magwitch, the convict he’d helped to escape in the novel’s opening pages. Magwitch was “transported” to Australia and created a prosperous and successful life for himself there, the hardships of which inspired him to transform the working boy who was kind to him into a “gentleman.” Pip cannily compares this scenario to the plot of another canonical 19th-century English novel:

The imaginary student pursued by the misshapen creature he had impiously made, was not more wretched than I, pursued by the creature who had made me, and recoiling from him with a stronger repulsion, the more he admired me and the fonder he was of me.

In this inverted Frankenstein tale, the monster made the man, or so it appears to the aloof Pip when Magwitch returns to London to look upon his handiwork, the caste marks of his long low life indelibly upon him in the more successful parvenu Pip’s fastidious eye. Pip, in short, is horrified to discover that his benefactor is a man of such low station and not the imperious Miss Havisham, for his years as a London gentleman—albeit one running into debt—have made him class-conscious and superficial.

Eventually, though, he comes to love Magwitch, to value the career criminal’s boundless kindness and bounty, as he tries, without success, to help the wanted man to escape England. Eventually, through a series of deductions and revelations too involved to summarize here, Pip learns that Estella is Magwitch’s long-lost daughter. When Magwitch is recaptured by police and dies in prison, Pip tells him the truth about the girl he believed himself to have lost in her childhood, and the “poor sinner” dies with a smile on his face. Miss Havisham also fails to survive the novel: she is mortally injured when, tormented by remorse, she immolates herself in Pip’s presence. With both his real and his imagined benefactors dead and his fortune confiscated from the criminal Magwitch by the state, Pip reunites with Joe and goes into honest business in the East with Herbert Pocket—insert here a postcolonial critique I don’t currently have the patience to compose—learning humility and hard work in lieu of the “sham” values of wealth and leisure.

By the novel’s final chapter, Dickens has tied—perhaps too neatly—all the plot threads but one: Pip’s love for Estella. Dickens’s first ending, which in its sangfroid he’d thought “original,” has the pair remaining apart except for a final encounter in a London street where Pip recognizes in her countenance “that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.” Pressured by Edward Bulwer-Lytton to come up with a happier ending, Dickens revised the conclusion to dramatize Pip encountering Estella in Satis House’s ruined garden, where they reach this ambiguous conclusion, a fairy-tale ending if only in Pip’s often baffled expectation:

“We are friends,” said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench.

“And will continue friends apart,” said Estella.

I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

While the first ending has a properly modern darkness to it, I prefer the second for its deceptive simplicity, its allowance of both pessimistic and optimistic conclusions, and for its circular return to the ruined garden, spiraling the narrative to its ending in a place where it had its beginning.

Dickens shows himself least modern, least Christian, in his emphasis on fate. Despite the moral conviction with which Pip indicts himself for ingratitude to Joe and for his arrogance of unearned wealth, as if to insist that our lives are a matter of ongoing ethical action, Dickens’s tightly-knit plot structures, where everybody proves to be related to everybody else, suggest a worldview like a Greek tragedian’s. Even Pip feels himself caught in the coils of an irresistible destiny:

That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

Despite the Victorian comic grotesqueries of the novel’s minor characters, its Wopsles and Pumblechooks, Great Expectations is likely to remain the modern reader’s best introduction to Dickens. Its mix of fairy-tale plotting with a more cool and knowing narration, its bold melange of the Gothic and melodramatic with gritty urban realities of money and crime, create a copiousness and a density of representation not markedly inferior to the Shakespearean tragedy to which Dickens comically alludes throughout the novel, Hamlet, another story about a young man of great expectations enmeshed in a web of crime and corruption. The novel’s theme remains timely, too, as Dickens reminds us that a social order is one entity, from top to bottom, from prison to mansion, and that no one is free of ties to all others:

I consumed the whole time in thinking how strange it was that I should be encompassed by all this taint of prison and crime; that, in my childhood out on our lonely marshes on a winter evening, I should have first encountered it; that, it should have reappeared on two occasions, starting out like a stain that was faded but not gone; that, it should in this new way pervade my fortune and advancement. While my mind was thus engaged, I thought of the beautiful young Estella, proud and refined, coming towards me, and I thought with absolute abhorrence of the contrast between the jail and her.

To this fatedness of social cohesion—for Estella, despite all her superficial contrast with the jail, is in effect its product—Dickens can oppose nothing but Christian charity, for which thesis generations of radical critics have faulted him. Their own expectations, however, often failed in the execution, while Dickens’s stories and images, at their best, remain indelible.

I wonder if American high schoolers still read this novel or if it is considered too long, too intricately composed for current attention spans. Among the English classics, Dickens may not be as universal as he was once presumed, in times closer to his own. Shakespeare and the Romantic poets wrote of existential dilemmas, presumably intelligible to anyone literate enough to read their words, while Jane Austen can be understood wherever middle-class culture stands hegemonic. Dickens’s Victorian universe may have ended up a more idiosyncratic production than that, bound to one era of English history and its cluttered paraphernalia; yet his theatrical energy, his visionary intensity, his moral fervor remain an inspiration. When I read Dickens, when I encounter again his teeming cosmos crammed to bursting with animated imagined vitality, I remember why D. H. Lawrence called the novel “the one bright book of life.”



  1. Nice summary and comments, John. Greatest novel by a writer of many great novels. Your placement into the history of the novel is excellent, too. My only suggestion would be to put a spoiler alert on top 🙂

    • Thank you! Point taken about the spoilers, but I have the impression that most of my readers end up here after they’ve read a book rather than before and want an interpretation rather than a review.

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