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NA408212 - DICKENS, C.: Great Expectations (Abridged)
Great Expectations, first published in 1861, is the product of Dickens’ mature period and one of his finest novels. Although the outline of the story bears little direct relation to Dickens’ own life, it is in the deepest sense autobiographical: set in the period of the author’s own childhood and told in the first person, Great Expectations is a ‘Bildungsroman’, in other words, a novel about the education and development of a personality.
The hero, Philip Pirrip (‘Pip’) finds himself split by divided loyalties: to his old home life, epitomized by the loving simplicity of Joe the blacksmith, and to the false idea of gentility which his mysteriously inherited fortune draws him towards. The novel, then, is in part about class and snobbery, and Dickens (as Chesterton pointed out long ago) here resembles his great contemporary Thackeray in providing an utterly convincing, concrete realization of different strata of society, ranging from provincial pretension to the idle self-indulgence of a London life lived without purpose.
Pip’s sentimental education is brilliantly developed when he is faced by the appalling discovery that his fortune (and hence his status as a gentleman) derives from Magwitch, the convict whom he had helped many years earlier. Pip learns (painfully) to forgive and to love: he must learn not to judge by appearances or by the norms of society, but to read the language of the heart instead. Joe and Magwitch in their different ways both contribute to this process: both are in a sense, father figures to him (he is an orphan), as also is the initially frightening figure of Jaggers, the lawyer who transcends the business-like limitations of his profession. The absurd Wemmick perhaps offers a paternal model, too: his kindness and integrity are soon discovered beneath the ‘post-office of a mouth,’ which reflects the impersonal role society demands of him. With the help of these men and of Biddy, whose affection and fidelity survive Pip’s patronizing superiority, Pip is able at last to achieve integrity, to find himself.
But the story is more than a realistic tale of individuals and society. Dickens deepens his novel by incorporating elements of the fairy tale and of his characteristic humor, yet he does so without ever sacrificing
psychological truth. Pip’s pursuit of the apparently cold and unattainable ‘princess’, Estella, is part of his yearning for a ‘better’ life, coming as he does from the humble background of the village forge, and later he will battle against the ‘witch’ Miss Havisham, whose own disappointed life has led her to make of Estella an ‘ice queen’. If victory ultimately goes to Pip, then it is a victory, which costs him dear, both financially and (more importantly) spiritually.
The humor is also absolutely of a piece with the serious themes: the scenes between Joe and Pip (‘ever the best of friends’) at the forge are both endearing and comic, forming as they do the emotional bedrock on which Pip’s later ‘rescue’ from his corrupted self is based. It would surely be difficult for any listener not to respond to the imaginative power and extraordinary insight into human nature, which Dickens offers: in this novel we find not only Pip and the characters who surround him, but also ourselves.
Charles Dickens was born in 1812 in Portsmouth. His father was imprisoned for debt and the twelve-year old Charles sent to work in a blacking-factory; these experiences influenced (for instance) Little Dorrit and David Copperfield. Having learnt shorthand, he became a parliamentary reporter and began
to submit magazine pieces. In 1837 The Pickwick Papers brought Dickens fame, and the rest of his literary career was almost uninterruptedly successful. His personal life was less happy: eventually he separated from his wife Catherine, partly as a result of his growing intimacy with Ellen Ternan, the actress, and he died relatively young in 1870, his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
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