Great Expectations’s single most obvious literary predecessor is Dickens’s earlier first-person narrator-protagonist David Copperfield. The two novels trace the psychological and moral development of a young boy to maturity, his transition from a rural environment to the London metropolis, the vicissitudes of his emotional development, and the exhibition of his hopes and youthful dreams and their metamorphosis, through a rich and complex first person narrative. Dickens was conscious of this similarity and, before undertaking his new manuscript, reread David Copperfield to avoid repetition.
The two books both detail homecoming. Although David Copperfield is based on much of Dickens personal experiences, Great Expectations provides, according to Paul Schlicke, “the more spiritual and intimate autobiography.” Even though several elements hint at the setting – Miss Havisham, partly inspired by a Parisian duchess, whose residence was always closed and in darkness, surrounded by “a dead green vegetable sea”, recalling Satis House, and the countryside bordering Chatham and Rochester – no place name is mentioned, nor a specific time period, which is indicated by, among other elements, older coaches, the title “His Majesty” in reference to George III, and the old London Bridge prior to the 1824–1831 reconstruction.
The theme of homecoming reflects events in Dickens’s life, several years prior to the publication of Great Expectations. In 1856, he bought Gad’s Hill Place in Higham, Kent, which he had dreamed of living in as a child, and moved there from faraway London two years later. In 1858, in a painful divorce, he separated from Catherine Dickens, his wife of twenty-three years. The divorce alienated him from some of his closest friends, such as Mark Lemon. He quarrelled with Bradbury and Evans, who had published his novels for fifteen years. In early September 1860, in a field behind Gad’s Hill, Dickens burned almost all of his correspondence, sparing only letters on business matters. He stopped publishing the weekly Household Words at the summit of its popularity and replaced it with All the Year Round.
The Uncommercial Traveller, short stories, and other texts Dickens began publishing in his new weekly in 1859 reflect his nostalgia, as seen in “Dullborough Town” and “Nurses’ Stories”. According to Paul Schlicke, “it is hardly surprising that the novel Dickens wrote at this time was a return to roots, set in the part of England in which he grew up, and in which he had recently resettled.”
Margaret Cardwell draws attention to Chops the Dwarf from Dickens’s 1858 Christmas story “Going into Society”, who, as the future Pip does, entertains the illusion of inheriting a fortune and becomes disappointed upon achieving his social ambitions. In another vein, Harry Stone thinks that Gothic and magical aspects of Great Expectations were partly inspired by Charles Mathews’s At Home, which was presented in detail in Household Words and its monthly supplement Household Narrative. Stone also asserts that The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, written in collaboration with Wilkie Collins after their walking tour of Cumberland during September 1857 and published in Household Words from 3 to 31 October of the same year, presents certain strange locations and a passionate love, foreshadowing Great Expectations.
Beyond its biographical and literary aspects, Great Expectations appears, according to Robin Gilmour, as “a representative fable of the age”. Dickens was aware that the novel “speaks” to a generation applying, at most, the principle of “self help” which was believed to have increased the order of daily life. That the hero Pip aspires to improve, not through snobbery, but through the Victorian conviction of education, social refinement, and materialism, was seen as a noble and worthy goal. However, by tracing the origins of Pip’s “great expectations” to crime, deceit and even banishment to the colonies, Dickens unfavourably compares the new generation to the previous one of Joe Gargery, which Dickens portrays as less sophisticated but especially rooted in sound values, presenting an oblique criticism of his time.
The narrative structure of Great Expectations is influenced by the fact that it was first published as weekly episodes in a periodical. This required short chapters, centred on a single subject, and an almost mathematical structure.
Pip’s story is told in three stages: his childhood and early youth in Kent, where he dreams of rising above his humble station; his time in London after receiving “great expectations”; and then finally his disillusionment on discovering the source of his fortune, followed by his slow realisation of the vanity of his false values. These three stages are further divided into twelve parts of equal length. This symmetry contributes to the impression of completion, which has often been commented on. George Gissing, for example, when comparing Joe Gargery and Dan’l Peggotty (from David Copperfield), preferred the former, because he is a stronger character, who lives “in a world, not of melodrama, but of everyday cause and effect.” G. B. Shaw also commented on the novel’s structure, describing it as “compactly perfect”, and Algernon Swinburne stated, “The defects in it are as nearly imperceptible as spots on the sun or shadow on a sunlit sea.” A contributing factor is “the briskness of the narrative tone.”
Further, beyond the chronological sequences and the weaving of several storylines into a tight plot, the sentimental setting and morality of the characters also create a pattern. The narrative structure of Great Expectations has two main elements: firstly that of “foster parents”, Miss Havisham, Magwitch, and Joe, and secondly that of “young people”, Estella, Pip and Biddy. There is a further organizing element that can be labelled “Dangerous Lovers”, which includes Compeyson, Bentley Drummle and Orlick. Pip is the centre of this web of love, rejection and hatred. Dickens contrasts this “dangerous love” with the relationship of Biddy and Joe, which grows from friendship to marriage.
This is “the general frame of the novel”. The term “love” is generic, applying it to both Pip’s true love for Estella and the feelings Estella has for Drummle, which are based on a desire for social advancement. Similarly, Estella rejects Magwitch because of her contempt for everything that appears below what she believes to be her social status.
Great Expectations has an unhappy ending, since most characters suffer physically, psychologically or both, or die—often violently—while suffering. Happy resolutions remain elusive, while hate thrives. The only happy ending is Biddy and Joe’s marriage and the birth of their two children, since the final reconciliations, except that between Pip and Magwitch, do not alter the general order. Though Pip extirpates the web of hatred, the first unpublished ending denies him happiness while Dickens’ revised second ending, in the published novel, leaves his future uncertain.
Orlick as Pip’s double
Julian Moynahan argues that the reader can better understand Pip’s personality through analyzing his relationship with Orlick, the criminal laborer who works at Joe Gargery’s forge, than by looking at his relationship with Magwitch.
Following Moynahan, David Trotter notes that Orlick is Pip’s shadow. Co-workers in the forge, both find themselves at Miss Havisham’s, where Pip enters and joins the company, while Orlick, attending the door, stays out. Pip considers Biddy a sister; Orlick has other plans for her; Pip is connected to Magwitch, Orlick to Magwitch’s nemesis, Compeyson. Orlick also aspires to “great expectations” and resents Pip’s ascension from the forge and the swamp to the glamour of Satis House, from which Orlick is excluded, along with London’s dazzling society. Orlick is the cumbersome shadow Pip cannot remove.
Then comes Pip’s punishment, with Orlick’s savage attack on Mrs Gargery. Thereafter Orlick vanishes, only to reappear in chapter 53 in a symbolic act, when he lures Pip into a locked, abandoned building in the marshes. Orlick has a score to settle before going on to the ultimate act, murder. However, Pip hampers Orlick, because of his privileged status, while Orlick remains a slave of his condition, solely responsible for Mrs Gargery’s fate.
Dickens also uses Pip’s upper class counterpart, Bentley Drummle, “the double of a double”, according to Trotter, in a similar way. Like Orlick, Drummle is powerful, swarthy, unintelligible, hot-blooded, and lounges and lurks, biding his time. Estella rejects Pip for this rude, uncouth but well-born man, and ends Pip’s hope. Finally the lives of both Orlick and Drummle end violently.
Point of view
Although the novel is written in first person, the reader knows—as an essential prerequisite—that Great Expectations is not an autobiography but a novel, a work of fiction with plot and characters, featuring a narrator-protagonist. In addition, Sylvère Monod notes that the treatment of the autobiography differs from David Copperfield, as Great Expectations does not draw from events in Dickens’s life; “at most some traces of a broad psychological and moral introspection can be found”.
However, according to Paul Pickrel’s analysis, Pip—as both narrator and protagonist—recounts with hindsight the story of the young boy he was, who did not know the world beyond a narrow geographic and familial environment. The novel’s direction emerges from the confrontation between the two periods of time. At first, the novel presents a mistreated orphan, repeating situations from Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, but the trope is quickly overtaken. The theme manifests itself when Pip discovers the existence of a world beyond the marsh, the forge and the future Joe envisioned for him, the decisive moment when Miss Havisham and Estella enter his life. This is a red herring, as the decay of Satis House and the strange lady within signals the fragility of an impasse. At this point, the reader knows more than the protagonist, creating dramatic irony that confers a superiority that the narrator shares.
It is not until Magwitch’s return, a plot twist that unites loosely connected plot elements and sets them into motion, that the protagonist’s point of view joins those of the narrator and the reader. In this context of progressive revelation, the sensational events at the novel’s end serve to test the protagonist’s point of view. Thus proceeds, in the words of A. E. Dyson, “The Immolations of Pip”.
Amongst the narrative devices that Dickens uses, according to Earle Davis, are caricature, comic speech mannerisms, intrigue, Gothic atmosphere, and a central character who gradually changes. Davis also mentions the close network of the structure and balance of contrasts, and praises the first-person narration for providing a simplicity that is appropriate for the story while avoiding melodrama. Davis sees the symbolism attached to “great expectations” as reinforcing the novel’s impact.
Great Expectations contains the elements of a variety of different literary genres, including the bildungsroman, gothic novel, crime novel, as well as comedy, melodrama and satire; and it belongs—like Wuthering Heights and the novels of Walter Scott—to the romance rather than realist tradition of the novel.
Complex and multifaceted, Great Expectations is a Victorian bildungsroman, a German literary genre from the eighteenth century, also called an initiatory tale. This genre focuses on a protagonist who matures over the course of the novel. Great Expectations describes Pip’s initial frustration upon leaving home, followed by a long and difficult period where he gradually matures. This period in his life is punctuated with conflicts between his desires and the values of established order, that allow him to re-evaluate his life and therefore re-enter society on new foundations.
However, if viewed as a primarily retrospective first-person narrative, the novel differs from the two preceding pseudo-autobiographies, David Copperfield and though only partially narrated in first-person, Bleak House (1852), as it falls within several subgenres popular in Dickens’ time, as noted by Paul Davis and Philip V. Allingham.
Great Expectations contains many comic scenes and eccentric personalities, which play an integral part in both the plot and the theme. Among the notable comic episodes are Pip’s Christmas dinner in Chapter 4, Wopsle’s Hamlet performance in chapter 31, and Wemmick’s marriage in Chapter 55. Many of the characters have eccentricities: Jaggers with his punctillious lawyerly ways; the contrariness of his clerk, Wemmick, at work advising Pip to invest in “portable property”, while in private living in a cottage converted into a castle; and the reclusive Miss Havisham in her decaying mansion, wearing her tattered bridal robes.
Great Expectations incorporates elements of the new genre of crime fiction, which Dickens had already used in Oliver Twist (1837), and which was being developed by his friends Wilkie Collins and William Harrison Ainsworth. With its scenes of convicts, prison ships, and episodes of bloody violence, Dickens creates characters worthy of the Newgate school of fiction.
Great Expectations contains elements of the Gothic genre, especially with Miss Havisham, the bride frozen in time, and the ruins of Satis House filled with weeds and spiders. Other characters that can be linked to this genre include the aristocratic Bentley Drummle, because of his extreme cruelty, Pip himself, who spends his youth chasing a frozen beauty, the monstrous Orlick, who systematically attempts to murder his employers. Then there is the fight to the death between Compeyson and Magwitch, and the fire that ends up killing Miss Havisham, scenes that are dominated by horror, suspense, and the sensational, such as are found in gothic novels.
Silver fork novel
Elements of the silver fork novel are found in the character of Miss Havisham and her world, as well as Pip’s illusions. This genre, which flourished in the 1820s and 1830s, presents the flashy elegance and aesthetic frivolities found in high society. In some respects, Dickens conceived Great Expectations as an anti silver fork novel, attacking Charles Lever’s novel A Day’s Ride, publication of which began January 1860, in Household Words. This can be seen in the way that Dickens satirises the pretensions and morals of Miss Havisham and her sycophants, including the Pockets (except Matthew), and Uncle Pumblechook.
Though Great Expectations is not obviously a historical novel Dickens does emphasise differences between the time that the novel is set (c. 1812–46) and when it was written (1860–1). Great Expectations begins around 1812 (the date of Dickens’ birth), continues until around 1830–1835, and then jumps to around 1840–1845, during which the Great Western Railway was built. Though readers today will not notice this, Dickens uses various things to emphasise the differences between 1861 and this earlier period. Among these details—that contemporary readers would have recognised—are the one pound note (in chapter 10) that the Bank Notes Act 1826 had removed from circulation; likewise, the death penalty for deported felons who returned to Britain was abolished in 1835. The gallows erected in the swamps, designed to display a rotting corpse, had disappeared by 1832, and George III, the monarch mentioned at the beginning, died in 1820, when Pip would have been seven or eight. Miss Havisham paid Joe 25 guineas, gold coins, when Pip was to begin his apprenticeship (in Chapter 13); guinea coins were slowly going out of circulation after the last new ones were struck with the face of George III in 1799. This also marks the historical period, as the one pound note was the official currency at the time of the novel’s publication. Dickens placed the epilogue 11 years after Magwitch’s death, which seems to be the time limit of the reported facts. Collectively, the details suggest that Dickens identified with the main character. If Pip is around 23 toward the middle of the novel and 34 at its end, he is roughly modeled after his creator who turned 34 in 1846.
The title’s “Expectations” refers to “a legacy to come”, and thus immediately announces that money, or more specifically wealth plays an important part in the novel. Some other major themes are crime, social class, including both gentility, and social alienation, imperialism and ambition. The novel is also concerned with questions relating to conscience and moral regeneration, as well as redemption through love.
Edward W. Said, in his 1993 work Culture and Imperialism, interprets Great Expectations in terms of postcolonial theory about of late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries British imperialism. Pip’s disillusionment when he learns his benefactor is an escaped convict from Australia, along with his acceptance of Magwitch as surrogate father, is described by Said as part of “the imperial process”, that is the way colonialism exploits the weaker members of a society. Thus the British trading post in Cairo legitimatises Pip’s work as a clerk, but the money earned by Magwitch’s honest labour is illegitimate, because Australia is a penal colony, and Magwitch is forbidden to return to Britain. Said states that Dickens has Magwitch return to be redeemed by Pip’s love, paving the way for Pip’s own redemption, but despite this moral message, the book still reinforces standards that support the authority of the British empire. Said’s interpretation suggests that Dickens’ attitude backs Britain’s exploitation of Middle East “through trade and travel”, and that Great Expectations affirms the idea of keeping the Empire and its peoples in their place—at the exploitable margins of British society. However, the novel’s Gothic, and Romance genre elements, challenge Said’s assumption that Great Expectations is a realist novel like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Pip as social outcast
A central theme here, as in other of Dickens’s novels, is of people living as social outcasts. The novel opening emphasises this in the case of the orphaned Pip, who lives in an isolated foggy environment next to a graveyard, dangerous swamps, and prison ships. His very existence reproaches him: “I was always treated as if I had insisted on being born in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion and morality”.
Pip feels excluded by society and this leads to his aggressive attitude towards it, as he tries to win his place within society through any means. Various other characters behave similarly—that is, the oppressed become the oppressors. Jaggers dominates Wemmick, who in turn dominates Jaggers’s clients. Likewise, Magwitch uses Pip as an instrument of vengeance, as Miss Havisham also uses Estella.
However, hope exists despite Pip’s sense of exclusion because he is convinced that divine providence owes him a place in society and that marriage to Estella is his destiny. Therefore, when fortune comes his way, Pip shows no surprise, because he believes, that his value as a human being, and his inherent nobility, have been recognized. Thus Pip accepts Pumblechook’s flattery without blinking: “That boy is no common boy” and the “May I? May I?” associated with handshakes. From Pip’s hope comes his “uncontrollable, impossible love for Estella”, despite the humiliations that she has subjected him to. For Pip, winning a place in society also means winning Estella’s heart.
When the money secretly provided by Magwitch enables Pip to enter London society, two new related themes, wealth and gentility, are introduced. As the novel’s title implies money is a theme of Great Expectations. Central to this is the idea that wealth is only acceptable to the ruling class if it comes from the labour of others. Miss Havisham’s wealth comes not from the sweat of her brow but from rent collected on properties she inherited from her father, a brewer. Her wealth is “pure”, and her father’s profession as a brewer does not contaminate it. Herbert states in Chapter 22 that “while you cannot possibly be genteel and bake, you may be as genteel as never was and brew.” Because of her wealth, the old lady, despite her eccentricity, enjoys public esteem. She remains in a constant business relationship with her lawyer Jaggers and keeps a tight grip over her “court” of sycophants, so that, far from representing social exclusion, she is the very image of a powerful landed aristocracy that is frozen in the past and “embalmed in its own pride”.
On the other hand, Magwitch’s wealth is socially unacceptable, firstly because he earned it, not through the efforts of others, but through his own hard work, and secondly because he was a convict, and he earned it in a penal colony. It is argued that the contrast with Miss Havisham’s wealth is suggested symbolically. Thus Magwitch’s money smells of sweat, and his money is greasy and crumpled: “two fat sweltering one-pound notes that seemed to have been on terms of the warmest intimacy with all the cattle market in the country”, while the coins Miss Havisham gives for Pip’s “indentures” shine as if new. Further, it is argued Pip demonstrates his “good breeding”, because when he discovers that he owes his transformation into a “gentleman” to such a contaminated windfall, he is repulsed in horror. A. O. J. Cockshut, however, has suggested that there is no difference between Magwitch’s wealth and that of Miss Havisham’s.
Trotter emphasizes the importance of Magwitch’s greasy banknotes. Beyond the Pip’s emotional reaction the notes reveal that Dickens’ views on social and economic progress have changed in the years prior to the publication of Great Expectations. His novels and Household Words extensively reflect Dickens’ views, and, his efforts to contribute to social progress expanded in the 1840s. To illustrate his point, he cites Humphry House who, succinctly, writes that in Pickwick Papers, “a bad smell was a bad smell”, whereas in Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations, “it is a problem”.
At the time of The Great Exhibition of 1851, Dickens and Richard Henry Horne an editor of Household Words wrote an article comparing the British technology that created The Crystal Palace to the few artifacts exhibited by China: England represented an openness to worldwide trade and China isolationism. “To compare China and England is to compare Stoppage to Progress”, they concluded. According to Trotter, this was a way to target the Tory government’s return to protectionism, which they felt would make England the China of Europe. In fact, Household Words’ 17 May 1856 issue, championed international free trade, comparing the constant flow of money to the circulation of the blood. Back in the 1850s, Dickens believed in “genuine” wealth, which critic Trotter compares to fresh banknotes, crisp to the touch, pure and odouless.
With Great Expectations, Dickens’s views about wealth have changed. However, though some sharp satire exists, no character in the novel has the role of the moralist that condemn Pip and his society. In fact, even Joe and Biddy themselves, paragons of good sense, are complicit, through their exaggerated innate humility, in Pip’s social deviancy. Dickens’ moral judgement is first made through the way that he contrasts characters: only a few characters keep to the straight and narrow path; Joe, whose values remain unchanged; Matthew Pocket whose pride renders him, to his family’s astonishment, unable to flatter his rich relatives; Jaggers, who keeps a cool head and has no illusions about his clients; Biddy, who overcomes her shyness to, from time to time, bring order. The narrator-hero is left to draw the necessary conclusions: in the end, Pip finds the light and embarks on a path of moral regeneration.