In this article we are going to discuss a very important novelist of the Victorian period. Most of you must have read novels like Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield as students in the secondary schools or on your own. These novels were written by Charles Dickens. He is among the most popular novelists of the period and even in modern Nigeria, his novels are still widely read. We will discuss one of his novels, Great Expectations in this article. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is an interesting novel. There is no way you can enjoy the story or even understand greater part of the analysis without reading the novel. Really, you are advised to read the novel before reading the analysis below. This advice is for all the units.
Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) Charles Dickens spent his early life in Kent, a county in southeast England. His father was so poor that he was a debtor all his life; he was arrested later and taken to debtors’ prison. All his children except Charles later joined him in prison. Charles who was twelve years old then, lived outside the prison and worked with other children in a warehouse but he despised the job. Luckily when his father was released from prison he went back to school and later was employed as a law clerk from where he became a court reporter, and finally a novelist. He published his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, at the age of twenty five and it was an instant success and very popular. His other novels were equally successful and popular.
They include Hard Times, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, Great Expectations and others. He was a very prolific writer who remained a literary celebrity until his death in 1870. Charles Dickens is seen as a very good example of the Victorian novelist because he painted a vivid picture and gave graphic details of the experiences of the working class during the Victorian period. Generally, his novels deal with the plight of the poor and oppressed. He is still popular in contemporary times as he remains one of the most popular and read authors of his age. He commented on the social challenges of the age as reflected in his novels which were entertaining and satisfied the taste of the reading public.
The story of the novel revolves around a young orphan, Pip who lives with his sister and her husband in the marshes of Kent. One day, as he was in a cemetery looking at his parents’ tombstones, an escaped convict springs up suddenly from behind a tombstone, grabs Pip and orders him to get food and file for him. Pip obeys but unfortunately, the convict is rearrested but Pip tries to protect him by claiming that he (Pip) stole the items. We earn later that the convict’s name is Magwitch.
Pip visits Miss Havisham, a wealthy and eccentric woman who was disappointed on her wedding day, refused to remove that wedding gown and has kept all the clocks in her house stopped at the same time of the incident several years back. He meets and falls in love with Estella during that visit but is treated with disdain by her. He started dreaming of becoming a wealthy gentleman so that he can win her love. He thought that Miss Havisham wanted to make him a gentleman so that he would marry Estella without realising that Miss Havisham uses Estella to hurt men as revenge for the pain she suffered in the hands of a man. So, Pip is brought by Uncle Pumblechook as a toy with which young
Estella would practise her insensitivity to men to Miss Havisham’s delight. Pip works as an apprentice to Joe, his brother-in-law, in his blacksmith shop but is not happy with the work and improves himself through education with the help of Biddy. Pip’s dream translates into reality as Jaggers, a lawyer, informs them that a secret benefactor endowed a fund for Pip’s education so he must go to London to start immediately. Pip is overjoyed and erroneously believes that Miss Havisham is his secret benefactor. In London, as Pip decides to become a gentleman, he becomes contemptuous of his old friends and relations and wishes to be close to Estella. At twenty-one, Pip starts receiving an income from his fortune and started living a wild life with his friend, Herbert Pocket. Mrs. Joe dies, and Pip goes home for the funeral, feeling tremendous grief and remorse.
Some years later, Magwitch barges into Pip’s room and reveals that he is Pip’s benefactor and that his action was motivated by the kindness Pip bestowed on him. He therefore worked hard, and made a fortune in Australia which he dedicated to making Pip a gentleman. Pip is disappointed but helps Magwitch to escape, as the convict is pursued both by the police and by Compeyson, his former partner in crime. Pip discovers that Compeyson was the man who disappointed Miss Havisham on their proposed wedding day and that Estella is Magwitch’s daughter. Miss Havisham repents for her misdeeds, asks Pip’s forgiveness and later dies.
Pip narrowly escapes death at the hands of Orlick. Pip and Herbert try to help Magwitch to escape. Magwitch and Compeyson fight, the latter is drowned while the former is sentenced to death. Pip loses his fortune and falls ill. Biddy has taught Joe who has been taught how to read and write and marries her later. Estella marries an upper- class lout named Bentley Drummle and is ill-treated by him though he dies later. Pip discovers that Estella’s coldness and cruelty have been replaced by a sad kindness, and the ending of the novel implies that they may get married.
The major theme explored in this novel is wealth which is seen as being responsible for the high level of inhumanity, corruption and decay in Victorian England. Almost every character worships wealth though their attitude to wealth differs from one character to the other. Pip despises his lowly background and longs to be a gentleman so that he could be worthy of Estella. The wealthy class, represented by Miss Havisham, uses wealth for the acquisition of power and the exertion of authority over other characters to the extent that she ruined the lives of some of
them. In her unrelenting pursuit of material wealth, she is completely dehumanised while Mr. Jaggers “…creates a dehumanised automatic machine out of his clerk, Wemmick” (Fielding 1959, 7). These characters reflect the “Victorian society in which people wish to be professional successes while retaining some humanity, are forced to live schizophrenic lives” (Fielding 1959, 7). The members of the Victorian upper classes have to work for a living but regard money as dirty and a necessary evil.
We see that after the departure of every client, Mr. Jaggers ritualistically washes his hands. Closely related to the theme of wealth is the theme of ambition and self improvement. The idea of respectability was in vogue in Victorian England such that each individual strives for self improvement. However the age respected moral excellence and that is why Joe triumphed in the end. The title of the novel reflects Pip’s desire for ambition and self improvement that would propel him to great expectations.
Consequently, those in the lower class aspire to the higher class so the theme of social class is explored in the novel. This theme is central to the novel’s plot and to the ultimate moral theme of the book as Pip realises that wealth and class are less important than love, loyalty, and inner worth (Kettle 1951, 34). We see a number of characters from the higher social class which were despicable while some from the lower class are noble hearted. The novelist seems to say that one’s social status is not the basis for the determination of one’s real character.
For example, Drummle is an upper-class hooligan, while Magwitch, a persecuted convict, has a deep inner worth (SparkNotes Editors, 2007). In this novel, Dickens extols characters who earn their fortunes through hard work and exposes the inadequacies of nobility and inherited aristocracy. Another theme explored in the novel is dignity of labour which is reflected in the lives of Biddy and Joe. Joe represents the ordinary man who believes in hard work and is content with what he has, with his profession and what he earns from it. He is content and has peace of mind. He works as a blacksmith and is a symbol of the dignity of labour.
Charles Dickens presents the story from the perspective of the protagonist, Pip in the first person point of view narrative technique which aids the realism in the novel as this makes the story more authentic. He presents series of complicated incidents and coincidences which are resolved in the end. The elements of suspense and surprise are deployed effectively in the novel with graphic and vivid description of incidents, actions, characters, and atmosphere. He also makes use of motif and symbols in the novel.
Motif : The motif of doubles runs throughout the novel as almost every element in the novel has a double. For instance there are two convicts on the marsh (Magwitch and Compeyson), two invalids (Mrs. Joe and Miss Havisham), two young women who interest Pip (Biddy and Estella), and two adults who seek to mold the younger ones according to their own designs (Magwitch and Miss Havisham).
Symbols: Another device used in the novel is the use of symbol. For instance, Satis House symbolises Pip’s romantic perception of the upper class and wealth, while Miss Havisham’s wedding dress on her decaying body is a symbol of death and degeneration. Also, the misty marshes symbolise danger and uncertainty. As a child, Pip brings Magwitch a file and food in the marshes, later; he is kidnapped by Orlick and would have been murdered in the marshes. There are other motifs and symbols, try to identify them as you read the novels. 3.5 Characterisation In this novel, Charles Dickens presents an array of rounded characters who grow from ignorance to knowledge. Most of the characters realised the need for moral balance in life. Through the characters, the novelist is able to relay an important message which is that true and ultimate happiness in life does not reside in wealth or social class.
Pip: Pip is the protagonist and narrator in the novel. His real name is Philip Pirrip but is called Pip. He begins the story as a young orphan boy being raised by his sister and brother-in-law in the marsh county of Kent but by the end of the novel he matures both in age, reasoning and understanding of life. Initially, he is presented as an innocent, passionate and romantic young boy who is too idealistic and unrealistic in his expectations. He therefore perceived the world from a very narrow perspective and tends to oversimplify situations based on superficial values; hence he behaves badly toward the people who care about him especially Joe and Biddy. For instance, as soon he aspires to become a gentleman, he becomes cold and snobbish believing that these are the traits of a gentleman. However, he is very generous, sympathetic, has a powerful conscience and strives to improve himself, both morally and socially. The reader’s perception of the story is shaped by Pip’s thoughts and attitudes.
Estella: Dickens uses Estella’s character as a bitter criticism against the class system in England. Miss Havisham raised her from the age of three to torment men and break their hearts, the way her own heart was broken. Consequently, she is snobbish, cold, cynical, and manipulative which are the characteristics of the upper class who look down on those below them in rank. Ironically, her lowly birth (being Magwitch’s daughter) should have placed her at the lowest rung of the class ladder but being raised by Havisham, she assumes the conceited poise of the upper class. Estella remains Pip’s unattainable dream throughout the novel. He loves her passionately, but, though she sometimes seems to consider him a friend, she is usually cold, cruel, and uninterested in him. As they grow up together, she repeatedly warns him that she has no heart but she relents in the end.
Miss Havisham: Miss Havisham is a vengeful wealthy woman who lives in a decaying mansion and wears an old wedding dress every day of her life because she was jilted on her wedding day. She also wears only one shoe, because when she learned of his betrayal, she had not yet put on the other shoe so she stops at that and also stops all the clocks in Satis House at twenty minutes to nine. The portrayal of her character deviates from realism as it is difficult to believe that one could wear only one dress for the rest of her life. However, she remains one of the most memorable characters in English novel. She adopts and raises Estella as a weapon to take a revenge on men but suffers greatly because of her maniacal quest for revenge. She is redeemed at the end of the novel as she begs Pip for forgiveness. Her repentance reinforces the novel’s moral perspective.
The novel is set in early Victorian England during the period of the Industrial Revolution which transformed both the land and the people of England. Although social class no longer depended entirely on heredity, the gap between rich and poor remained very wide. The actions of the novel take place mainly in Kent, Satis House and London.
In this article, we studied a very interesting novel, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. It is one of the novels of the Victorian Age so it reflects the Victorian sensibilities of affectation and class consciousness. It was published when serial publication of the Victorian Age established a kind of intimate relationship between the author and readers and his readers reactions, to a large extent, influenced the next serial to appear. It is said that Dickens was sensitive to criticism and occasionally restructures the plot to satisfy his readers (Cockshut 1961, 28). Consequently, the conclusion looks contrived, sentimental and unrealistic. Another flaw is the tendency of the novel towards melodrama. For instance, Miss Havisham in the flames is melodramatic. These may be the consequence of serial writing in which Dickens was obliged to introduce incidents designed to arouse interest and create suspense.
Great Expectations is a well-structured novel built around a central theme and other sub-themes. It presents the highly class-stratified Victorian society but upholds the sense of hard work and dignity of labour. In terms of genres of the novel, it is categorised as a bildungsroman. It therefore presents the growth of the protagonist from innocence to maturity and self realisation. Dickens’ depiction of the hard realities of London life is a consequence of his personal experience and familiarity with the environment. For instance, his father was sent to debtor’s prison and he was forced to work in a factory thus acquiring a firsthand experience of child labour which he portrays in many of his novels.
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