Charles Dickens: Great Expectations


Great Expectations is Dickens’ most completely unified work of art, formally concentrated and related in its parts at every level of reading. Every detail of the plot, moreover, expresses some further aspect of the theme, and one that is necessary for its full apprehension of the reader.

A remarkable feature of the novel is the complexity of the irony which informs the plot from beginning to end. An irony already suggested in the title, for Great Expectations describes with irony exactly the triviality of the idle life that Pip, the protagonist, aspires to when he inherits the mysterious fortune, that Magwitch, the escaped transported convict, designs for Pip when he decides to make him a gentleman; the triviality, indeed the death in life, which Miss Havisham prepares for Estella when she plans to make her an instrument of revenge upon the hearts of men.

Great Expectations is essentially a novel of the education of a young man in the lesson of life, and like David Copperfield it is closely related to Dickens himself . Like David Copperfield it is autobiographical in form, written in the first person, concentrated on the development and the memory of one person, dealing with the growth of a man, beginning in childhood and spending quite a lot of time on the formative influences of the family and of the environment. The development of the man is being analysed by the man himself, presented in fact through his memory, and written from the standpoint of maturity.

Though not so close to the facts of Dickens’ actual life as David Copperfield it reflects nevertheless Dickens’ main obsessions with childhood. Pip’s fears, his feelings of guilt and social shame, his sensitiveness, a product of his uncomfortable position in Mrs Joe’s household and the cause of his suffering more than a hardened or happy boy would, though minimised by the amusement with which the adult Pip recounts his memories, are poignant enough to be moving as well as vivid.

In Great Expectations Dickens managed to reconcile realism, in the minute particularities of the individual life and the complexity and psychological truth of Pip’s feelings, with an exciting plot and an extraordinary range of experiences and coincidence. We move from the real world of everyday life into the non-rational or grotesque world outside time and place and with a logic of its own.

There is a consistent sobriety of language without losing idiomatic identity for the characters who range widely nevertheless, as from Jaggers to Joe, from Wemmick to Herbert, from Miss Havisham to Mrs. Joe, and this personal idiom is even what distinguishes Magwitch from Orlick.

Dickens conceived characters in dramatic terms. That is, he had the gift for creating and fixing through language a sense of humanity in action: men and women not thinking or being but doing and very often saying. We may even say that he conceived character and incident in terms of speech. And this habit of conceiving character in dramatic terms is to be found in his use of the linguistic or other mannerism, that is, the tic of language, tone, gesture or facial expression which marks so many of his creations throughout the novels, as Norman Page shows in his study on Dickens and speech in Speech in the English Novel.

No doubt the circumstances of serial publication, which required means of quick identification of a character and easy recognition on subsequent appearances after a lapse of weeks or even months, helped to turn it into a major feature of his technique. Besides, Dickens was a talented actor and had a strong perception of character and oddity, as well as a natural power of reproducing in his own person what he observed in others. It is this kind of perception, and a developing skill in expressing it, that is behind many of his most celebrated creations.

Characters are often associated with some favourite word or phrase or other verbal mannerism, for instance, Wemmick’s portable property or Mrs Joe Gargery’s favourite statement of her having brought up Pip 'by hand’. He reinforces the expressiveness of dialogue with descriptions of movement and gesture, thus providing a visual counterpart to the oral element in his fiction. Just as many Dickensian characters use habitual phrases by which they can be recognised, some of them have habitual gestures. Pip in his prosperity suffers much from them. When he is with Pumblechook he is almost incessantly required to shake hands; when he visits Wemmick he has to spend much of his time in nodding to the Aged-parent; and the lawyer Jaggers washes his hands in scented soap after interviewing every client.

Dickens displays an utterly dramatic talent in showing his characters acting their feelings. Turning again to Jaggers, we observe how after a particularly shady case he washes not only his hands but his face as well, gargling and scraping his nails. At dinner he deals out clean plates, knives and forks for every course and drops the ones his guests have just used into two baskets on the ground. Mrs Joe Gargery, unhappily married to the meek blacksmith, deliberately makes the house uninhabitable when she feels particularly strongly that her husband’s return for her services is inadequate. Her method is to put on her coarse apron, take bucket and pail and set about cleaning the house so ferociously that her husband is driven into the backyard where he stands shivering till she has finished. Both Jaggers and Mrs Gargery are employing soap and water in a very oblique way. Jaggers tries to clean his mind with it. Mrs Gargery punishes her husband with it for failing in his marital duties.

One of Dickens’ favourite devices of characterisation is the description of living creatures as though they were inanimate. In Great Expectations Wemmick is describe as a dry man, rather short in stature, with a square wooden face whose expression seemed to have been imperfectly chipped out with a dull-edged chisel. This impression of lack of animation is confirmed by the author’s habit of describing his mouth as a post-office. Dickens shows an inveterate habit of separating the body into inanimate bits, which surely combines with his obsession with deformity. This separating out of a single feature has a startling effect. The feature stands in sharp relief as a menacing warning. Jaggers treats his forefinger as a foreign body, biting it constantly, and Wemmick’s mouth tightens into the post-office shape as soon as he crosses the castle’s drawbridge in his way back to the office, thus emphasising the breach between his completely split personality.

We also find many examples of the converse process: the attribution of human emotions and actions to inanimate objects or to non-human living creatures. Pip in Great Expectations is tormented by the guilt for taking the file to Magwitch on the Marshes. It turns into a nightmare: ‘I was haunted by the file, he recalls. (...) A dread possessed me that when I least expected it the file would reappear... In my sleep I saw the file coming at me out of a door, without seeing who held it and I screamed myself awake.’ The file has become an autonomous, living being. The fragmented vision results in both nightmare and farce.

What saves Dickens from this rather shrill surrealism is his humour, a humour deeply interfused with his creative process which allows for an extraordinary blending of the ludicrous and the realistic precise detail.

A significant feature of Victorian novel, and particularly of Dickensf novels, is the heroest moral growth or change of heart. In Great Expectations we watch more than Pip’s moral growth. In the course of the novel we learn that Estella is really an upstart and that she has been trained to be proud and disdainful in order to revenge Miss Havisham on the opposite sex. Miss Havishamls sight of Pip’s misery at losing Estella wakens her to the realities of her use of Estella for revenge. Her death, burnt up in what seem to be Dantean flames of penitence, suggests a symbolic double meaning with the fire ending too with the heap of rottenness and all the ugly things that were sheltered there.

That Pip should marry Estella stripped of her pride, social superiority, aristocratic grace, youth and fortune, and also the illusions Pip had had, lost when he learned of her parentage, shows him to have recovered from the spell Satis House had cast over him. Estella is now saddened, a poor widow, has passed through Drummle’s distasteful hands, and has nothing left but the site of Satis House. She has gone through a process comparable with Pip’s self-knowledge and humiliation so that they can truly come together at last. Her appeal for Pip now is that they have this experience in common, as they have a common past history, both having been made use of and having much to regret. This, as Q.D. Leavis says in Dickens the Novelist, fits them for each other and no one else. So they leave the ruined place hand in hand, a picture that is not a sentimental happy ending, but a true symbol of the successful end of Pip’s pilgrimage.

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