In the Victorian era, reading fiction was an extremely favorite pastime, and new novels were commonly published in serial format in periodicals. Many writers such as Charles Dickens became quite popular and developed huge followings that dutifully bought the periodicals in which they were published month after month, hooked by the entertaining and suspenseful stories. Dickens began Great Expectations in the fall of 1860, publishing it in weekly installments that began in December of that year in his popular periodical All the Year Round. Many of Dickens’ earlier novels had been published serially as well, but usually in twenty installments in a periodical issued only once a month. Because a weekly serial was necessarily shorter than one that came out only once a month, the installments of Great Expectations needed to be much more concise, a publishing requirement that had a great effect on the ultimate structure of the novel, which is indeed more concise than many of Dickens’ earlier novels.
The fact that Victorian novels were published in installments had a great effect on the characteristics and style of those novels. For example, each installment characteristically ended with a “cliffhanger” much like a soap opera on television; that is, a suspenseful ending designed to tease the reader into buying the next issue in order to find out what happens to the characters. Novelists also frequently created their characters with certain “character tags,” peculiar and often comic aspects of their physical appearances or way of talking in order to help readers remember each character from month to month. This was especially important for the minor characters. Finally, such novels characteristically included fantastic and extremely complex plots, all of the many strands of which were miraculously tied together in the final installments, as is the case with Pip’s gradual discovery not only of the identity of his benefactor, but also of Estella’s real parents. In Great Expectations, all of the major characters have been introduced by the end of ”The First Stage of Pip’s Expectations,” and all of the major strands of the plot have begun; Dickens continues to manipulate them throughout the next two thirds of the novel before tying them all together at the end.
The serial format of the novel also allowed for the peculiar situation of the ending of Great Expectations. In Dickens’ original ending, Pip meets Estella in London many years after the events in the main part of the narrative, and hears of her troubles with Bentley Drummle and of her plans to marry again. The two characters part, and there is no suggestion that they will ever marry, or even that they will ever meet again. But when Dickens’ friend and fellow author Edward Bulwer-Lytton read the manuscript for this ending, he convinced Dickens to give the novel a happier ending, believing that the reading public would be much more satisfied if he at least hinted that Pip and Estella will be free to marry at the end of the story.
In the case of installments in weekly periodicals as opposed to monthly ones, many publishers and readers felt that autobiographical stories were more appropriate for publication. Autobiographical stories, which were reputedly “true,” generally managed to grip the reader emotionally much more quickly than a fictional story. Some scholars today, such as Janice Carlisle, believe that this may have contributed to Dickens’ decision to write Great Expectations as if it were an autobiography, with a first person narrator, Pip, telling the story of his life. One of the most consistently praised aspects of the novel, and one of the things that makes it such an extraordinary achievement, is Dickens’ masterful depiction of Pip’s personality. The entire story is presented to us through this main character’s eyes, which allows the reader a great deal of insight into Pip’s psychology. Because of this. readers through the years have tended to see Pip as a much more successful and more realistic characterization than many others of Dickens’ major characters. Some scholars have attributed the success of Pip as a character to the relationship of many of the situations and events in the novel to Dickens’ own life. Dickens himself came from a poor background, and he was forced to work in a shoe blacking company as a child. And, like Pip, he managed to improve his own “expectations” considerably with his phenomenal success years later as a novelist.
The fact that Dickens so effectively invites his readers into the mind of his narrator and main character, Pip, also gives great impact to the development of the novel’s themes. The main action of the novel involves Pip’s expectations to improve his lot in life, and the three “stages” of his transformation from a poor boy living in a small town into a gentleman successful in the world of Victorian commerce. Initially believing his benefactor to be the wealthy Miss Havisham, Pip becomes a snob, and gradually becomes more and more embarrassed by his past, by his home, and particularly by his loyal and true friend, the humble blacksmith Joe. Upon learning the true identity of his benefactor, however, Pip’s mistaken assumptions and his future expectations are dashed when he is forced to confront the fact that the man who has turned him into a gentleman is none other than an uneducated and uncouth criminal. The reader who becomes caught up in Pip’s outlook. sharing his assumptions with him, experiences, like Pip, a surprise and an important lesson when those assumptions are shattered.
The lesson that Pip learns comes in his gradually growing to see the goodness and humanity of Magwitch, truly a noble soul despite his past involvement in crime. Such a realization allows Pip, and the reader, to see the wrongness of a class structure that implies that wealth and a high station in life are equal to high moral virtue. After all, Magwitch is portrayed as having a gentle and noble spirit, while the more suave and gentlemanly Compeyson is a vicious and unfeeling criminal. Miss Havisham, too, who represents a wealthier class than that of Pip’s family, is not his benefactor, but knowingly allows Pip to believe that she is as she involves him in her own schemes. Moreover, in looking back over the story line, the reader sees at the end that it was Pip’s simple act of stealing food as a small boy to help the escaped Magwitch that led to his “great expectations,” and not his appeal to Miss Havisham as a future mate for Estella, as he had convinced himself throughout the early part of the novel. Through the stages of his personal and psychological development, Pip experiences a change of heart, and learns the value of a true friend, finally seeing Joe and Biddy, the humble friends of his youth, as the loyal friends who have always stood by him despite his aspirations to rise above them in class.
By charting Pip’s gradual change throughout the novel, Dickens manages to illustrate an important aspect of the socio-economic context of his times. As the Industrial Revolution continued to change the nature of commerce in England and beyond throughout the nineteenth century, a middle class gradually emerged where before there had been only the aristocrats who were born wealthy, and the lower classes. In many ways Pip represents the kind of middle class “gentleman” that was quite common during this time; that is, a gentleman who had established himself in a successful business and a comfortable lifestyle despite the fact that he had been born into poorer circumstances. If he had been born a century earlier, Pip would not have so easily found the means to rise out of his social station and enter a higher one through Magwitch’s and his own success in business ventures.
This kind of social commentary is common in Dickens’ works. Often he took the opportunity to criticize aspects of contemporary British culture that troubled him, like Victorian standards of education, the legal system, or crime and British prisons, which indeed he takes the opportunity to examine even in Great Expectations when Pip visits the notorious Newgate Prison in London. Before Great Expectations, many readers had begun to feel that the novels that Dickens wrote in the l850s, such as Bleak House and Hard Times, had become too dark, gloomy, and depressing, and they missed the humor and the appealing characterizations of such popular earlier novels as Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, and David Copperfield. Such readers were much pleased by Great Expectations, because, despite Dickens’ occasional lapses into social criticism, they found such figures as the self-important Uncle Pumblechook, the would-be actor Mr. Wopsle, and the comic family of the Pockets worthy of comparison with the humorous caricatures that made the earlier novels so popular.
In addition to the character of Pip, Great Expectations offers many characters that add a rich texture to any interpretation of the novel. Some critics have found an unusual opportunity for understanding the place of women in Victorian culture and their role in Victorian fiction by studying the women in this novel: the kind Biddy, who is able to guess the identity of Mrs. Joe’s attacker, and who sees more clearly than anyone the painful effects of Pip’s selfish aspirations, and Molly, the mysterious woman who had been unwilling to suffer the degradation of her husband Magwitch’s infidelity without a fight. Of particular interest is the peculiar and memorable case of Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella. Miss Havisham embodies the wrath of a woman who has been cheated and abandoned by a reputed lover, and as a result she is a woman who has refused to accept the passage of time. The clocks in her house were stopped forever when she learned of her lover’s duplicity, and the shoe she was in the process of putting on when she heard the news remains off of her foot. Her rotting wedding dress and cake represent the spoiled hopes that are turned into hatred as she plots her revenge by raising a heartless child to break the hearts of men. Far from the generous benefactor she appears to be to Pip, she lures him into her plans to make Estella into a cold and condescending young lady. And the outcome of Miss Havisham’s plans offer the reader a lesson as well; she comes to find that she herself can expect no affection from a child she has raised without affection, and the vindictive life that she raised Estella to live becomes a sham and a tragedy when Estella enters a bad marriage with the abusive Bentley Drummle.
Other characters, such as the gentle blacksmith Joe, the lawyer Jaggers with his scores of grateful clients, and Jaggers’ clerk Wemmick also contribute to the indelible impression of Great Expectations on the reader. Wemmick, particularly, is one of Dickens’ most idiosyncratic and endearing characters, with his clearly delineated private side in which he serves Jaggers with the utmost professional discretion, and his diametrically opposed personal side in which he takes care of his stone deaf father, ”the Aged P,” in their impenetrable suburban cottage built to resemble a castle complete with cannon, moat and drawbridge. It is characters like Wemmick, and Joe, and Miss Havisham, in addition to the remarkably realistic characterization of Pip, that make Great Expectations one of Dickens’ greatest works, and indeed one of the finest achievements of the Victorian novel. Like the Victorian readers who hurried to buy the latest issue of the magazine to read the latest in Pip’s adventures, readers through the years have continued to find the experience of reading Great Expectations to be compelling and endlessly entertaining.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, Charles Dickens, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998
Arnold A. Marldey, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.