Notes for Great Expectations
Version Date: July 15, 2000
The novel was originally published serially in Dickens' magazine All
the Year Round in 1860-61. There were 36 parts making up the 59 chapters,
with one part published in each issue. Thus, readers would read a chapter
or two each week, and then have to wait another week for the next installment.
This time delay between chapters or episodes influenced the construction
of the novel in several ways.
Dickens often ends the serialized parts on a note of tension. Look at the
end of chapter 2, chapter 4, chapter 7, and chapter 10, for example, to
see how parts 1, 2, 4, and 6 end.
The parts had to be similar in length and overall proportionate effect
Each part needed its own dramatic or compelling effect: a mini-climax,
a point of rest, or an element of suspense (to maintain interest in reading
the next installment)
Characters tend to have exaggerated or highly idiosyncratic characteristics--to
make them easily memorable and identifiable. These characteristics may
be related to speech, action, physical appearance, or name.
Many characters in eighteenth century novels had symbolic names: Squire
Allworthy, Mrs. Slipslop, Harriet Hearty, and so on. Dickens uses a more
refined version of this practice by choosing names that suggest characteristics.
Estella (a star, and suggesting an unreachable beauty), Jaggers ("jagged"),
Miss Havisham ("have a sham"). What do other characters' names suggest?
What about Pocket, Flopson, Magwich, and Pumblechook?
In the 19th-century much more attention was being paid to description:
construction of the scene or setting. Long passages of description became
common--to supply background, local color, to recreate past eras or to
create new worlds for the vicarious traveler. Another function of description
is to enrich the reading by using climatic or other physical features as
metaphors. Metonymy* is a common emotional shorthand in Dickens. Thus,
occurrences of fog, smoke, darkness, and rain reflected the gloom or melancholy
of the characters or actions taking place. Similarly, the appearance of
buildings suggests their purpose or the activities inside.
*Metonymy is a type of metaphor in which something closely
associated with another thing is substituted for it. For example, "orders
from the crown" means "orders from the King," since the crown is associated
with the King. In a common literary usage an external physical characteristic
or event is associated with an emotional state. For example, rain is typically
associated with sadness, so in films, it almost always rains at funerals.
Dickens at the time of writing the novel was rather depressed and harbored
vague feelings of guilt. This emotional state may have influenced the concern
with guilt in the novel, and the general melancholy tone of the book. Dickens,
at about age 48 at this time, was also in love with a young woman who resisted
his overtures. It has been suggested that Estella's character reflects
the influence of some of the resulting feelings (as seen in her coldness
and rejection). Also at this point in his life Dickens had become increasingly
antagonistic toward society. Earlier, he had been anti-aristocratic; now
he was hostile toward the English Victorian middle-class as well, for its
snobbery, pretensions, and materialistic values. Compare the values and
behavior of the lower or working-class people (for example Joe and Biddy)
to take the middle-class characters, especially those in London.
If you were asked to write an essay distinguishing between fiction (as
in a popular modern novel) and literature, a good choice for the literature
example would be Great Expectations because of the richness of themes
and ideas it engages. (My view is that fiction and literature share an
interest in plot and character, while it is an interest in meaning that
In short, then, Great Expectations opens many thought-provoking
philosophical issues. Here are some to look for:
Good versus evil. Dickens most common theme, complicated by the
moral ambiguity of many characters and situations. The poses and false
appearances many people erect cause us to wonder who is good and who is
Guilt. Related to the good and evil theme is that of guilt. Who
is guilty and of what? Does everyone have some guilt?
What is the value of education? Does it improve people or only corrupt
them? What exactly is education, anyway?
The danger of wealth and social position to corrupt. Are they corrupt
in themselves and thus to be avoided?
City vs. country. One of the oldest thematic traditions in literature
is the conflict between city and country. Usually, the city is the scene
of corruption, confusion, and problems, while the country hosts innocence
and resolution. (See Shakespeare, for examples.) What about the city and
country in Great Expectations? How do they function?
The real vs. a facade. Many characters have or erect facades--false
fronts or appearances--to hide their real selves. Why? Who are they? Are
the facades beneficial or harmful?
The power of imagination to control behavior.
Pip's imagination about Miss Havisham
Miss Havisham's imagination about her past
Many characters imaginations about Jaggers
Magwich's imagination about gentlemen, Pip, and gratitude
Imprisonment as a metaphor. Several characters are imprisoned--in
real prisons, in exile, in self chosen prisons, in psychological prisons.
Dickens uses many techniques to create additional interest in the story
and its characters. Here are just a few:
Ceremonial distancing. Several characters have ceremonial methods
of distance in themselves from parts of reality:
Wemmick, through his castle
Jaggers, by washing with perfume soap
Pip, through his dress and manner
Miss Havisham, through darkness, isolation, frozen time, and vicarious
agency (i.e. Estella)
Mr. Trabb, through his handkerchief
Characters' struggle to cut off or separate part of their lives:
from their past--Magwitch, Pip, Molly
from their personal life--Wemmick
from their emotions--Wemmick, Jaggers, Estella
from their future--Miss Havisham
It is sometimes claimed that Henry Fielding's Tom Jones is the best
plotted novel in English because of the way events and characters tie together.
However, a similar claim might be made for Great Expectations. Here
are some of the features of great plotting:
In weaker plotting, loose ends may remain, subplots may run parallel to
the main plot but relate only in a minor way or not all, and so forth.
For example, what ever happened to the Spaniard and Friday's father in
Robinson Crusoe? In the best plotting, all elements (characters,
events) contribute in some way to the advancement, outcome, and meaning
of the main plot and central themes.
Opening of loose ends which are eventually tied into the story (for example
of Mrs. Joel being attacked) to seize.
Subplots that eventually relate to each other, to the main plot, or even
fuse with the main plot
Miscellaneous minor characters who initially appear to have only a decorative
role, but which become components of the main plot.
Unexpected relationships between characters, either in the subplots or
in various aspects of the main plot
2000 by Robert Harris | How to cite this page
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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer
and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college
and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com