Notes for Great Expectations

Robert Harris
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.


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 distinguishes literature.)

In short, then, Great Expectations opens many thought-provoking philosophical issues. Here are some to look for:


Dickens uses many techniques to create additional interest in the story and its characters. Here are just a few:


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.

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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