Textos Literarios Ingleses IV.
15th May. 2000.
Great Expectations: A Romantic, Realistic And Naturalistic Work.
It has been traditionally accepted that Charles Dickens, one of the most important writers in the history of English Literature, is a realistic writer. As a matter of fact, he could be said to be the most representative figure of the so- called Realistic Period and yet, as this paper will prove, the label used for this author does not fit at all.
In many of his major works, he presents social descriptions, which are ironical in order to criticize most of the time, and maybe this is the reason why he has been included into the group of writers who dedicate their literary productions to a social or political denouncement. However, Charles Dickens is more than that since in his works he presents not only a realistic perspective about life, but also a view about the world influenced by Romanticism and with the first manifestations of the would-be Naturalistic movement. In fact, he many times employs descriptions through the characters' speeches, which are the main source to prove this thesis, that let the readers make his romantic position out.
In Great Expectations, for example, we can find many passages where the protagonist, Pip, employs a kind of language that comes clearly from Romanticism:
“Out of my thoughts!. You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I
have ever seen since- on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, that your presence or influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be.” (333).
Undoubtedly, the words and comparisons used in this passage have some kind of Romantic influence and that can be seen even literarily when the character says: “You have been in every line that I have read”, meaning that he has read some romantic works. Thus, we can see how things are not only presented in a reasonable and logical way, that is, following the realistic line, but rather the contrary, that is, employing words that are completely romantic.
However, it is not only in Great Expectations where Dickens employs these loving words in order to introduce the romantic element, but also in many other works of which it would be important to highlight Hard Times. As a matter of fact, the similarities between these two novels are so amazing that even the same characters and personalities appear in both works but just with the little difference of names. Hard Times presents the story of a boy, Tom Grandgrind, and a girl, his sister Louisa, who are brought up in a very strict way by their father, Thomas Grandgrind, a man who is only concerned about the practical and utilitarian aspects of life. Consequently, because of this lack of fancy and imagination that is imposed to them since they are children, they are going to suffer the consequences of such a rigid method when they are in contact with the real world. As a matter of fact, these two characters
are regarded in the novel as a mere experiment. They are useful for their father in order to make himself sure that the system he and his friend Mr. Bounderby are applying to youngsters is all right. Needless to say, the method will undoubtedly fail. These characters are integrated into a spiral towards moral disintegration and complete failure and isolation. They are the children of a “practical” man whose only purpose in life is to show that logic and reason are the only useful means to educate a fructiferous population. This man belongs to a middle-class family and his view about life is just focused on progress by means of logic and so he tries to change his children into mere machines prepared to react against his own rules in the very moment they have the chance. On page 8, it is described the way that little Grandgrinds had been brought up:
“No litle Grandgrind had ever seen a face in the moon; it was up in the moon before it could speak distinctively. No little Grandgrind had ever learnt the silly jingle, Twinkle, twinkle little star; how I wonder what you are! No little Grandgrind had ever known wonder on the subject, each little Grandgrind having at five years old dissected the great bear like a professor Owen, and driven Charles's Wain like a locomotive engine- driver. No little Grandgrind had ever associated a cow in a field with that famous cow with the crumpled horn who tossed the dog who worried the cat who killed the rat who ate the malt, or with that yet more famous cow who swallowed Tom Thumb: it had never heard of those celebrities, and had only been introduced to a cow as graminivorous ruminating quadruped with several stomachs.”
Similarly to this, Great Expectations is also about the story of a boy who, because of his unlucky fate, is brought into relation to Miss Havisham, a woman who as Mr Grandgrind, will be responsible for the failure of the boy and the girl she is bringing up.
In the passage above mentioned, Dickens criticizes the lack of imagination at that time and he also claims for enjoyment, and we could even say romanticism, and present these principles as something inherently necessary for human beings.
In Great Expectations there are several fragments where the protagonist himself admits that he has romantic ideas, as on page 372: “ I really do not know whether I felt that I did this for Estella's sake, or whether I was glad to transfer to the man in whose preservation I was so much concerned, some rays of the romantic interest that had so long surrounded me. Perhaps the latter possibility may be the nearer to the truth.” Here we can see clearly that a romantic feeling takes place in the main character, Pip, although it is also important to point out that it is not only in this character where romanticism can be found. In fact, descriptions, speeches, actions, feelings, thoughts and mainly expectations are altogether full of this romantic view. However, this Romanticism that can be said to exist in Great Expectations does not appear so explicitly in Hard Times maybe because in this work the author just depicts reality as faithfully as possible in order build up a harsh attack on the society of the time. Besides, according to Forster, a famous critic and the author of Dickens' autobiography Life (1872-1874), the romanticism that somehow is presented in Great Expectations may be due to the amorous relationship that Dickens had begun with Ellen Ternan, an actress 27 years his junior, because of whom he got divorced from his first wife.
Yet, apart from these romantic characteristics that are important to take into account when trying to label Dickens' works, it is crystal clear that in Great Expectations we can find the predominating realistic features that are usually employed in his novels. Thus, for example, in Great Expectations there is a faithful description of the economic conditions of the time depicted by means of Pip's expectations. Poverty is
found everywhere in the society Dickens presents and these means of harsh and direct criticism masterly used by the writer are also useful for Dickens to present a criticism on the moral values of the time among which hypocrisy was the most frequently used. This notion can be found in Great Expectations in clear examples as when the boy inherits a fortune and everybody begins to treat him respectfully. However, hypocrisy is not only presented among the rich, as it would have been expected, but even among the very poor as Pip who after becoming rich wants to forget about his sister and uncle who he had loved dearly. When Pip is rich he rejects his family and he feels even ashamed of them. However, this case of Pip's is not the normal thing to happen in Dickens' novels since according to Forster: “some of the corruptions of money and pride, of place and the limitations of `respectable' values are explored. Virtue and human decency are discovered most often (as elsewhere in Dickens) among the poor, humble, and simple”.
Apart from these characteristics of the content of the novel there are also formal features that will lead us to identify clearly the realistic style in the novel, such as the employment of proper names and descriptions of places that can be easily located and verified to exist, the use of a first person narrator that gives a believable touch to the novel, and the special types of descriptions.
Respecting the use of names and places, it is easy to observe the presentation of characters by means of addresses to their names, origins, residences and so on. Details about the locations of places are also presented in order to achieve that realistic touch, as for example on page 334: “ Turning from the Temple gate as soon as I had read the warning, I made the best of my way to Fleet Street, and there got a late hackney chariot and drove to the Hummums in Covent Garden.”
As long as descriptions are concerned, it is important to point out that verbs of movement are their most especial characteristic in order to classify them as realistic. The result of this use of verbs of movement is a view of the objects described that gives the impression of being seeing a scene in a slow process presented step by step. On page 336 for example, we can find: “The little servant happening to be entering the fortress with two hot rolls, I passed through the postern and crossed the drawbridge, in her company, and so came without announcement into the presence of Wemmick as he was making tea for the himself and the Aged.”
Furthermore, there is another important realistic feature that needs be pointed out and it is the kind of characters. All the characters in Dickens' novels tend to be round character although, generally, it is the main protagonist who suffers the most radical changes throughout the novel. Thus, in Great Expectations, Pip is presented from childhood to adulthood, going through a very complex process of growth in which he develops drastically mainly because of the influence of his environment. This sort of character gives psychological realism to the novel, that is, by presenting a character that grows and changes his perspectives about life in general, the novel depicts reality in a closer way to everyday life since the process of mimesis is that way completely and successfully fulfilled. In Great Expectations whenever something new happens to Pip he changes his mind since he is a round character, as can be seen on page 347: “When I had taken leave of the pretty gentle dark-eyed girl, and of the motherly woman who had not outlived her honest sympathy with a little affair of true love, I felt as if the Old Green Copper Rope- Walk had grown quite a different place”. Also, on page 333, “All done, all gone!. So much was done and gone that when I went out at the gate, the light of day seemed of a darker colour than when I went in.”
However, although all these characteristics are really important there are others that cannot been forgotten such as the naturalistic ones. The features above mentioned belong to what many critics and thinkers have denominated as realism and because of the presence of these characteristics in Dickens' works, many writers and critics have dared to label them as realistic novels. Nevertheless, romanticism has been proved to exist in Dickens' Great Expectations, and now we are going to pass to the analysis of the naturalistic elements in Dickens' novels and especially in Great Expectations.
Some critics have defined naturalism as a step beyond realism, as a continuation of realism and as realism taken to an extreme. Thus, the naturalistic tendency has become the label for periods, and even though Dickens cannot be said to belong to the naturalistic period in England, he gained time in the inclusion of the naturalistic elements in his works.
To begin with it is crucial to point out since the very beginning what could be said to be the most important naturalistic characteristic in Great Expectations: the amoral state of some characters in the novel. These characters are determined by their environment and they can do nothing to rebel against it. Thus, Estella is so controlled by Miss Havisham that when she becomes a woman she realizes that there are things she has not been told about, as for example on page 331: “ `It seems', said Estella, very calmly, `that there are sentiments, fancies- I don't know how to call them- which I am not able to comprehend. When you say you love me, I know what you mean, as a form of words; but nothing more. You address nothing in my breast, you touch nothing there. I don't care for what you say at all. I have tried to warn you of this; now, Have I not?'.”
Besides, another very important naturalistic feature in Great Expectations is the concept of fate. Thus, Pip was a young poor boy who wanted to ascend in the social
scale. He inherited a fortune and he thought that it came from the aristocratic lady Miss Havisham. Yet, his fate was to suffer the consequences of having been born into a poor family and therefore he suffers when he finds out that the position he is enjoying comes from the love of a convict. This can be seen in the following passage: “All the truth of my position came flashing on me; and its disappointments, dangers, disgraces, consequences of all kinds, rushed in such a multitude that I was borne down by them and had to struggle for every breath I drew.” (293).
Furthermore, it is at this point in the novel when the naturalistic features in the description of feelings are more clearly exposed, that is to say, when the boy realizes that he has inherited a fortune from a convict he cannot help feeling abhorrence for the man even though the convict had tried to help him: “The abhorrence in which I held the man, the dread I had of him, the repugnance with which I shrank from him, could not have been exceeded if he had been some terrible beast.” (293).
Another naturalistic feature that has to be taken into account when analyzing Great Expectations is the fact that the main protagonists are children, as in Hard Times, or youngsters, as in Great Expectations. Thus, by means of presenting characters that are more likely to be hurt and who, at the same time, are more sensitive, Dickens achieves the capacity to present them completely determined by their environment. As a matter of fact, in Hard Times, Louisa and Tom are determined by their father's especial way of bringing them up. They can do nothing against it but wait until they are adult enough. In Great Expectations, Pip can do nothing but wait until the secret of where his inheritance comes from is revealed to him. At the end of both novels there is an expected failure of characters, both, the ones who thought that could control and change the world, as Tom
Grandgrind and Miss Havisham, and of those who are determined from the very beginning by their cruel environment.
Apart from these features which belong to the content of the novel, there are others concerning the form of the work that are also very important to point out. In fact, it is through descriptions that Dickens achieves the most extraordinary naturalistic touch as can be seen on page 389 where an extreme situation is presented by means of the employment of verbs of action which, semantically, in the context they are being used, may reflect some kind of tension: “Softened as my thoughts of all the rest of men were in that dire extremity; humbly beseeching pardon, as I did, of Heaven; melted at heart, as I was, by the thoughts that I had taken no farewell, and never now would take farewell, of those who were dear to me, or could explain myself to them, or ask for their compassion on my miserable errors; still, if I could have killed him, even in dying, I would have done it.”
Besides, regrets, as a characteristic of Naturalism, are also found in Great Expectations. Yet, it is not only in this novel where we can find this characteristic but also in Hard Times. In the latter, Tomas Grandgrind is really sorry when he realizes he has destroyed the lives of his children. He claims for pardon but his mistakes through a very long span of time have been very strong and have finished with the future of the boy and the girl. “But”, said Mr. Grandgrind, slowly, and with hesitation, as well as with a wretched sense of helplessness, “if I see reason to mistrust myself for the past, Louisa, I should also mistrust myself for the present and the future. To speak unreservedly to you, I do. I am far from feeling convinced now, however differently I might have felt only this time yesterday, that I am fit for the trust you repose in me; that
I know how to respond to the appeal you have come home to make to me; that I have
the right instinct - supposing it for the moment to be some quality of that nature- how to help you, and to set you right, my child”. (199).
Similarly to this, Miss Havisham also realizes she has done wrong and therefore she regrets for all she has done to Pip: “What have I done! What Have I done!” she wrung her hands, and crushed her white hair, and returned to this cry over and over again. “What have I done!”. I knew not how to answer, or how to comfort her. That she had done a grievous thing in taking an impressionable child to mould into the form that her wild resentment, spurned affection, and wounded pride, found vengeance in, I knew full well.” 364.
So as a conclusion, we could say that, as this paper has proved, Great Expectations, as well as Hard Times, cannot be said to be just a realistic work but rather a mixture of past tendencies, such as Romanticism, of new techniques and fashions, such as the realistic description of reality, and also of a more modern tendency that was still to appear, such as Naturalism; a movement whose first manifestations can already be found in Dickens' latter novels.
Dickens, Charles: Great Expectations. Penguin Popular Classics 1994. Berkshire, England.
Dickens, Charles: Hard Times. Penguin Popular Classics 1994. St Ives plc, England.
Humphry House, The Dickens World, Oxford University Press, 1941.
Norman Page, ed., Hard Times, Great Expectations And Our Mutual Friend, Macmillan