Great expectations; Charles Dickens

Literatura universal del siglo XIX. Narrativa y novela realista inglesa. Naturalismo y realismo. Época victoriana. Miseria e infancia. Argumento. Periodo

  • Enviado por: Marta
  • Idioma: inglés
  • País: España España
  • 10 páginas


-Index. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

page 1

-Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

page 2

-Summary of the novel. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

page 2

-Analysis of the novel. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

page 4

-Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

page 10

-Bibliography. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

page 11


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 we are going to analyse, he was far from being a prototypical realistic writer, or at least he was more than a realistic writer.

In many of his major works, he depicts the society of his times in a very ironical way, 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 yet to come Naturalistic movement.

Summary of the novel.-

First of all it will be useful to include a summary of the novel we are going to analyse, so we can later on refer to its characters and situations in a clearer way.

Pip is an orphan being raised by his tyrannical, ill-tempered sister and her kind and warm husband Joe, the local blacksmith. One Christmas Eve Pip encounters a convict in the village churchyard. The man scares Pip into stealing him some food and a file to grind away his leg shackle.

One day Pip gets invited to the house of a rich old woman named Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham is an old woman who was abandoned on her wedding day and has since then being secluded in her house (Satis House), her only companion being Estella, her adopted daughter. Estella is beautiful, but has been trained by Miss Havisham to break men's hearts, satisfying her surrogate mother's desire of vengeance. Pip develops a strong crush on her, a crush that turns into love as he grows older.

Pip frequently visits Miss Havisham, until one day she tells him never to return because the time has come for his apprenticeship with Joe to begin. Pip is miserable as a blacksmith and constantly worries that Estella will never stop seeing him as horribly common. One night at the village bar a London lawyer, Jaggers, approaches Pip, revealing that Pip has inherited a lot of money from an anonymous benefactor and must leave for London immediately, to become a gentleman.

In London, Pip studies with a tutor and lives with a new and close friend, Herbert. Pip is certain that his benefactor is the rich Miss Havisham. In addition, he becomes convinced that Miss Havisham's financial support is the result of her desire that he may marry Estella someday. Among the people he knows in London are Wemmick, a clerk in Jaggers' office who becomes his friend, and Bentley Drummle, a horrible brute who begins to make moves on Estella.

One stormy night, Pip learns the true identity of his benefactor. It is not Miss Havisham but Magwitch, the convict Pip fed in the churchyard many years ago, who has left Pip all his money in gratitude for that kindness. The news of his benefactor upsets Pip--he's ashamed of him, and worse yet, Magwitch is a wanted man in England. Pip finds that it is his dreadful duty to help him escape justice. Magwitch is eventually captured, however, and dies not long before he is to be executed and after Pip's discovering that Magwitch is actually Estella's father.

Without money or expectations, Pip goes into business overseas with Herbert. After eleven years abroad Pip makes one last visit to Miss Havisham's house, where he finds Estella wandering. Her marriage (she had married Bentley Drummel earlier in the novel) is over, and she seems to have grown kinder, and wants Pip to accept her as a friend.

Analysis of the novel.-

Now we are going to start our analysis of Great Expectations. What we are going to do is concentrate on some passages of the novel and see how they exemplify this mixture of styles we are talking about, as well as the ulterior effects this has in the novel at large. We will also try to relate this issue to the basic conflict in all of Dickens's novels, which is the clash between money and love. As Keith Selby very wisely point out in his book How to Study a Charles Dickens Novel:

“In Dickens's novels (…), the conflict tends to be shifted a little, to the conflict or opposition between the world of money, greed, lust and desire, on the one hand, and a sense of natural goodness and love, on the other.” (pp. 2, 3)

Let's first of all take a look, and again having Selby's theory in mind (the best place to locate those oppositions is likely to be in the first few paragraphs of the novel [the italics here are Selby's], since it is here that the conflict at the heart of the novel is going to be most apparent), at the opening paragraphs of the novel.

“As I never saw my father or my mother, and never say any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father's, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, `Also Georgiana Wife of the Above', I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. (…)

My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been (…) a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; (…) and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; (…)

`Hold your noise!', cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. `Keep still, you little devil, or I'll cut your throat'

A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.” (pp. 3, 4)

This excerpt is interesting because it very distinctively introduces the character of Pip as a boy with a vivid imagination, who even has to recur to fancies to get a picture of how his parents were and, what can be more unrealistic that having to imagine one's parents from their tombstones, below which their dead and putrefied bodies rest? The naturalistic implication in this fragment is reinforced by the way nature is described as a visual impression by Pip.

The other aspect concerning this passage which is also interesting is that it introduces the character of the escaped convict (who will later become a crucial element in Pip's “expectations”), and more specifically interesting in the way this character is portrayed: this fearful man with a terrible voice who limped, and shivered and glared and growled almost resembles a villain taken from a fairy-tale---he almost looks like a pirate or a vagabond. And indeed, I think that it is this combination of realistic and fairy-tale elements that imbues the novel with a very particular atmosphere, and to some extent distinguishes Dickens from other (perhaps more “canonical”) realistic writers of his time.

Now let's take a look at a passage more specifically romantic (in the loving and affectionate meaning of the word) and therefore not realistic. The following extract comes from Chapter 5 in Volume III; Pip has just learned that Estella is going to get married, and both of them are discussing whether Pip will forget her or not. Estella claims that he will forget her in a week, and this is what Pip answers her:

“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.” (360).

In this passage, Pip is clearly expressing himself in a romantic, not realistically-oriented way. This is more so since he is talking about such an ethereal and intangible feeling as love. The romantic influence here is very clear in statements such as: “You have been in every line that I have read”, meaning that he has probably read some romantic works which have evoked some amorous sentiments in him. This is most clearly reflected when Pip links the actuality, materiality… of London buildings with Estella's influence, as if he were willing to give a material entity to something as ungraspable as the lingering image of someone who is not present at the time. Thus, here we are facing again a fanciful, unrealistic Pip, who cannot stop loving Estella or thinking about her even when he knows that he's suffering from unrequited love and there is no hope for happiness.

It is here relevant to recapture Selby's dichotomy of love and money. In the passage above, Pip mentions some London buildings (London here representing the urban sphere of society, i.e. the place where all money transactions and trade are made) and compares it to Estella's presence or influence within Pip's inner, loving self; so here Pip is trying to bring together two realities (the reality of love and the reality of money), even though these can't ever be united, as he acknowledges when he confesses that Estella's image is more real for him than any London building.

Now let's concentrate for a while on the other side of the coin, i.e. the socio-realistic side of the novel at hand. Though in Great Expectations is not as prominent as in other Dickens's novels (most clearly Hard Times), realistic devices do play a very important role here. Dickens always showed a strong inclination to criticise the Utilitarian doctrine so in fashion in his time; this doctrine encouraged education based on facts and “practical” matters, but lacked in providing pupils with an understanding of such feelings as love or affection.

In Great Expectations we find traces of the consequences of this Utilitarian training in characters like Jaggers (Pip's solicitor in London), who would take nothing on its looks, but everything on evidence or Pumblechook (the local man who first introduces Pip to Miss Havisham), both of them obsessed with facts and ciphers and unable to appreciate nothing which they can't empirically prove.

But instead of commenting on any of the two characters mentioned in the paragraph above let's take an example involving Estella, which will enable us to further observations about the clash money vs. love.

“`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?'.”

Since Estella has been raised in a dysfunctional family, and has only be taught to be cold and heartless, there are feelings she is incapable of understanding, as the basic and so human notion of love. We could even say that Estella's unnatural raising is the consequence of Utilitarianism taken to a pathological extreme. We see then that wealthy and ladylike Estella is unable to show emotions or being affectionate, again marking the impossible reconciliation between love and money.

A bitter reproach Estella makes to her surrogate mother in a heated argument, reinforces the clash money/love existing within Estella:

“'Mother by adoption, I have said that I owe everything to you. All I possess is freely yours. All that you have given me, is at your command to have again. Beyond that, I have nothing. And if you ask me to give you what you never gave me, my gratitude and duty cannot do impossibilities'.” (p. 300)

The possessions Estella is referring to are merely material goods and wealth, which is indeed the only positive thing Miss Havisham has ever done for her. Estella very wisely acknowledges that she cannot return something she wasn't given in the first place.

We can find many more examples in the novel of the topics already analysed, but the extracts we have included in this essay are representative enough of Dickens's particular universe and of his wit.


In this essay we have glimpsed several aspects of the peculiarities of Dickens's style. We have seen that he makes very ample use of realistic elements (most of them related to the realms of money and power), usually in the shape of social criticism against some educational doctrines of his times, which produced artificial, and a bit freakish, characters like Miss Havisham (who, in due time, poisons her own child with these ideas) or Mr Jaggers. These realistic elements are mixed with more romantic, naturalistic aspects, somewhere taken to an extreme (the fairy-tale technique, here not very deeply explained), which always appear to clash with one another.

We have also seen the implication this clash has in the overall novel as it exemplifies the fundamental topic in Dickens's fiction: the division between the world of money and the world of love and sentiments, which can never be united, and collide even in terms of style.


*Books and articles.-

DICKENS, Charles, Great Expectations, Penguin Classics, London, England, 2002.

HOUSE, Humphry, The Dickens World, Oxford University Press, 1941.

PAGE, Norman (ed.), Charles Dickens: Hard Times, Great Expectations And Our Mutual Friend, Macmillan Casebook, London, 1979.

SELBY, Keith, How to Study a Charles Dickens Novel, Macmillan, London, 1989.

*Web pages.-

Some critics have defined naturalism as a step beyond realism, as a continuation of realism and as realism taken to an extreme. Even though Dickens cannot be said to belong to the naturalistic period in England, he did include some naturalistic elements in his works.