Perhaps the most interesting thing about Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is not it’s narrative, form or symbolism, but the way in which it was published. Unlike most Victorian novels, Dickens published Great Expectations in a serialised form, releasing one chapter or section, once a week, every week, for eight months. It was published in All the Year Round magazine, a text that Dickens ran as his main source of income.
For the book, this form of serialisation meant two things; firstly, it would be read alongside news articles and documentaries, authenticating the realism in the work, as the tale would appear more realistic; and, secondly, Dickens’ work could be reached by a wider, more varied audience. After all, most Victorian novels, such as that of the Brontë sisters, would have primarily been read by the middle class, their increased wealth and leisure time, brought on by the increase in industry, causing this class to be the primary readers of novels. However, an installment of Great Expectations could be read for one shilling, making the novel accessible to the lower classes. This became popular, too, as with an increase in education and the fact that novels were generally read aloud during this time, the working class was able to access literature in a way that had never been possible before.
Great Expectations is a fascinating read though, and whilst many find it’s sheer length intimidating, this will not necessarily be a problem. Dickens’ style of writing is far simplier to that of other Victorian writers, perhaps because he was focussing on aiming his texts at the lower classes as he was writing. This aligns Great Expectations with modern texts that we may read today; whilst the subject matter is somewhat unfamiliar and some language may still present itself as alien, I, personally, found Dickens a lot more accessible than some other Victorian authors. I found myself focussing less on the symbolism of the text, and what wider context Dickens may be alluding to, and more on the actual story, and imagination of Dickens as he paints the opposing worlds of the misty marshes and the dark, unforgiving streets of London.
If you are unfamiliar with the story of Great Expectations, here is a brief overview: Pip, an orphaned boy who lives with his only surviving sister and her husband, is one day attacked on the marshes as he visits his parents’ graves. An escaped prisoner happened to be passing by, and searches Pip for food and money. Terrified, Pip promises to return with foodand supplies to help the prisoner escape. He delivers the goods to the prisoner, and hopes, regardless of how wrong he is, that that business is finished for good. A while later, there is a meal at Pip’s sister’s house, but it is inturrupted by the police, who are asking about a couple of escaped prisoners. Pip and Joe, his sister’s husband, follow the police to search for the prisoners, and witness their capture. The prisoner who Pip helped recognises him as he is taken away, but he doesn’t give Pip away, and Pip never tells anyone about his involvement with the man. Later, Pip is invited to “play” at Satis house, the home of a rich, unmarried woman, who sits alone, mourning her near-marriage, and the fiancé that left her waiting at the alter. Pip spends his days learning from her and her adopted daughter, Estella, beginning to realise his class position, and despising his family for it. To his joy, Pip’s wishes are heard, as a “mysterious benefactor” pays for his move to be educated in London. The story then considers the changes and difficulties Pip experiences in his new life, as well as revealing what he has left behind. Murder, deception, manipulation and heartache make up the underpinning plot, Pip’s life turned upside down once more, as a familiar prisoner interrupts his solitude, and the true identity of his “mysterious benefactor” leaves him horrified.
It is a good story, a combination of thoughts about family, identity and honour questioning the roles of class and what truly makes a gentleman in this world. What is more, the text falls under the title of a bildungsroman; this is a type of book that has existed since Classical times, but only became truly popular during Victorian times. It considers the narrative of a child, usually an orphan, as they mature along the course of the narrative, and begin to find their place in the world, finding their own identities, because there is no one left to do it for them. Emily Brontë’s Jane Eyre, as well as one of Dickens’ other novels, David Copperfield, also fall under the category of a bildungsroman, all three texts considering the growth of a child into an adult. This is an interesting narrative technique, and is one which seems to build a familiarity between the characters and the reader; it is easier to understand Pip, because readers do not only hear about his story: they witness it, travelling a similar journey as the tale is periodically released throughout their lives.
Overall, Great Expectations is an exceptional novel, exemplifying values of the Victorian era, as well as telling a great story. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone.
If you’re interested in learning more about Charles Dickens and his life, feel free to check out my Author Spotlight page, where I consider the controversy surrounding his relationships, and the near-loss of his novel, Our Mutual Friend.