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George Eliot criticised Dickens for 'encouraging the miserable fallacy that high morality and refined sentiment can grow out of harsh social relations, ignorance and want'. Is this a fair criticism?

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Tutor: Dr John Bowen ENGLISH MODULE 380 CHARLES DICKENS George Eliot criticised Dickens for 'encouraging the miserable fallacy that high morality and refined sentiment can grow out of harsh social relations, ignorance and want'. Is this a fair criticism? 'Never be mean in anything, never be false, never be cruel', Betsy Trotwood advises David Copperfield, and it is advice that many of Dickens' characters appear to abide by despite often being submersed in a whirlwind of 'harsh social relations, ignorance and want'. Eliot criticised Dickens for this 'miserable fallacy', for presenting individuals who always show a capacity for sympathy with others and high morality regardless of the austerity of life that they have been subjected to. Great Expectations is a novel that breaks away from this convention, presenting to us instead a very dark and violent world that does not fail to leave its mark on the hearts and moral fibre of the characters. This inverted fairy-tale breaks down Eliot's 'miserable fallacy', what Thurley considers, 'the Dickens Myth'.1 In fact Dickens regarded the novel as one in which 'the general turn and tone of the working out and winding up' would be different from 'all such things as they conventionally go'.2 As the protagonist's life is turned upside down so is the idea that 'men of feeling', capable of benevolence and high moral judgement, can emerge from the worst possible circumstances. However, the so-called Dickens' myth is given weight at the very beginning when we meet a protagonist who has all the attributes of a young Oliver Twist. He is an orphan no plot, and only an imagined idea of his origins. The novel begins, rather tragically, with Pip in the graveyard where his family 'late of this parish' are buried. Here is a character that clearly does not belong to those 'one upon a time' beginnings, unfortunately for Pip in more ways than one. ...read more.


This fairy godfather, apart from being a convict, is a reversal of a benevolent hand that helps Dickens earlier novels, namely because he uses Pip. He expects the boy to remember him, 'holding out his hands', which have sadly worked to both cradle Pip and metaphorically to hold him in his grave. He also expects him to be grateful for taking him out of the forge and keeping him ignorant of his identity for the first part of his life. He is however able to recognise in Pip nobility that will later help Pip to recognise it in himself. Yet this 'second father' has, in many ways, survived his harsh background only to become a man who destructively cares for everybody else. He is the male Miss Havisham who abuses Pip so as to wreak his revenge on a society that has misused him: 'If I ain't a gentleman...I'm the owner of such'. This is clearly not a fairy-tale novel, and it must be remembered that Pip is also far from being an angelic creation. In fact Great Expectations is Dickens' first real attempt to concentrate intensely on the psychological make-up of his characters. Once Pip is informed of his great expectations he attaches false hopes to a fairy-tale dream embodied in Satis House, the so-called 'Enough House', and thus hankers continually after the station of gentleman, a clear result of the want, an almost disease caught as a child. Miss Havisham's false love and allowance of the vulnerable child's placement of his fantasies upon her is one of the most disturbing evils throughout the entire novel. The hope he invests in Miss Havisham gives Pip the confidence to create for himself a protective bubble, which will one day magically make his shame of the forge and the convict on 'the mesh's' disappear and almost instil in him 'high morality' and 'refined sentiment', as if they are commodities that go hand in hand with the classes that are higher up the social scale. ...read more.


When lured to the limekiln, Orlick poignantly blames Pip for the felling of Mrs Joe. 'You done it; now you pays for it', he exclaims, almost as if he realises that he is playing the part of scapegoat, carrying out the many actions that Pip more than likely has fantasised about himself. Pip can at least play the role of victim, as long as there are characters such as Orlick who are willing to take his mirror image role as avenger. Great Expectations is one of the most colourful and at the same time painful novels ever written, ultimately a 'grotesque tragic-comic experience'.19 It draws of a wealth of characters, yet the considerable thing about the novel is that unlike his earlier work, Dickens does not admit any miraculous transformations at the end. There is no suggestion that anyone has survived their past completely unscathed, from Pip's burns, to the washing of Mr Jagger's hands, and no-one is given the privileged place of being magically delivered into the heaven of 'high morality' and 'refined sentiment'. The defining of goodness, ultimately high morality and refined sentiment, has come a long way since Dickens earlier novels. It is a novel in which he is no longer 'willing or able to make the straight satiric indictment which governs...morality'.20 As a result many of his characters are a tragic mixture, and as Sadrin suggested it is the 'Dickens myth' raised to the surface, laid upon the table, dissected and criticised'.21 Despite the Oliver Twist beginning, we meet numerous characters who engage in a series of ontological struggles - Wemmick being the only character to have avoided such by adopting 'Walworth sentiments' that exist in an entirely personal world where the self can never forget who they really are. For the reader nevertheless, as well as many for many of the characters, of 'all [Dickens'] books [that] might be called Great Expectations [and where that 'miserable fallacy' was mostly likely to lurk]...the only book...he gave the name... ...read more.

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