"Great Expectations" is considered Dickens' finest novel. To what extent does it deserve this reputation?

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Sohna Jawara 11JSSD

“Great Expectations” is considered Dickens’ finest novel. To what extent does it deserve this reputation?

 “Great expectations” was written by Charles Dickens in 1860. It is centred on Pip, an orphan living with his austere sister and her mild-mannered husband Joe Gargery the blacksmith. It follows his journey from being a simple boy with few expectations, to his moving to London and becoming a ‘gentleman’, at the expense of a mysterious benefactor.

I am going to write an appreciation of it, analysing its main components: The story, the structure, the characters, the narration, the setting, the language and literary devices, the themes and the social/historical context, and evaluating their success to answer the question.

 “Great Expectations” combines many different genres, including romance, mystery, history, action and comedy. This means it has universal appeal, and people with a wide range of interests and preferences will find something to like about it. It also means that any individual reading it can respond it on a number of different levels.

Great Expectations does not have one single ‘bad guy’ – many people fill this role. Magwitch, as the convict would have been the antagonist in a traditional story of good and evil, however Dickens does not portray him as such, and even when we see him terrorising young Pip, it is portrayed in a humorous light, and we do not hate him. Pip is the hero of the story; however, at times he is the ‘bad’ character.

Mrs Joe is a character that could have been portrayed as an evil hag. However she is described with restraint as ‘not a good-looking woman’, and because Dickens does not go into much detail in the descriptions of her role as Pip’s childhood tormentor make her far more realistic. In a way, when she is attacked, we feel a sense of poetic justice because she made Pip’s life a misery. This is because she is a grimly realistic character and we don’t miss her as we would a classic funnier villain (like the Murdstones in David Copperfield). This deviation from the predictable structure of good and evil, present in some of Dickens other novels, makes the novel more interesting.

It is also very well plotted. Subplots eventually relate to each other or to the main plot and sometimes they even fuse with the main plot (e.g. the convict that attacked Pip on the marshes fuses with Pip’s expectations). Miscellaneous minor characters who initially appear to have only a decorative role, become components of the main plot (e.g. Jaggers’s housekeeper turns out to be Estella’s mother). Unexpected relationships between characters, either in the subplots or in various aspects of the main plot, are also present (e.g. Estella and the convict).

 “Great Expectations” was not written like a conventional novel and therefore has slightly unconventional structure. It was published in weekly instalments, each comprising of one or two chapters. This means that rather than guiding the story to a general climax at the end, Dickens had to incorporate mini-resolutions of the plot. Each episode also needed a cliff-hanger style ending to ensure the audience bought the next episode. This is apparent in the ending of the first instalment, which ends:

“Then I put the fastenings as I had found them, opened the door at which I had entered when I ran home last night, shut it and ran for the misty marshes.” (Chapter 2; p 13)

This resolves the first major incident in the story, in that we know Pip is doing exactly as the convict has instructed and the use of the phrase ‘ran for the misty marshes’ is used to create suspense on many levels. Obviously literally it means that Pip is returning to the marshes, to see the convict. The mood and tone created by the word ‘misty’ is one of uncertainty and mystery, which mirrors Pip’s feelings regarding the incident. The phrase is also highlights the symbolism of the moment. The marshes represent the strange events that occur later in the story, namely Pip being turned into a gentleman by a mysterious benefactor and Pip is unseeingly running into them by going to the marshes. The alliteration works to emphasise this phrase and make the reader pay more attention to it, thus making them more aware of its different levels of interpretation.

This continually fluctuating structure is potentially a weakness of the novel, because it could become repetitive. However Dickens uses other structural devices to break up the structure and prevent it becoming predictable.

For example, he uses the mini-breaks to shift completely the focus of the story. For example, chapters 25-26 were one instalment and chapters 27-28 another. However the transition between them is not coherent and their subject matters are not related.

Chapters 25 and 26 follow quite a leisurely pace, and detail relatively mundane events such as Pip attending dinners at Wemmick’s and Jaggers’s homes, and Pip engaging in a quarrel over a loan Drummle ungratefully borrowed from Sartop.

The letter at the beginning of chapter 27 breaks up the story in several ways. The change in format breaks up the text and allows a change in narration - we go from hearing from Pip’s narrative voice to hearing Biddy’s. This means that the story doesn’t get monotonous, and keeps the reader engaged.

The structure of this section of the story also influences the reader’s opinion of Pip. We read the letter then hear his reaction to it

“Let me confess exactly with what feelings I looked forward to Joe’s coming” p179

Because Joe has been portrayed well up to this point, the reader’s initial reaction to the letter is one of happiness that Pip will be reunited with him. However when we hear that Pip regards Joe’s visit with “considerable disturbance, some mortification and a keen sense of incongruity” we form a negative opinion of him. I think this is an effective use of structure, because it allows Dickens manipulate the response of the reader, and force him/her to form emotional bonds with the characters. For example we feel sympathy towards Joe and contempt towards Pip. This would make the reader more inclined to read on (and buy more of the episodes).

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Characterisation is important in Great Expectations. The names of many of the characters reflect their personalities. For example, Pip and Joe are short simple names to reflect their simple upbringings. Joe keeps his name throughout, but when Pip moves to London, he adopts the name of Handel – a famous composer. This shows that he has become more cultured and sophisticated.

Dickens’s well-educated audience would most certainly have studied Latin, and would have thus been aware that Estella derives from the Latin word for star. This highlights her radiance and beauty, but shows how unattainable she is to Pip. ...

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