What makes Great Expectations so enduringly appealing?
Great Expectations, Charles Dicken's masterly coming of age tale, is enduringly appealing for a variety of reasons. Not only has it managed to successfully pass the test of time - it seems as though it improves with age. Great Expectations was written from 1 December 1860 to 3 August 1861. It must be noted that it was published in a monthly magazine called All the Year Round, which, in some ways, is one of the many elements that contributed to its astounding popularity.
Most importantly, perhaps, whenever it came out, readers instantly grabbed a copy and, once they had finished it, they were anxious to discover what was going to occur next. Dickens' ingenious publishing strategy worked wonders, as readers were kept on the edge of a knife, so to speak; every time a chapter ended it was not done in the most simplistic way; rather, Dickens opted for the most astute and fascinating manner with which to keep the readers on an agonising wait, given that the vast majority of the chapters ended with a tight cliff-hanger.
Since its initial release, which was almost 145 years ago, Dickens' novel has become a bestseller worldwide and one of the most respected and beloved books of all time, even making it onto the BBC's The Big Read Top 21.
Great Expectations charts the progress of Pip from childhood through often agonising experiences to adulthood, as he moves from the Kent marshes to busy, commercial London, encountering a variety of extraordinary characters ranging from Magwitch, the escaped convict, to Miss Havisham, locked up with her unhappy past and living with her ward, the arrogant, beautiful Estella.
Pip must discover his true self, and his own set of values and priorities. Whether such values permit one to prosper in the complicated world of early Victorian England is the major question posed by Great Expectations, one of Dickens' most fascinating, and disturbing, novels.
One of the main components that make Great Expectations so immortal is what is found at the core of its central story. Great Expectations is a story about both the pains and pleasures of growing up, and since everybody has in some way or other experienced those moments, it all feels universal, meaning that we can all relate to and identify with what Dickens narrates. The personages within the novel don't lead wholly happy lives. They have their own problems, doubts and confusions; it is clear that not everything is going as well as they'd like it to be. It is precisely the subject matter that Dickens uses that makes it so special. Had it been a flat, uninteresting story which readers could not connect to, it would have most likely failed miserably. However, since that is not the case, it all feels relevant, even to today's generation. The themes that Dickens uses - love, redemption, courage, betrayal all seem to be as fresh as they were 145 year ago. Great Expectations is not a time-dependant story, it's just timeless. The novel does not rely on the subjects that concerned or interested people at those times; it simply touches issues that never die. Dickens uses language as a means of communication; he talks to us via the stories that he tells us, while enthralling us with the magic that is found in the novel. But perhaps the greatest thing that Dickens does is the way he uses all those themes; taking out a moral from each of them, thus providing the reader with a very important message that speaks out for itself. Ambition and self-improvement, for example, are two topics that are explored in lots of detail; we are given both the good sides and the bad sides of each of them, and in the end, they turn out to be the location from where the moral theme of the book emerges. At the end of the day, the moral theme of Great Expectations is quite simple: affection, loyalty, and conscience are more important than social advancement, wealth, and class.
It is Dickens' astute overlapping of genres, which proves to be very effective (and helpful) for the novel's rhythm. Great Expectations contains a vast amount of richness, some of it due to the variety of genres that can be found within the book. Great Expectations is a drama; but in between all that there is horror, romance, thriller, action and even a tiny bit of the fairy tale genre; all these are very well handled by Dickens, who continually keeps changing them with no previous warning, thus unexpectedly plunging the reader into different situations of different sorts. It all manages to work wonderfully.
The horror genre is masterfully crafted; from the very first page one could instantly assume that he's reading a horror story because of the atmosphere that is described, what with the cemetery, the shivering cold and the misty night. Miss Havisham's mansion is also another key aspect, which has a lot to do with this. It is when she first appears in chapter 8 that Dickens once again plunges the reader with no previous warning into the horror genre. Just like Pip, the reader feels discomforted by the unsettling atmosphere that Dickens carefully weaves. "This was very uncomfortable and I was half afraid." Pip recalls while in Satis house. The typical old mansion, the obscure, long corridors, the cobwebs, the wax candles, the absence of light; all these certain horror elements combine to craft a rare sense of intense unexpectedness which lurks everywhere, meaning that Pip is not aware of what's going to happen next and nor are we, the readers. We feel so unsettled by what Dickens is telling us that all we can do is shudder with dread; until, that is, we are suddenly thrown into the romance genre.
Romance in Great Expectations is well treated; the love story between Pip and Estella flourishes as the novel continues its course, and it manages to intrigue the reader, despite the fact that many things are occurring. Estella, who is often cited as Dickens' first convincing female character, proves to be a suitable princess, although this time round she's not in as much danger as princesses in fairy tales tend to be. To put it simply, she's a princess with a twist, as she's not your typical Snow White or Cinderella; rather, Dickens opts for a role reversal and portrays her as a "proud, pretty and insulting" woman who knows little about modesty and was raised to torment men and "break their hearts". When Pip meets Estella for the first time, the reader instantly realises that he's fallen in love with her, yet we also know that she does not (yet, at least) feel the same way towards him. The novel's sort of love is not an overly sentimental one, flowing with ease and happy-go-lucky type of behaviour. In Great Expectations, just like in Romeo and Juliet, there are barriers. Pip finds himself not knowing what to do, trapped, deceived by his shortcomings, unaware of what step to take.
The fairy tale genre contrasts with the darkness that often lurks in the novel. At the beginning of the book, when Pip first ventures into the streets of London he's depicted as a rather na´ve character, with a desire to know it all, hope for a grand future and, of course, great expectations. He thinks that things are going to run so smoothly from then on, that everything's going to work just fine, that his life is going to be filled with colour and eternal happiness. As opposed to that, Pip's expectations could not be more erroneous. Dickens makes us see this with intense lucidity, because Pip's misunderstanding of life is indeed quite noticeable. Figuratively speaking, Pip is at first a tiny little gnome who is in danger of getting caught by the nasty ogres (Magwitch, Miss Havisham, etc), a person whose knowledge about life will grow as he does. Comparisons with the fairy tale genre are therefore, inevitable. When talking about a girl called Clara, Dickens describes Pip as saying, "She really was a most charming girl, and might have passed for a captive fairy, whom that truculent Ogre, Old Barley, had pressed into his service."
Along with David Copperfield, Great Expectations is arguably Dickens' most autobiographical story, as it mirrors and permeates some of his past life. Pip, the central character of the novel, is a person who has many things in common with the very person who created him; he hates his job and he feels as though he's superior to everyone around him.
That said, another one of Dickens' greatest weapons in his armoury is without a doubt the variety of characters. It is a main strength which makes the book incredibly rich; many characters (although not everyone entirely) have their own illusions, dreams and hopes, many individuals found in the novel possess their own views for a better future and have great expectations. Not only are they all vastly different from each other, with their own psychological complexities and diverse feelings and emotions - what makes them so great is that they all flow with life. Dickens illustrates his characters with admirable skill; he provides them with a voice of their own, a heart, a soul. They are all very memorable and it is the immense range of characters that makes it all the more special, given that one can see both quantity and quality.
Pip is the hero - a flawed one, at that. He's often won over, he can get hurt, he displays rudeness towards other people, he becomes a snob; he's just not perfect. Dickens exposes Pip as a vulnerable individual and because of that, or rather, as a result of that, we can actually relate to him or identify with him in some way or another. He has many things to learn and say, he has to forgive people and start valuing himself before he does so to other people. His relationship with Joe is as poignant as it is impressive and complex. As a kid, "what Larks" they used to have; they were always together and Joe was more than a teacher figure for Pip; he was a father. But as Pip grows up, his attitude towards Joe takes a radical turn, as he considers him to be vastly inferior because of his poverty and inability to speak well (he can't even spell his name right, as he doesn't know that it has an "e" at the end). However, in the end, they apologise and reunite after a long time of silence and anger, "I was slow to gain strength, but I did slowly and surely become less weak, and Joe stayed with me, and I fancied I was little Pip again." Pip feels as though he was back in his childhood days when they join together and recognises his mistakes, as he states, "O Joe, you break my heart! Look angry at me, Joe. Strike me, Joe. Tell me of my ingratitude. Don't be so good to me!"
The mad, vengeful Miss Havisham, for example, despite not being wholly credible is without a doubt one of the most memorable creations in Great Expectations for her psychological complexity; she's a wealthy dowager who lives in a decaying mansion and wears and old wedding dress every day of her life. Dickens ingeniously suggests that she's part ghost/part living corpse, an ever-rotting malicious being that knows our most profound fears and vulnerabilities, a symbol for the thing (whatever it may be or have been) that we, as kids, had always feared. She's a withering being for whom time seems to have ceased some way or another, a being who gradually depreciates. When Pip says that, "(...) Everything within view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow," Dickens cleverly conveys the decaying of her existence, as though her rise had already been and now was time for her fall. "Her chest had dropped, so that she stopped,; and her voice had dropped, so that she spoke low, and with a dead lull upon her; altogether, she had the appearance of having dropped, body and soul, within and without, under the weight of a crushing blow."
Miss Havisham integrates with her surrounding environment seamlessly; the deterioration of the house represents that of her own soul, as it has turned into a space filled with black emptiness. She's almost an emotionless character, like the goddess Persephone from The Iliad a powerful, diabolical and seemingly omnipotent personage who seeks vengeance; her internal body a complete catastrophe.
On a more allegorical level, however, Great Expectations can be interpreted is a tale about transfigurations. There are changes, mere metamorphosis in both internal and external appearances. Good people turn bad and bad people turn good. For instance, in the end, Miss Havisham is redeemed when she suddenly realises that she has caused Pip's heart to be ruptured in the same manner as her own; rather than achieving any sort of personal revenge, she has only "caused more pain". Miss Havisham immediately begs Pip for forgiveness, reinforcing the novel's theme that bad behaviour can be redeemed by contrition and sympathy. Again, this shows us Dickens' manipulation of morals and the way Miss Havisham changes, internally at least (possibly not per se, but due to the influence of other people). Pip, on the other hand, becomes a snob. He goes from a humble poor little boy living in the Kent marshes to an arrogant and popular wealthy gentleman. Also, Magwitch turns from a mean escaped convict into a respectable and caring old man, Joe goes from an ignorant being to a mildly educated one, and Estella learns how to properly treat people, as she realises that they're just as important as she is. "I am greatly changed. I wonder if you know me", Estella declares to Pip close to the end of the novel. Biddy is yet another character who goes through a change, as Pip himself indicates, "Imperceptibly I became conscious of a change in Biddy, however. Her shoes came up at the heel, her hair grew bright and neat, her hands were always clean." In both a literal and figurative sense, everything sort of expands in the novel, everything gains a larger scope. This is all due to the fact that, as external appearances modify, so do internal ones, and this is very well shown by Dickens. This aspect of Great Expectations may go unseen to the naked eye, but the thing is that not everything in the novel is superficial, as many things can be found at its deepest roots.
In fact, Great Expectations is also a highly bitter attack at the upper classes that occupied the Victorian England at those times. Not only are we given a terrific insight of the people that belonged to it; we are told (and with perfect clarity, mind you) that their interminable fortunes, albeit improving them on the outside, gradually deteriorates them internally. Wealthy individuals in Dickens' novel are seldom given a good fate; one simply has to remember Miss Havisham's lamentable death by incineration. As a result of this, one quickly comes to the conclusion that Great Expectations is actually a tale (perhaps satire would be a better word to describe it) about social class, amongst other things. Ranging from the most wretched criminals (Magwitch) to the poor peasants (Joe and Biddy) to the middle class (Pumblechook) to the exceedingly rich (Miss Havisham), Dickens delicately inspects the discrepancies of the upper class entities, gently whispering to us that, as rich as though they may be, it is inside their hearts where the darkness lies. He gives the reader a sneak peek at the society of those times, and tells us: "This is how people used to live."
Dickens' humour is a very odd one indeed. Needless to say, it's very impressive; the way he tackles comedy is a very exceptional one. But it is not the use of humour which is so bizarre, rather, it's the position of it. It's not that its clumsy, uncalled for, and inappropriate or anything of the sort; it just feels so goofy, so out of place and tongue-in-cheek, that it's impossible not to laugh at, and yet (surprisingly so) it all seems to work.. Pip's perspective as a man looking back on his childhood somehow permits some amounts of humour, and it is when one least expects it that he throws them in. Whatever the circumstances, be it a moment of real peril or true horror, Pip manages to paint the whole situation with some comedy, and it integrates perfectly, both taking the tension to a whole new level and reminding us that, as a whole, it all is a fairy tale in reality.
Although at first glance it may not seem so, another pivotal element which may explain Great Expectations' endless appeal, is the innumerable variations that have been made out of it. Three noteworthy film adaptations have been made (in 1934, 1946 and 1998), David Lean's version proving to be the most faithful (and altogether finest) translation of the bunch. Not only did it gain enormous critical praise upon its preliminary release, it was also nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and went on to win two of them (Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography). Evidently, the success of 1946s Great Expectations introduced Dickens' novel to a newer generation and further encouraged people to either discover the book or simply revisit it, whilst at the same time suggesting to other film directors that they could do the same and tell Great Expectations in a several different ways, thus keeping the story alive, like when one throws wood into a fire and makes its course go on and on. The countless adaptations that Dickens' novel has gone through didn't do more than recycle the basic story, alter it in some way or another and provide the viewers with the director's vision; but it will always be Dickens' vision which will spellbind people the most and the one which will most possibly never fade away.
Perhaps it is Dickens' splendid use of the English language which has caught the readers' attention. Could it be? I'd definitely say, yes, because his descriptions are as impressive as they're prolonged; his passion for the language is as amazing as it is bewildering. Indeed, one can certainly affirm all this, since Dickens takes a more than a third of a page to describe how Mrs Joe Gargery spreads butter on a loaf of bread: "(...) using both sides of the knife with a slapping dexterity, and trimming and moulding the butter off round the crust. Then, she gave the knife a final smart wipe on the edge of the plaister, and then sawed a very thick round off the loaf: which she finally, before separating from the loaf, hewed into two halves, of which Joe got one, and I the other." It must be noted that the way she handles spreading butter, with such awful brutality and coarseness, reflects the way she treats her husband and Pip - there are symbolisms abound in the novel. Pip says at one point, "I had known, from the time when I could speak, that my sister, in her capricious and violent coercion, was unjust to me."
One can't simply overlook the mere fact that Dickens was a true lover of literature and writing as a whole, considering that his endless passion for it all is nearly palpable in this novel. Everything is written with such subtlety and fervour that one cannot help but admire it all. What Dickens does is confirm literature not just as a simple way of entertainment but also as an art form, and that's an admirable thing. It is clear that he didn't write the book with the sole purpose of entertaining (and satisfying) the readers; rather, he did it in order to corroborate literature as a pure art form, as a thing to be cherished and valued because of the overflowing level of artistry involved in the process, just like people such as Antonioni, Kubrick or Kurosawa did for cinema. There is no denying that this factor could have attracted many people to read Great Expectations, and perchance still does.
Overall, there are many components that make Great Expectations so enduringly appealing. Be it the vast variety of characters, the subject matter, the themes and motifs or the different genres, Great Expectations continues to be one of the most respected and beloved books of all time. It is considered to be a masterpiece in its own right and one of the most significant literary works of the 19th century. Even today, Great Expectations feels as relevant as it did almost 150 years ago, and its brilliance has not perished, and most likely never will.