G. K. Chesterton once observed that all of Charles Dickens’s novels could be titled Great Expectations, for they are full of an unsubstantial yet ardent expectation of everything. Nevertheless, as Chesterton pointed out with irony, the only book to which Dickens actually gave the title was one in which most of the expectations are never realized. To the Victorians, the word “expectations” meant legacy as well as anticipations. In that closed society, one of the few means by which a person born of the lower or lower-middle class could rise to wealth and high status was through inheritance. A major theme of the Victorian social novel involved a hero’s passage through the class structure, and a major vehicle of that passage was money bestowed upon him, acquired through marriage, or inherited. Unlike many nineteenth century novels that rely upon the stale plot device of a surprise legacy to enrich the fortunate protagonists, Great Expectations probes deeply into the ethical and psychological dangers of advancing through the class system by means of wealth acquired from the toil of others.
Although the story of Pip’s expectations dominates the novel, he is not the only person who waits to benefit from the money of another. His beloved Estella, the ward of Miss Havisham, is wholly dependent upon the caprices of the unstable old woman. Moreover, other characters are the mysterious instrumentalities of legacies. The solicitor Jaggers, who acts as the legal agent for both Miss Havisham and Abel Magwitch, richly benefits from his services. Even his lackey Mr. Wemmick, a mild soul who changes his personality from lamb to wolf to please his employer, earns his living from the legal machinery of the courts. Just as the source of Pip’s money is revealed at last to be socially corrupted, so the uses of tainted wealth inevitably bring about corruption.
In Bleak House (1852-1853), Dickens had already explored with great skill the ruthless precincts of the law courts. His next three novels—Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855-1857), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859)—were not so well sustained and were, despite memorable scenes, less popular with the critics and public alike. Great Expectations (1860-1861, first published serially in All the Year Round) restored Dickens’s supremacy with his vast reading audience. Serious, controlled, and nearly as complex structurally as Bleak House, the novel also reminded Victorian readers of David Copperfield (1849-1850). Both are apprenticeship novels that treat the life education of a hero. Great Expectations is somewhat less autobiographical than David Copperfield, but it repeats the basic formula of the genre: that of an honest, rather ingenuous but surely likable young man who, through a series of often painful experiences, learns important lessons about life and himself. These lessons are always designed to reveal the hero’s limitations. As he casts off his own weaknesses and better understands the dangers of the world, he succeeds by advancing through the class system and ends up less brash, a chastened but wiser man.
Great Expectations differs from David Copperfield, however, in the ways that the hero matures to self-knowledge. In the beginning, both David and Pip are young snobs (Pip more than David)....
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