Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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Explain the fairy tale theme in Great Expectations.

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The fairy-tale theme in this novel is most apparent in its depiction of a rags-to-riches situation with the character of Pip. Pip is born in humble, rural, working-class surroundings but then catapulted to life as a well-to-do gentleman in London on account of an unknown benefactor. This sudden social rise of a lowly, formerly-despised figure is common to many fairy tales. Also consider Miss Havisham, who appears witch-like, and Estella, the beautiful maiden; again, such characters are staples of fairy-tales. 

Of course, Dickens also gives the whole fairy-tale theme an ironic twist, when Pip's wealth melts away; his fall is just as sudden as his rise. Also, unlike the usual fairytale hero, he does not get the beautiful girl, Estella - at least not in the original ending of the novel. Even the revised ending which Dickens came up with to placate readers who were dissatisfied with this less-than-romantic outcome, remains ambiguous. 

Pip' fall from grace is seen to be mostly deserved, however. He does not develop his character sufficiently as he ought; he becomes materialistic and condescending towards his old friends, Joe and Biddy. He has to be punished for this. The working out of a moral is also generally to be found in fairytales: the good characters triumph, the wicked are punished. Pip is not good enough, so he has to be humbled once more. There is no conventional happy-ever-after ending for him, although he does learn his lesson, and is grateful for the chance he is given to start over. This sense of thankfulness, once the great crisis in his life is past, is evident when he returns to his old home: heart was softened by my return, and such a change had come to pass, that I felt like one who was toiling home after distant travel, and whose wanderings had lasted many years. (chapter 58)

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Discuss the fairy tale mode of Great Expectations.

If this is a fairy tale, then it is one of the most bizarre and grotesque fairy tale I have ever read! No, seriously, you are right to identify that in this novel, as in other Victorian classics such as Jane Eyre, the influence of fairy tales is incredibly important. Let us consider what fairy tale elements we can identify in it and move from there to ruminate over the way in which Dickens subverts and manipulates the form for his own ends.

The phrase "Dickensian orphan" is a common one, but seems to present a rather stock character in his work and in fairy tales. This novel presents us with two apparently parentless figures in the form of Estella and Pip. Pip in particular is used and abused who is famously raised "by hand" thanks to his sister. Then, all of a sudden a fairy godmother comes along in the form of Miss Havisham, a figure who is a travesty of any fairy godmother I have ever read about. She has already adopted Estella, plucking her out of obscurity and transforming her, with a wave of her magic...

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wand, into a beautiful, cultured and heartless young lady. Both we and Pip believe that she does the same for him, being the source of his great expectations. However, it appears that there is no fairy tale happily-ever-after ending for them both. This has not been a "good" transformation. Estella has been transformed, yes, but this rags-to-riches story has also divorced her from her own feelings. Pip, too, finds that this much anticipated transformation brings only sadness and pain, especially in the way that it distances him from his roots and those that love him. A sudden revelation shows us and Pip that his "fairy godmother" is actually a criminal that haunts Pip throughout the narrative, and his wealth is based on the money of a convict. Although there is the possibility of a happy ending in the offing at the end of the novel, this is never confirmed, and we get the impression that if Pip and Estella do get their happily-ever-after, it is only through much suffering and pain, and another transformation that moves them out of the naive world of fairy tales to a more sober and mature view of the world in its reality.

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What is the importance of the fairy tale mode in Great Expectations?

This story is very similar to a fairy tale because an outside force sweeps in and changes the character’s life.

In some ways, Pip’s story is a Cinderella story. Cinderella was abused and forced to stay out of normal life and society. Pip was also abused and secluded. Cinderella received supernatural intervention in the form of a Fairy Godmother.  Pip also received intervention, although there was nothing supernatural about it. Consider it fate.

Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother transformed her into a princess worthy of marrying her prince. In a way, Magwitch did the same thing with Pip. He was impressed with Pip’s generosity to him when he was an escaped convict. He also wanted to prove that anyone could be a gentleman. Pip was whisked away to London to be trained for high society. Like Cinderella, this involved new clothes. I guess the clothes really do make the man!

Just as Cinderella’s fairy godmother prepared her to meet her prince, Pip’s fairy godfather prepared him for his princess. Pip assumed that he was being groomed to marry Estella. Of course, what really happened is that Estella had no interest in him, and Miss Havisham was not his benefactor.

Even Pip compares his and Estella’s story to a fairy tale.

She had adopted Estella, she had as good as adopted me, and it could not fail to be her intention to bring us together. She reserved it for me to restore the desolate house, admit the sunshine into the dark rooms, set the clocks a going and the cold hearths a blazing, tear down the cobwebs, destroy the vermin—in short, do all the shining deeds of the young Knight of romance, and marry the Princess. (Ch. 29)

In this fairy tale, there is no happy ending. Estella and Pip are unhappy, and will remain unhappy. Neither of them knows how to love in the normal sense. Pip is obsessed with Estella, and Estella is irrevocably broken. Pip was transformed by his fairy godfather, but his princess was not ready to marry him.

The importance of the fairy tale for this story is that Dickens is telling us that you can't transform yourself for the one you love. It is a rather pessimistic love story that Pip and Estella share. The people who are in love in the normal, simple way are much happier. Joe and Biddy, Herbert and Clara, and Wemmick and Miss Skiffins all live happily ever after, but Pip and Estella will be forever mourning the lives they could have had.

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What is the importance of the fairy tale mode in Great Expectations?

Great Expectations utilizes many adaptations of fairy tale archetypes: an innocent child (Pip, when we first meet him); a monstrous ogre (of sorts) who threatens to eat him (Magwitch, when we first meet him); a witch type who casts spells over people (Miss Havisham); and even an evil stepmother, although in this case, that role is played by Pip's sister.

Also, as in some fairy tales, there is an act of kindness that has many unexpected consequences. Pip undergoes a sort of Cinderella-like transformation, but unlike Cinderella, who retains her essential compassionate nature, Pip has to learn what is really valuable in life through the plot's twists and unexpected reveals.

In the end, however, Dickens does fall prey to what I think is his one fault as a novelist: a tendency to sentimentality. It's highly unlikely that Estella, raised as she is to be totally unfeeling, would undergo the transformation Dickens gives her so that she can return Pip's love. That is, perhaps, a real "fairy tale ending."

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