Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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Critical Overview

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Charles Dickens was often faulted by his early critics for writing with more melodrama or realism than suited his readers' tastes. In 1861, E. S. Dallas suggested that this was part of Dickens' charm: "Faults there are in abundance, but who is going to find fault when the very essence of the fun is to commit faults?" Yet Lady Carlisle once delicately commented, "I know there are such unfortunate beings as pickpockets and streetwalkers … but I own I do not much wish to hear what they say to one another." Likewise, in 1862 Mrs. Margaret Oliphant found the novel "feeble, fatigued, and colorless," yet defended Miss Havisham as "a very harmless and rather amiable old woman," suggesting that among Dickens' readers were the Miss Havishams of that era. At the same time, other early critics viewed this book as a happy change of pace from Dickens' so-called "Dark Period" of writing due to the novel. According to John Moore Capes and J.E.E.D. Acton's 1862 review, "We should be puzzled to name Mr. Dickens' equal in the perception of the purely farcical, ludicrous, and preposterously funny."

As Humphrey House later reflected, "The whole [Victorian] class drift was upwards and there was no reason to suppose that it would ever stop being so," meaning that in any age or economy people believe in whatever they hope for themselves. Other modern critics, however, tend to look on the novel as an example of Dickens' "brilliant study of guilt." In any case, it is story-telling at its best. As Angus Calder comments in his introduction to the 1965 Penguin Books edition, "The densely detailed surroundings, the strange life of these creatures, make the dialogue tense and convincing." It is a hard book to put down because we believe in Pip and want to see him win out in the end.

Yet even twentieth-century critics disagree with each other. While E. M. Forster faults Dickens for creating "two-dimensional" characters George Orwell praises him by pointing out that "Dickens' imagination overwhelms everything, like a weed," Dorothy Van Ghent notes Dickens' accuracy in describing "the complex inner life which we know men and women have." And Angus Calder notices that "Pip does not merely see what has been there all the time; in the cases of Miss Havisham and Magwitch, he actively helps them to become better people near the end of their lives." This is the theme and ethic of redemption, but not only for Pip. As Calder concludes, "The book begins with a beast-like man so hungry that he thinks of eating a little boy …, haunted, like the rest of Dickens' fiction, by jails and images of prisons.… [while] what makes men grow is fellowship." Connecting and interacting with one another is Dickens' timeless purpose for telling this story with all of its humorous twists and heart-wrenching turns. Considering all of the new discussion about the novel each year, Dickens seems to continue to achieve his purpose—and amazingly well. By 1987, Bert G. Hornback had claimed the existence of "more than two hundred adaptations of his [Dickens'] novels for the stage, and more than fifty versions produced as films for television."

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Critical Evaluation


Essays and Criticism