Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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Discuss the handling of the first-person narrative in Great Expectations.

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The narrative perspective of this excellent novel is certainly something that adds greatly to its depth and complexity. Dickens uses a very distinct narrative voice to tell this tale, which is known as the first person retrospective. What this means is that the story is told in the first person but by a maturer narrator looking back upon his childhood and early adulthood. This particularly ties in to the way in which this novel is a bildungsroman, or a novel of education and development, because there is a distinct difference between the youthful Pip who is immature, foolish and lacking in self-awareness and the older Pip who is mature, wise and is able to recognise how foolish and hurtful his actions have been. Often the retrospective narrative means that we need to detect the voice of both of these Pips. This perhaps can be clearly seen when Bidddy in Chapter 19 attempts to remonstrate with Pip about his pride before he leaves for London. Pip responds by saying:

"Now, Biddy," said I, "I am very sorry to see this in you. I did not expect to see this in you. You are envious, Biddy, and grudging. You are dissatisfied on account of my rise in fortune and you can't help showing it."

The perceptive reader recognises that actually, this is the youthful Pip talking, and the older Pip can only stand back as he allows his more youthful self to tell the story as it happened, hanging his head in shame, because in fact, Biddy is trying gently to show Pip how arrogant and unpleasant he has become, and this is something that the older Pip only realises now looking back on it. The narrative perspective in this novel is so fascinating because it allows us to trace the development of the central character in a different way, through analysing his own reflection on the past.

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