Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

Start Free Trial

History of the Text

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Great Expectations’s Publication History: Like many novels published during the Victorian era (1837–1901), Great Expectations was initially released by a periodical in sections—the goal of such serialization being to maximize distribution and profit. 

  • All the Year Round: The entire text appeared in 36-weekly installments—from December 1860 until August 1861—in All the Year Round, a weekly periodical founded and owned by Charles Dickens. Each issue cost two pence, which is the approximate equivalent of one US dollar today. Dickens was able to keep prices low because he did not include local news stories, which would have made All the Year Round subject to a special tax. 
  • Revised Endings: Dickens finished writing Great Expectations in June 1861, though it would continue appearing in weekly installments in All the Year Round until August. He decided, however, to change the ending before its final publication because Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a well-known writer and politician, thought it was too sad. In the original manuscript, Estella has already remarried by the time Pip, who is still unmarried, sees her again. Dickens initially chose this ending because, unlike the vast majority of Victorian novels, he did not want to end the story with a marriage. He wanted the “winding up” to be “away from all such things as they conventionally go.” Bulwer-Lytton’s comments, however, prompted Dickens to change Estella’s status to that of a widower, though he never confirms whether she and Pip ever marry. 
  • Single Volume: Chapman and Hall, a London-based publishing house, published the first edition of Great Expectations in three volumes in 1861, followed by five reprints between July and October, and a single-volume edition in 1862. Three more editions followed: a bargain edition appeared in 1862, a library edition was published in 1864, and the Charles Dickens edition appeared in 1868. The Charles Dickens edition contained yet another revision to the ending, one which still refrains from clarifying whether Pip and Estella get married. 

Literary Predecessors and Influences: Published more than two decades into the Victorian era, Great Expectations was strongly influenced by gothic and Romantic literature. 

  • Novel: By the time Dickens wrote Great Expectations, novels were immensely popular among the general public. The novel as a form was still relatively new and considered inferior to serious and traditional literary forms like poetry and academic histories. However, despite being dramatic and exciting like the medieval and early modern romances that preceded it, Great Expectations was praised for its realistic and educational—if always entertaining—qualities. 
  • Romanticism and Gothic Literature: Though Great Expectations is a work of Victorian literature, its emphasis on Pip’s individual internal experiences reflects its roots in Romanticism. Along with its realistic portrayal of the human experience, the novel draws on genre conventions of gothic fiction. Gothic literature, which originally rose to popularity in Germany, emerged as a subgenre of Romanticism in England, and Victorian gothic literature was gaining in popularity. Gothic texts utilize supernatural imagery and events to create a dark and dramatic reading experience. Great Expectations subtly incorporates supernatural elements in the character of Miss Havisham, Satis House, and the mists of the Kent marshes. 

Great Expectations’s Reception History: Great Expectations is Charles Dickens’s 13th novel and his second, next to David Copperfield, written in the first person. The novel received nearly unanimously rave reviews when it began appearing in All the Year Round in 1861. 

  • Entertaining Writing Style: Perhaps in part because Dickens’s previous novel, A Tale of Two Cities, was uncharacteristically bleak, audiences loved the lighthearted humor of Great Expectations. According to critic and biographer John Forster, “Dickens’s humour, not less than his creative power, was at its best in this book.” Fans of Dickens’s earlier work often found Great Expectations to be delightfully similar in style to his wildly popular David Copperfield
  • Realism: Despite its association with gothic fiction, Great Expectations was frequently praised for representing experiences in everyday life. According to a review in the 1861 issue of The Atlantic, for example, the novel is free of “directing ideas and disturbing idealizations,” instead “drift[ing] to its end, as in real life.” However, Dickens was simultaneously credited for capturing Pip’s internal, authentic experience in an ingenious, creative way; “he does not record, but invents,” and “produces something which is natural only under conditions prescribed by his own mind.” 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Key Plot Points


Significant Allusions