Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, at Portsmouth, England, the eldest son of a navy clerk. Although he received little formal education, he spent many hours in his father’s library, reading imaginative works such as The Arabian Nights and the novels of Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Miguel de Cervantes. Dickens’s father was poor, lived beyond his means, and was sent to debtors prison. Young Dickens had to work in a shoe-blacking factory, work that he despised. He never forgot the humiliation of his father’s imprisonment and the misery of child labor.
Great Expectations, many readers’ favorite Dickens novel, is immensely popular for its self-portrait of the author and for the warmth, feeling, and reality that it imparts to what is essential in human experience. Because of the deep impressions his own childhood made on him, Dickens is a novelist of childhood. He presents children, especially Pip, with sympathy and understanding, creating a sensitive orphan boy with whom every reader can identify. The other characters of the story are also fascinating: the half-demented old Miss Havisham; Estella, her haughty adopted daughter; the convict Magwitch; and Joe Gargery, the tenderhearted blacksmith. Another reason for the novel’s popularity is its intriguing plot, filled with adventure, romance, excitement, mystery, and suspense.
The story begins in England during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The setting in the early part of the story is the Chaptham district, where Dickens roamed as a boy. The orphan Pip is a blacksmith’s apprentice in a village in the marsh country. One afternoon Pip has a frightening adventure in the marshes when an escaped convict forces him to supply food and a file for his leg irons. The convict is captured the next day.
Philip Pirrip, known as Pip, is the story’s central figure whose experiences symbolize the problems of growing up. Pip is reared by his unkind sister and her long-suffering husband Joe Gargery, the blacksmith to whom the boy is apprenticed. When Pip receives assistance from an unknown benefactor for his education as an English gentleman, he believes his patron to be Miss Havisham. He loves Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter, Estella, and thinks the old woman is arranging for her to marry him. A revolution in his life occurs when Pip learns to his dismay that his benefactor is really the escaped convict Magwitch. He then realizes how false his dreams of social superiority and marriage with Estella have been. Magwitch is captured and dies in prison, and the Crown confiscates the wealth he intended for Pip. Humbled and lowered to the status of a minor clerk, Pip returns to his old friends in the village whom he has snobbishly abandoned. There he also encounters Estella.
Dickens is a master of plot, characterization, humor, setting, and atmosphere. The blend of these elements in Great Expectations raises the novel to lofty narrative art. The author provides a three-dimensional portrait of Pip, skillfully using his words, gestures, thoughts, appearance, and actions to reveal his complex personality. Pip undergoes four distinct stages of physical and moral development. He is first a small child, relating his feelings and experiences in a rich, authentic picture of childhood; then an adolescent; next a young man; and finally an adult with a mature understanding of himself and society. Dickens also draws Estella in some depth. She is not the typical soft, sentimental heroine of romance. Although finally softened by adversity, she remains haughtily aloof and indifferent to Pip’s ardor during most of the story. Dickens renders a fine portrait of Joe Gargery as the village blacksmith. Less successful is the portrait of Miss Havisham. She is too strange and eccentric, too weird and extreme to be convincing with her tattered satin bridal dress, moldering wedding cake, and stopped clocks. Like Miss Havisham, Dickens’s minor characters sometimes verge on caricature.
Dickens treats a variety of social issues in Great Expectations-prejudice, materialism, social status, and class-in a sensible manner that the teacher, librarian, and parent will undoubtedly applaud. The author’s presentation of these issues offers young readers an understanding of social situations, guidance for their future roles in society, and a vision of the “good life.”
1. Pip is an orphan boy, a blacksmith’s assistant living with his sister and her husband in a small English village. How does Pip visualize his dead parents? Does the boy suffer from want and privation? Why is Pip’s life with his sister so unpleasant? Would you agree that Dickens takes pains to present young Pip with great sympathy?
1. Dickens has been called the “novelist of childhood.” How well does he portray the child’s mind and imagination in the figure of Pip?
Great Expectations was first made into a motion picture in 1934 by Universal Pictures. Directed by Stuart Walker and starring Jane Wyatt, Phillips Holmes, and George Breakston, this version is now available on videocassette. The 1946 film version has justifiably become a classic, featuring fine performances by John Mills, Valerie Hobson, Bernard Miles, Francis L. Sullivan, Martita Hunt, Alec Guinness, Finlay Currie, Anthony Wager, and Jean Simmons. Directed by David Lean, this production remains remarkably true to Dickens’s novel. In 1974 Joseph Hardy directed an acceptable made-for-television movie of Great Expectations starring Michael York, Sarah Miles, and James Mason.