Great Expectations

By Charles Dickens

Narrative and Structure

Consisting of three volumes of almost identical length, each representing a different stage in Pip's fortunes, and beginning and ending at the forge, Great Expectations has considerable structural neatness. However, there are occasionally incongruous shifts in mood within a short space to meet the demands of the original weekly serialisation. For example, Wemmick's gently farcical wedding (chapter 55) is shoehorned between the intensity of Magwitch's arrest and trial. As narrator, Pip has a rounded credibility and directness that David Copperfield lacks. For example, on the novel's first page Pip describes how "as I never saw my father or my mother… my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones". Reminiscent of David's lonely imaginings at Salem House in David Copperfield, this is a compelling introduction both to Pip's vivid imagination and to some central themes of the book: appearance, reality and death.

Pip, unlike the open, energetic and hard-working David, is guilt-ridden, somewhat selfish and slothful. Like Dickens, he feels ashamed of his background, commenting at one point that "it is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home". Yet, symbolically, at the end Satis House (focus of Pip's youthful aspirations) is a ruin whilst the forge is a thriving, happy homestead. Throughout the novel Pip feels "encompassed by all this taint of prison and crime", and is baffled at how it should "pervade my fortune and advancement". From the first pages of the book there is a sense of the omnipresence of crime and punishment- there is even "a gibbet with some chains hanging to it" on the marshes of his childhood. Pip's link with Magwitch is established through his theft of food from the Gargerys' larder, and the money he later enjoys is earned in Australia, where Magwitch has been transported. Pip first learns of his expectations at the end of a salacious conversation about murder in the village pub. When Wemmick shows Pip around Newgate, he emerges feeling like a criminal and goes to considerable lengths to cleanse his person of it: "[I had] Newgate in my breath and on my clothes. I beat the prison dust off my feet… I shook it out of my dress, and I exhaled its air from my lungs". When Pip reluctantly travels to Satis House from London "there were two convicts going down with me… [with] irons on their legs- irons of a pattern that I knew well". In this way Dickens constantly reminds us of the proximity of baseness to ostensibly polite society.

The novel ends as it has begun, with Pip returning chastened to the forge. Rather like the prodigal son, he has "sold all I had" in order to re-enter the simpler moral world of his childhood. Adrift, Estella and Pip both return to their respective childhood homes as a form of catharsis. The forge represents honest toil and creativity whereas Satis represents decay and stagnation, and Estella seems to acknowledge this as she meets Pip in the ruins of Satis. Pip's love for Estella is finally reciprocated, then, but it is tainted by experience and reality, like Arthur Clennam's for Amy in Little Dorrit. It is this that so distinguishes Great Expectations: despite retaining the habitual Dickensian fairy-tale veneer, it is really a sober study of the emergence of good from temptation. This ultimate good, however, is tempered by the earlier conduct of the protagonists. Without explicitly stating it, the characteristically Victorian ethic of self-reliance and success through hard work is shown to triumph. Realistic moral responsibility is confronted to expose the simple, homespun moral that has been implicit throughout: charity begins at home.