Great Expectations

By Charles Dickens


Following the overwhelmingly oppressive tone of the novels preceding it (Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit and A Tale of Two Cities), Great Expectations is a return to Dickens's more lively tone, although it lacks the exuberance of the early novels. Psychologically it is his most consistently convincing work, having a coherence lacking in David Copperfield. Additionally, it contains some of Dickens's finest comedy, including set pieces such as Wopsle's "Hamlet" (chapter 31) and the Christmas lunch (chapter 4), and characters such as the hypocritical Pumblechook and the impudent Trabb's Boy. The grotesque count is low, although in Miss Havisham we have perhaps the ultimate example. The novel is concerned with the corrupting influence of money, the true meaning of gentility and the ease with which people can distance themselves from that which is truly important to them. These are themes pursued at greater length in Dickens's next novel, Our Mutual Friend. It is more focused and realistic than its predecessors and demonstrates an especial advance in Dickens's treatment of women.

Mrs Joe is described with untypical restraint as 'not a good-looking woman', and the general lack of excess in the descriptions of her role as Pip's childhood ogre make her far more realistic than the fairy- tale doppelgangers in David Copperfield, the Murdstones. When the novel's abundant sense of poetic justice sees her being incapacitated by Orlick's assault (the weapon being a discarded leg-iron, itself a symbol of Pip's guilt) we do not miss her as we would if she was a funnier 'bad' character because she is so grimly credible. It is a tribute to Dickens's powers that Miss Havisham transcends her superficial resemblance to a fairy-tale goblin to attain tragic credibility. A gross monument to the sterility of money and the hollowness of expectation, she tries to block out time and nature in her home, but is ravaged in the attempt. Estella has been called Dickens's first credible heroine, and whilst she is too passionless to be truly realistic she remains a powerful representation of the fragility of genteel society, increasingly unhappy in her attempts to maintain the sang-froid that has been bred in her. She is a beautiful husk who has been reared only to be superficial and superficially admired ("Is she beautiful, graceful, well- grown? Do you admire her?" Miss Havisham asks Pip insistently, as if Estella is a prize turnip).

There is no thematic satire in Great Expectations. Although there are glimpses of it- the police's suspicion of Joe as his wife's attacker and the appalling village school to which Pip is sent, for example- most of the novel's venom is aimed at human rather than institutional shortcomings. Principal among these are false gentility and the harm done by attaching too much importance to money. The concepts of class and of happiness stemming from material prosperity are ridiculed. David's fragile social pretensions are so successfully mocked by Trabb's Boy when he is having clothes fitted that he actively seeks to avoid him when returning to the town later in the book. Mrs. Pocket's pathetic insistence on a tenuous connection to a duchess makes her 'highly ornamental, but perfectly helpless and useless'. Drummle and Orlick demonstrate that brutality is not a socially exclusive characteristic, and at the end Joe and Biddy represent the triumph of simple, open acceptance of social position. The final irony concerning class is delivered when Pip learns that the Estella, who once derived such pleasure from calling him a "common labouring-boy", is in fact of lowlier birth than he is.

Money is shown to be as unattractive a motivating force as snobbery. The grotesque vultures who lurk about Satis House attempting to attract Miss Havisham's favour are the novel's least attractive characters, alongside the mean, hypocritical Pumblechook and the toadying tailor Trabb. Despite Pip's riches, ultimately it is Joe who pays his debts, and Miss Havisham's legacy is ultimately of greater worth to him - the lesson that emotions cannot be manipulated by material wealth. When he apprehends how wrong-headed he has been in his mistaken assumption that she is his benefactress, he feels no anger towards her because she has exposed him to many of his worst characteristics. Although there are positive uses of money in the book (Miss Havisham's payment of Pip's indentures and Pip's helping Herbert in business, for example), the overwhelming moral is that money should not be an end in itself. This is crystallised when Pip tries to buy Provis off with two crisp, virgin pound notes; he contemptuously burns them. Pip's final rejection of financial aid and his self-reliance with Herbert in the East show how disillusioned he has become with inherited wealth.

Although fundamentally fantastical, more realism permeates the novel than is customary for Dickens. Unpleasant sights, sounds and smells constantly contribute towards the sense of grimy claustrophobia that runs throughout Great Expectations. The manacled convicts with whom Pip shares a coach smell of "bread-poultice, baize, rope-yarn and hearth-stone", a remarkably detailed description. The air in the hotel room in which Pip and Estella have their dejected tea smells of 'a strong combination of stable with soup stock', the squalid lodging house in which Pip spends the night when advised to lie low is insect-ridden and smells "of cold soot and hot dust" and the inn at the end is "a dirty place enough" in which "we found the air as carefully excluded… as if air were fatal to life". These sordid details typify the unromantic atmosphere of the novel.