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Great Expectations is a Bildungsroman (a novel tracing the life of the protagonist) by Charles Dickens and first serialized in All the Year Round from December 1860 to August 1861. It tells the story of the orphan Pip (short for Philip Pirrip) and his "expectations", inheritance and plans for progression in his life and status. Great Expectations is divided into three volumes, each of which corresponds to one stage of the hero Pip's expectations.
The first volume of the work is among the most evocative and varied of all his books. The portrayal of the countryside of Kent and the marshes on the lower regions or the Thames beautifully describe a part of the county in which Dickens lived and greatly loved. The terrifying experiences of Pip in the opening chapters are contrasted with humour, always present in Dickens, of Pip's childish understanding of the world; such as being beaten is what being brought up "by hand" actually means. His visits to the forbidding and decaying Satis House where he meets the almost equally threatening Miss Havisham opens the eyes of Pip to even stranger worlds. Miss Havisham has suffered great humiliation and her life has been frozen in time from that point on. Pip also meets Estella at Satis House, a proud, beautiful girl who is being schooled by Miss Havisham to be as cruel and heartless to others as she feels the world has treated her. These people and the themes relating to them affect Pip's future growth.
There is very little agreement amongst readers as to which of Dickens' novels is the best but Great Expectations is probably most often placed at the top of polls. This contrasts with the end of the 19th century when the author George Gissing in his study of Dickens' works had to remind the readers of the plot of Great Expectations as it was largely ignored compared to his other works. The book's lack of popularity shortly after it was written and its greater status today is perhaps due to the fact that it is the least "Dickensian" of any of his books. The usual grotesque characters common to many of his books are more muted and believable in this book. The book is also very carefully plotted and less episodic than many of Dickens' other stories with the central character's changing viewpoint and perception of the world around him an important element of the story.
The character of Pip contrasts sharply with the title characters in such books as Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist. In these novels the main character is very simply portrayed and the characters around them are of far greater interest. Pip on the other hand begins as a likeable but simple child but develops into quite an unsympathetic character later in the book. Dickens draws us into following the fortunes of the changing Pip from childhood, a subject in which Dickens is an acknowledged master, on to a rather snobbish and objectionable adolescent and then to his final reformation. Although he would probably not like to admit it Dickens himself was a very clear model for Pip's personality. Despite having great fondness for the poor and oppressed and wishing to improve their conditions Dickens felt himself superior to them. What he saw as a shameful personal connection to the poor earlier in his life made his desire to separate from them more pronounced and this is mirrored in Pip's story.
The ending of the book is another measure of the difference to other Dickens novels and also greatly affects the readers’ interpretation of the whole story. Dickens originally wrote an unhappy ending to the book that was, however, consistent with the book's theme. Dickens rarely did this and indeed it was very unusual for Victorian novels in general. After talking to his friends and fellow novelists Wilkie Collins and Edward Bulwer-Lytton he re-wrote a more hopeful ending which is the one used in all subsequent editions. Many critics regard the first ending as far more in keeping with the morality of the proceeding story but the second ending is acknowledged to be better written from a stylistic point of view. Both endings though are atypical compared to his other books and shows an uncertainty or ambivalence in the author's mind as to how the work should be ended.
See also: Great Expectations (movie)
Like many other Dickens novels, Great Expectations has been filmed several times:
- 1917 - starring Jack Pickford
- 1946 - starring John Mills
- 1999 - starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow.
- Great Expectations - searchable, indexed e-text
1999, Great Expectations, starring Justine Waddell and Ioan Gruffudd as Estella and Pip, respectively.
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