The Bildungsroman and Pip's "Expectations"
On the surface, Great Expectations appears to be simply the story of Pip from his early childhood to his early adulthood, and a recollection of the events and people that Pip encounters throughout his life. In other words, it is a well written story of a young man's life growing up in England in the early nineteenth century. At first glance, it may appear this way, an interesting narrative of youth, love, success and failure, all of which are the makings of an entertaining novel. However, Great Expectations is much more. Pip's story is not simply a recollection of the events of his past. The recollection of his past is important in that it is essential in his development throughout the novel, until the very end. The experiences that Pip has as a young boy are important in his maturation into young adulthood. These elements are crucial to the structure and development of Great Expectations: Pip's maturation and development from child to man are important characteristics of the genre to which Great Expectations belongs. In structure, Pip's story, Great Expectations, is a Bildungsroman, a novel of development. The Bildungsroman traces the development of a protagonist from his early beginnings--from his education to his first venture into the big city--following his experiences there, and his ultimate self-knowledge and maturation. Upon the further examination of the characteristics of the Bildungsroman as presented here it is clear that Great Expectations, in part, conforms to the general characteristics of the English Bildungsroman. However, there are aspects of this genre from which Dickens departs in Great Expectations. It is these departures that speak to what is most important in Pip's development, what ultimately makes him a gentleman, and what determines his status as a gentleman. In Pip's case, it is not throwing off the shackles of provincial life and having a lot of money. Wealth is not what makes Pip a gentleman. If that were the case, the novel would be over the moment that Pip received his "expectations" and headed off for London. Nevertheless, that event, the one that so greatly detours from the formula of the Bildungsroman, is merely the beginning of Pip's development. It is ultimately the fact that Pip recognizes that he is good, not simply because of whom he is within the hierarchy of the English class system. Pip becomes good when he rejects the selfish worldly desires of money, property, and social standing, although he could have them, for the benefit of someone else. He also reaches his maturation when he recognizes the importance of his socially undesirable upbringing. This is the importance of the Bildungsroman and Great Expectations. Great Expectations is an autobiographical novel, as many Bildungsromane are. This is not to say that it is Dickens' autobiography, it is actually the autobiography of a fictional character: Pip. Some of the experiences are indeed taken from Dickens' own history. In fact, Dickens was aware of the autobiographical nature of Great Expectations. Fred Kaplan reports that "From the start, [Dickens] had no doubt that [Great Expectations] would be autobiographical, and he soon reread David Copperfield to avoid repetition" (432). Dickens also establishes it as a Bildungsroman or a novel of apprenticeship. Kaplan quotes Dickens from the time that he was writing Great Expectations that Pip was " 'to be a boy-child, like David[Copperfield]. Then he will be an apprentice'" (432). It is tempting, with this confirmation from Dickens that Great Expectations is autobiographical, for a reader to assume it is strictly Dickens' autobiography. The fact that Dickens looked over David Copperfield again shows that he did not want to rewrite his life over and over. He simply extracted certain events or places to facilitate the believability of the plot and the protagonist's development. In the Bildungsroman, the early, formative years of...
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