Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Dickens is probably the most famous, and he is surely the most beloved, author of those you will read in this class for your novel assignments. Great Expectations is filled with autobiographical elements. Even though almost every chapter reflects some affinity with Dickens’s own life story, Great Expectations is indeed a highly wrought work of art. It is to that, the literature (art), that we address our reading. However, if you are interested in Dickens’s life and in how it enters into his craft, you will want to read Edgar Johnson’s Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, two volumes (London: Gollancz, 1953), and Christopher Hibbert’s The Making of Charles Dickens (London: Penguin, 1983). Great Expectations, like many of Dickens’s novels, was first published in a magazine, in weekly installments over an eight-month period. Thus, readers might influence the direction of the plot by writing to Dickens, or by not buying some of the installments when their interest diminished. Again, while a study of such forces of readership and publishing mode might provide insight into the creative process, the plot, or other aspects of the novel, for our purposes it is sufficient to base our analysis on our experience of reading it as a complete novel. Yet, if you are interested in studying the effects of serialization on the creative process, read J. A. Bull’s The Framework of Fiction (London: MacMillan, 1988). Not until the 1950s was Charles Dickens widely considered by university faculties as material for serious literary study. But if one is to judge by the quantity of scholarly attention to Dickens’s novels and their prominence in the university curricula around the world today, Charles Dickens’s greatness as an artist of the English language is assured. One of the main faults found in Dickens’s art has been the abundance of sentimentality, defined as false emotion or emotion that is excessive to the situation at hand, forced or exaggerated. Dickens is the master of the sentimental, especially in the contexts of women and children, the poor, love, and family ties. Pathos, too, plays a large role in the sentimental. The pathetic we look down upon in the sense of feeling sorry for, as opposed to feeling with, or empathetic. Great Expectations eludes definition. It is neither truly comic nor tragic. It has elements of the romance, and it can be seen as a fairy tale. Indeed, it seems to be a fairy tale wherein a bad wish is fulfilled and then the wisher hopes for a reversal of that fulfillment. It is certainly a novel about the pitfalls of growing up. It is an expression of psychological realism as it describes the transformative journey toward shedding the lingering guilt and shame of childhood. Of what is young Pip guilty? Perhaps he is just guilty of being a boy. He is an orphan who is taught that he is a burden to his sister; he is therefore guilty of being orphaned, guilty of his parents’ deaths. Pip’s quest for money and gentility, too, caused by the materialistic society in which he lives, can be a source of guilt. Dickens’s broad humor is always employed in the service of social criticism. It is the individual that Dickens loved; he detested oppressive and corrupt institutions. With humor, namely in the form of satire, he ferociously took on the growing materialism of the state and therefore the citizenry of nineteenth century England. He is looked to as one of the greatest reformers of his day. Even cherished and sacred institutions such as marriage did not escape his critical scrutiny. Whatever and however much is written about Dickens, it is the experience of reading his works that endears him to us. His prose explodes with an engulfing vigor that carries us into his world and sustains us there with kaleidoscopic images. We envision a panorama...
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