Great Expectations

Enhance understanding with a teaching guide for Great Expectations includes background information on Charles Dickens and discussion questions to be used in English classes.
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Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

"When, as a child, I wrote my name for the first time, I knew I was beginning a book."
– Edmond Jabes, The Book of Questions


Considered by many critics to be Charles Dickens's most psychologically acute self-portrait, Great Expectations is without a doubt one of Dickens's most fully-realized literary creations.

Work on Great Expectations commenced in late September of 1860 at what proved to be a peak of emotional intensity for its author. Two years before, Dickens had separated from Catherine, his wife of twenty-two years; and several weeks prior to the beginning of this novel, Dickens had burned all his papers and correspondence of the past twenty years at his Gad's Hill estate. This action, in retrospect, can be viewed as a sort of spiritual purge (think of Pip's burnt hands/Miss Havisham on fire) – an attempt to break decisively from the past in order (paradoxically) to fully embrace it, as he does so resonantly in this work.

The writing of Great Expectations, and by extension the creation of its protagonist, Pip, therefore, can be viewed as a kind of excavation for its author, a cathartic attempt to come to terms with the painful facts of his childhood – particularly the family's chronic economic instability, culminating in his father's imprisonment due to financial insolvency. Also paramount in his psychological make-up were Dickens's consignment at the age of twelve to work as a child laborer at Warren's Blacking factory (a secret no one but his closest friend, John Forster, knew) and his subsequent separation from his family as a result; all of which took place over the course of two months. This period in the young boy's life, then, represents both a literal and metaphorical "orphaning" and was certainly the crucible in which his personality was formed. This sense of primal loss, and fear of impending economic ruin manifested itself later in Dickens's own Herculean and obsessive efforts to busy himself (often simultaneously) as a writer, editor, and public speaker – as if this were the only way he could ensure himself of financial solvency.

Where the creator (Dickens) and his creation (Pip) diverge is that the protagonist (through his suffering and disappointment) learns to accept his station in life. By the end of his saga, Pip has, for the most part, shed his illusions (his "expectations") and is able to live a simple but fulfilling life as a clerk in the company of his great friend, Herbert Pocket.

Dickens, on the other hand, it seems never adequately internalized the lessons of his own life and success. In an autobiographical fragment, he wrote: "Even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life" (as a child laborer).

Written in the last decade of his life, Great Expectations is also a meditation on the act of writing (as a book of memory) and the creative imagination, opening as it does with the young Pip (aged seven) in the churchyard, attempting to conjure up through sheer will, a physical picture of his (never-seen) parents by carefully studying the lettering on their tombstones. This memorable scene is a metaphorical attempt to raise the dead through an act of pure imagination.

Serialized between December 1, 1860, and August 3, 1861, Great Expectations was an extraordinary success, selling (midway through its run), over one hundred thousand copies weekly in Dickens's magazine All the Year Round. Published in book form in July 1861, it was considered by contemporary critics to represent a return to Dickens at the peak of his powers, deftly mixing comedy and tragedy and with a rich brew of major and minor characters. By the end of that summer, the book had gone through four printings. Later critics were equally responsive. Playwright George Bernard Shaw felt that Great Expectations was Dickens's "most compactly perfect book." The poet Swinburne believed the story of the novel to be unparalleled "in the whole range of English fiction."

Narrated by a middle-aged Pip, Great Expectations can be read on many levels – as a morality play of a young boy's coming of age; and his sudden and unexpected rise from the lower to that of the leisure class (due to the anonymous efforts of a mysterious benefactor). The novel can also be read as an ironic commentary: a social critique on money (as commodity) and how that commodity affects everyone around it. It can also be enjoyed as a rattling good mystery story replete with secrets; as well as with shady characters, thieves and murderers of all stripes. In the end, Great Expectations is an unforgettable tale about fate, and how a chance encounter between an orphan named Pip and an escaped convict radically and arbitrarily alters the lives of everyone around them.


Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth on February 7, 1812, the first son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. His father John was a clerk in the Navy Pay office. Owing to his father's low-level position and his inability to manage money, the Dickens family moved often throughout his childhood, living in Chatham, Kent and Camden Town, London. In 1824, at the age of twelve, Charles went to work at Warren's Blacking (a shoe-polish factory) in order to help provide additional funds for the penurious family. This event, along with the family's routine evictions due to nonpayment of rent and his father's eventual imprisonment for debt at Marshalsea Prison, were pivotal events in the young boy's life.

In 1827, following the completion of his formal education, Dickens went to work for various London legal firms and became a court reporter. Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, Dickens met Maria Beadnell with whom he was involved for several years. Due, perhaps in part, to the Dickens family reputation, this relationship did not prosper, although it no doubt left its imprint on the young Charles who subsequently based the character of Estella in Great Expectations on Maria. Estella was also conjured from the character of the actress Ellen Ternan with whom Dickens was deeply involved during and following the dissolution of his marriage.

In December 1833, when Dickens was twenty-one, his first published pieces were printed anonymously in the Monthly Magazine. In the following years his sketch fiction appeared under the byline of Boz and Dickens commenced his career as a newspaper reporter. By the mid 1830s, his book Sketches by Boz, appeared and in 1836, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, daughter of a prominent theater and music critic. That same year, his first novel The Pickwick Papers began serialization, increasing sales of the magazine in which it appeared from fourteen thousand to forty thousand during its run.

In 1837, Dickens was hired to edit Bentley's Miscellany where his novel Oliver Twist was serialized over a period of two years. This work as an editor and fiction writer continued throughout the rest of his life. In many cases, the serialization of his fiction in the journals he edited was a marketing ploy to ensure successful sales of the magazine.

In the coming years, Dickens achieved tangible success publishing Nicholas Nickleby (later dramatized on the London stage), The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, and was widely sought after as a dinner guest, dining with the cream of London society: literary luminaries, various Lords, lawyers and judges.

In 1843, at the age of thirty-one, Dickens published his immortal holiday tale, A Christmas Carol, completing the text in a space of two months. The story proved to be an enormous success with the general public, was dramatized and represented the first of many Christmas stories he would write over the years. In the seven years of their marriage, Dickens and his wife raised three children and, despite his oppressive schedule, managed to travel to Italy, Switzerland and France.

At the close of the 1840s Dickens began serialization of his novel, David Copperfield, followed in the early 1850s by arguably one of his finest creations, Bleak House. In 1853, Dickens gave his first public reading in Birmingham, England, of A Christmas Carol and The Cricket on the Hearth. A year later in Bradford, Dickens performed for an audience of 3,700 people.

The latter part of the 1850s found Dickens increasing his pace with a series of public readings (over 472 between 1858 and his death in 1870). Between August and November 1858, the author gave 83 readings which proved to be a great popular and financial success. By the late 1860s Dickens's readings became so eagerly anticipated that sometimes thousands were turned away.

In the spring of 1859, he initiated a new magazine All the Year Round which began serialization of A Tale of Two Cities in weekly installments. In the fall of 1860, Dickens, now separated from his wife but with custody of all but one of his children, began work on Great Expectations.

In the fall of 1868 he began what would prove to be his farewell reading tour of England. On June 9, 1870, Dickens died of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving an estate of 93,000 pounds. At his death, the writer Anthony Trollope claimed Dickens's novels had enormous impact at all levels of society ranging "from the highest to the lowest, among all classes that read." And furthermore his popularity was such that, at the time of his death, it was estimated that his magazine All the Year Round was, according to critic Janice Carlisle, "selling three hundred thousand copies a week and reaching, by one estimate, half the population of London."

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