In ‘Great Expectations,’ Charles Dickens uses elements of multiple genres in telling the story of Pip, the protagonist, who narrates the novel. As such, it can be called a bildungsroman: a novel charting a protagonist’s intellectual and emotional development.
Great Expectations: Context
Great Expectations was written by Charles Dickens, one of Victorian England’s most acclaimed and popular novelists. He wrote this novel comparatively late in life, just after A Tale of Two Cities. In Great Expectations, we see Dickens at his most experimental. The novel was serialized – published in installments in a magazine – from 1860-61, when the Victorian era was at its height and the rapid social change was accompanied by anxiety.
Dickens used his platform as a popular author to educate his audience about social issues. In Great Expectations, the topics of education and penal reform loom large. Like Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, published the previous year, Great Expectations deals with the restrictive marriage laws of the time.
Central to Dickens’ novel is its narrator and protagonist, Pip.
Pip is both the narrator of Great Expectations and its chief protagonist. His perspective both determines what we see and how we see it. The novel follows Pip from the age of about eight to his mid-thirties and qualifies as a bildungsroman. ‘Bildungsroman’ is a German word. Translated into English, it describes ‘a novel about the intellectual and emotional formation of its protagonist.’Great Expectations is divided into three parts corresponding to the phases of Pip’s life.
The first stage covers his childhood, during which he is ‘brought up by hand’ by his older sister, his parents having died. The second covers his apprenticeship in London, from his mid-teens to his coming of age, at which time he also comes into his mysterious inheritance, of which he has such great expectations (hence the novel’s name). The third part of the novel shows Pip (finally!) getting a better grip on who he is and who he wants to be, from his mid-twenties to his mid-thirties. It also covers how those ‘great expectations’ are – and are not – fulfilled.Though Great Expectations is categorized as a Bildungsroman, Dickens modifies the novel’s tone for dramatic effect.
At various points throughout the narrative, different genres may seem to predominate. Pip’s childhood is written realistically, while elements of the gothic reflect his own fright, and elements of satire reflect his innocent perception of the ridiculous. Later in the novel, the tone becomes darker, as Pip sees more of the world and its injustices. Because Great Expectations incorporates elements of many popular Victorian genres, some scholars have argued that it’s a less pure Bildungsroman than, for instance, David Copperfield.
But although characteristics of multiple genres of fiction are present, ”Great Expectations forms a remarkably coherent and compelling whole.
The social satire at which Dickens excelled is most clearly seen in the law offices of Mr. Jaggers, which are ironically dubbed ‘Little Britain.’ If this is a microcosm of society, Dickens suggests, society is in a sorry state! In Little Britain, where Pip is apprenticed, the private and the public are drastically severed, money interests are prominent, and Mr. Jaggers is, to all appearances, completely amoral.
Dickens also uses satire to point out the inadequacies of the social systems of early nineteenth-century Britain, particularly in education and criminal justice. The evening school in Pip’s village is described as a place where the woman who ran it ‘used to go to sleep from six to seven every evening, in the society of youth who paid twopence per week each, for the improving opportunity of seeing her do it.’ From the chilling chase for the escaped convict in the first part of the book to the unjust imprisonment of Pip’s friend Wemmick, the injustices of the law are also satirized in this novel.
Gothic literature is also a clear influence on Great Expectations. This is a bit out of the norm for Dickens.
The first gothic novels appeared in the mid-eighteenth century and emphasized the supernatural, mysterious, and strange. Classics include Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights. Great Expectations opens in an appropriately spooky churchyard, and Pip’s ‘first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things’ is gained in this place.
Pip believes the mysterious convict he meets that night to be the ghost of an old pirate, once hanged on a still-standing gibbet, or gallows.Miss Havisham and her residence, Satis House, also serve as elements of the gothic. Miss Havisham has tried to stop time – literally: her clocks remain set to the same, unchanging hour. She sits indoors brooding over wrongs done to her. When Pip returns to Satis House as an adult, he compares the silence around him to that of ‘old monks in their graves’ and the distant sound of an organ to funeral music.
It doesn’t get much more gothic than that!
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, was written when the author was well-established, and it remains one of his most popular novels. In it, Dickens experimentally combines elements of many genres of Victorian popular fiction. Insofar as this novel concentrates on the formation of its protagonist, Pip, it may properly be called a bildungsroman. The book also contains elements of the gothic literature in its use of the mysterious, the bizarre, and the otherworldly, as exemplified by Miss Havisham, along with its social satire in its depiction of early nineteenth-century institutions.