CHARLES DICKENS, SERIAL THRILLER: THE STRUCTURE AND GENRES OF GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, is a novel, but it’s one that was originally serialised in Dickens’s own literary magazine ‘All the Year Round’. It’s a complex novel that blends various genres, creating a compelling narrative which, released as two chapters per week, Dickens hoped would revive the sales of his magazine. It did, and over a hundred years later we’re still reading it, but what is it about Great Expectations that makes it so, er, great?


The structure


The novel as a whole is divided into three ‘stages’ detailing Pip’s boyhood, youth, and maturity, a variation on the picaresque in detailing Pip’s development from ignorance to idleness to a reflective maturity. The first stage introduces characters and the plot’s main mystery, namely the question surrounding Pip’s benefactor and the greatness expected of him in return. The second stage sees a change in setting, a rural landscape replaced by the urban environment of London to better reflect the changes affecting Pip. Here, exposed to new sights and sensations, he becomes corrupted by his newfound wealth. Only when Pip realises the error of his ways, maturing in the third stage to recognise the value of others, does he develop into a truer gentleman than the one he had become with wealth. This wiser, greater version of Pip is the result, ironically, of the collapse of his own great expectations.


Originally released as a serialisation, it must have been a difficult task for Dickens to provide a narrative that was self-contained enough to satisfy on its own while resolving issues raised in previous episodes at the same time as advancing the plot into new twists and turns that would keep a reader eager for the next instalment! The serialisation process contributes to the narrative’s impressive complexity (something perhaps better appreciated once it was eventually published in novel form), but the episodic format also suits many of the genres Dickens uses. The mystery elements of a crime novel, for example, can be drawn out, and sections rich with Gothic atmosphere are granted more impact. Of course, the variety of genres also ensures a reader’s interest… and their continuing purchases of the magazine!


The genres


As an example of Bildungsroman, a coming of age story, Great Expectations details the development of Pip with particular focus on his moral development. As a first-person narrative it provides an intimate account of this growth, and in being narrated retrospectively by Pip as an older and wiser individual, mocking or chastising himself where appropriate, it appears a very honest account. “Their influence on my own character I disguised from my recognition as much as possible, but I knew very well that it was not all good” the adult narrator says of his expectations in chapter 34. It makes the novel something of a confessional in this respect, Pip well aware of his failings and openly admitting his poor behaviour. Dickens also addresses typical Bildungsroman concerns, Pip learning a life lesson and achieving maturity, in this case through losing his material possessions. He gains a fuller understanding of human nature, especially his own. “Tell me of my ingratitude,” Pip beseeches Joe, “Don’t be so good to me!” It is a wiser, penitent Pip we see at the end of the novel.


Pip’s moral development also allows Dickens to explore society’s values, making Great Expectations something of a social satire too. Comedic aspects mock the class system, but they don’t merely provide humour – as satire, they highlight serious concerns as well. Take Pumblechook, for example. Much of the comedy he provides comes in seeing how he changes his attitude when Pip inherits money. The repetition of “May I?” when he asks, several times, to shake Pip’s hand in chapter 19 is amusing, but it also reveals a level of sycophancy altogether unpleasant. Dickens examines a range of characters, including criminals like Magwitch, the poor but good Joe, the middle class Wemmich, and the rich Miss Havisham and Drummle. Pip may link the acquisition of wealth to ideas of self-improvement, but we see that those lower in the social order seem to possess far more in terms of personal character. Great Expectations is a novel exploring what it is to be a gentleman and wealth alone is not enough to attain such status.


Great Expectations also fulfils some of the conventions of the crime novel. The legal system itself is criticised, mostly through the character Jaggers, so that the novel can expose the failings of the criminal system. (Indeed, Dickens is well known for seeking social reform, and his fiction was a way for him to encourage this.) Criminal characters like Abel and Molly Magwitch and Compeyson are used in part to serve this purpose, too, but they also drive much of the plot. There is theft, murder, and kidnap in Great Expectations and several mysteries are at its core, from the identity of a secret benefactor to the truth behind one particular character’s parentage.


Solving the mysteries of Great Expectations and exposing secrets is not without dangerous consequences and in some cases the threat of danger is so exaggerated that we have elements of melodrama, such as with Orlick’s capture and torture of Pip or the attempted rescue of Magwitch. Perhaps, though, Great Expectations is more of a Sensation novel. Sensation novels drew upon the melodramatic, but also the crime novel, the gothic, and the romantic, to tell a story that addressed shocking subjects such as theft, kidnap, insanity and murder, all of which feature in Dickens’s novel and contribute to its success as a serialisation. It is perhaps little surprise to know that Charles Dickens was good friends with Wilkie Collins whose novel The Woman in White is considered to have initiated the ‘Sensation mania’.


Some of the more striking elements of the novel, perhaps, are the Gothic scenes. The gloomy Satis House with its atmosphere of gradual decay is haunted by the “corpse-like” Miss Havisham. She is her own ghost, a woman in white trapped in her house and past, driven to madness as her wedding feast rots “overhung with cobwebs” and “speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies” scurry amongst the dust and mould. Satis House, the misty marshes, the thunderstorm marking Magwitch’s return, they all provide a spectacular sense of dread to offset (and be offset by) the lighter aspects of the novel, such as its use of humour and romance.

The romance is of course illustrated through Pip’s infatuation with Estella. “My fancy and my hope were so set upon her”, he tells us, and his feelings for her create a desire for self-improvement. Their relationship, or Pip’s attempt at one, also provides tension and, via the love rival Drummle, conflict. We also have the wonderful wedding of Wemmick and Miss Skiffins, the comedic timing of which contrasts with some of the novel’s darker aspects (the arrest of Magwitch, Herbert’s departure) and supports the idea that Great Expectations is something of a tragi-comedy. There is even a satisfying marriage between Biddy and Joe. These happy unions, however, serve to emphasise Pip’s unfulfilled romantic dreams come the novel’s conclusion. Any expectations the reader may have had for a ‘happily ever after’ regarding Pip and Estella as lovers are thwarted. She marries poorly whereas Pip, as far as we know, remains single.

Despite the lack of a happily ever after, Great Expectations is often associated with the fairy tale genre. The Cinderella aspect is clear in Pip’s journey from rags to riches. Miss Havisham, he believes, is the fairy godmother making this wish come true but through her manipulation of Estella and of Pip it becomes clear she has more in common with a fairy tale’s wicked witch. In a twist of fairy tale convention it is in fact Magwitch who takes the ‘fairy godmother’ role. Indeed, Dickens doesn’t so much include elements of the fairy tale as subvert them. Even Pip’s ‘wish come true’ occurs early in the novel rather than at its end, a result of something he did in the opening chapters, and the rest of the novel explores what happens when you get what you wish for. What Pip does not get is Estella. The only happy ending they share is one of friendship, though there is some hope in their walking away together, hand in hand. It may not be the hoped-for marriage, but it is far happier than Dickens’s original ending which he was urged to rewrite.

Not so happily ever after


The ending Dickens originally provided (you can find it on the internet – I prefer it, personally) is somewhat melancholy and he rewrote it to better please his audience. Perhaps this is also why Great Expectations offers such a complex wide-ranging mix of genres – Dickens is literally providing something for everyone. The mix of melodrama, comedy, gothic, romance, and so on, delivered as part of a weekly serialisation, may have ensured his readers did not know what to expect, but they could rest assured that each installment would be great.