Before he began to write Great Expectations, Dickens wrote a fragment of an autobiography , which he kept to himself. A short time later he sorted through, re-read, and burnt many personal letters, and also re-read David Copperfield, perhaps the most overtly autobiographical (in a psychological or a symbolic sense) of all his novels. It is impossible to read Great Expectations without sensing Dickens's presence in the book, without being aware that in portraying and judging Pip he is giving us a glimpse of a younger self. In it he explores and perhaps exorcises the sense of guilt and shame that had haunted him all his life, as he rose from humble beginnings to success and wealth and fame; and chronicles his own at first ambivalent and then cynical response to the Victorian emphasis on gentility. Great Expectations is a work which seeks to define the crucial Victorian concept of the Gentleman, playing one definition of the term off against another. Pip, Herbert Pocket, and Bentley Drummle are all Gentlemen, as Estella and Miss Havisham are Gentlewomen. Joe and Magwitch, however, are not Gentlemen, and Biddy is not a Gentlewoman. How would the childish Pip define the term? In what sense is Pip, during the course of the life he leads before the reappearance of Magwitch, a Gentleman? How does his notion of what a Gentleman is alter during the course of the book?
The novel, which is in this sense a Bildungsroman, obviously centers on Pip, but its entire structure, its plot, characterization, and narrative, are subordinated to him in ways which might not be immediately obvious to us. What sort of relationships, for example, do all of the other characters who appear in the novel share with Pip?
Pip's psyche haunts the novel, which is in a sense about the process of becoming wholly human. One central theme is the extent to which wealth and power * and pride and ambition (which appears here as attributes of the upper class) are dehumanizing. Another important theme traces the effect of environment upon the development of the individual. How is the same sort of theme developed in works by later authors such as Kipling, Conrad, Joyce, and Eliot, all of whom were heavily influenced by Dickens? Dickens presents us with rather terrible ironies here. What are they? What does the complex web of coincidence and interrelationship reveal about the structure and values of the society whose corruption Dickens comes more and more to emphasize?
To what extent is Pip's Rise a Fall, and his Fall a Rise?
©David Cody, Associate Professor of English, Hartwick College