Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations is a coming of age tale that is a pairing of gothic and realism elements. In turns remorseful, nostalgic, and humorous, the story is written as a memoir told in first person with an adult narrator recounting the course of his life. The reader follows young Pip, a blacksmith with dreams of being a gentleman and of marrying the lovely, cold, unattainable Estella, from the misty, squalid marshes of Kent to the filthy, mean streets of London and back. More than just a character drama or a historical piece of crime fiction, Dickens’s most popular novel is a social commentary, an exploration of innocence, a glimpse into the exploitation of children, and a study of “the root of all heartache”: expectations.
While modern audiences know Great Expectations in its novel format, it was first published as a serialized story in weekly two chapter installments. The tale is set—and Dickens was writing—in the nineteenth century. England was in the midst of the incredible Industrial Revolution. The empire was thriving, but beneath the gild of wealth and success lay a downtrodden, destitute population. As the country grew more wealthy, the divide between the classes was becoming more distinct and the lower working class grew more destitute. Keeping with the themes of his entire body of work, Dickens was dogged in addressing issues of social justice and inequality, taking the reader into the seedy, impoverished criminal underbelly of London.
Themes of society and class dominate Dickens’s work, but in Great Expectations he also explores the ideas of the worthiness and success of being a self-made man, the difference between obsessive love and genuine affection, and the preservation—or destruction—of childhood innocence. The characters have a noir-like edge as they are consistently dishonest and deceive both themselves and others, and each character’s aspirations are left unfulfilled.
Dickens’s writing is detailed and ornate, and he incorporates the haunting use of chiaroscuro into his descriptions. The tale takes place largely in the dark and the language used to describe the settings is bleak and dismal. There are two different endings to Great Expectations: one in which Pip and his love Estella meet years later and part as strangers, and the other with a suggested happy ending for the pair. In both endings, though, Dickens preserves the melancholy and uncertain tone of the story.
As seen throughout his complete oeuvre, Dickens was keenly observant of the divide in England, and he addresses the contemporary issues of injustice and inequality with grandiose language and pointed, haunting critique. Great Expectations was wildly successful in its serialized form, and it continues today to be lauded as a classic detailing the danger and heartache of aspiration.
Highly recommended for fans of classic literature, of coming of age stories, and of historical fiction set in the Industrial Revolution era