Synopses & Reviews
One of Dickens's best-loved classics, a tale of intrigue, unattainable love, and all the happiness money can't buy.
About the Author
Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England,where his father was a naval pay clerk. When he was five the family moved to Chatham, near Rochester, another port town. He received some education at a small private school but this was curtailed when his father's fortunes declined. More significant was his childhood reading, which he evoked in a memory of his father's library: 'From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas and Robinson Crusoe came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time.'
When Dickens was ten the family moved to Camden Town, and this proved the beginning of a long, difficult period. (He wrote later of his coach journey, alone, to join his family at the new lodgings: 'I consumed my sandwiches in solitude and dreariness, and it rained hard all the way, and I thought life sloppier than I had expected to find it.') When he had just turned twelve Dickens was sent to work for a manufacturer of boot blacking, where for the better part of a year he labored for ten hours a day, an unhappy experience that instilled him with a sense of having been abandoned by his family: 'No advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no support from anyone that I can call to mind, so help me God!' Around the same time Dickens's father was jailed for debt in the Marshalsea Prison, where he remained for fourteen weeks. After some additional schooling, Dickens worked as a clerk in a law office and taught himself shorthand; this qualified him to begin working in 1831 as a reporter in the House of Commons, where he was known for the speed with which he took down speeches.
By 1833 Dickens was publishing humorous sketches of London life in the Monthly Magazine, which were collected in book form as Sketches by 'Boz' (1836). These were followed by the publication in installments of the comic adventures that became The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837), whose unprecedented popularity made the twenty-five-year-old author a national figure. In 1836 he married Catherine Hogarth, who would bear him ten children over a period of fifteen years. Dickens's energies enabled him to lead an active family and social life, including an indulgence in elaborate amateur theatricals, while maintaining a literary productiveness of astonishing proportions. He characteristically wrote his novels for serial publication, and was himself the editor of many of the periodicals—Bentley's Miscellany, The Daily News, Household Words, All the Year Round—in which they appeared. Among his close associates were his future biographer John Forster and the younger Wilkie Collins, with whom he collaborated on fictional and dramatic works. In rapid succession he published Oliver Twist (1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), and Barnaby Rudge (1841), sometimes working on several novels simultaneously.
Dickens's celebrity led to a tour of the United States in 1842. There he met Longfellow, Irving, Bryant, and other literary figures, and was received with an enthusiasm that was dimmed somewhat by the criticisms Dickens expressed in his American Notes (1842) and in the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844). The appearance of A Christmas Carol in 1843 sealed his position as the most widely popular writer of his time; it became an annual tradition for him to write a story for the season, of which the most memorable were The Chimes (1844) and The Cricket on the Hearth (1845). He continued to produce novels at only a slightly diminished rate, publishing Dombey and Son in 1848 and David Copperfield in 1850; of the latter, his personal favorite among his books, he wrote to Forster: 'If I were to say half of what Copperfield makes me feel tonight how strangely, even to you, I should be turned inside out! I seem to be sending some part of myself into the Shadowy World.'
From this point on his novels tended to be more elaborately constructed and harsher and less buoyant in tone than his earlier works. These late novels include Bleak House (1853), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1857), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1861). Our Mutual Friend, published in 1865, was his last completed novel, and perhaps the most somber and savage of them all. Dickens had separated from his wife in 1858—he had become involved a year earlier with a young actress named Ellen Ternan—and the ensuing scandal had alienated him from many of his former associates and admirers. He was weakened by years of overwork and by a near-fatal railroad disaster during the writing of Our Mutual Friend. Nevertheless he embarked on a series of public readings, including a return visit to America in 1867, which further eroded his health. A final work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a crime novel much influenced by Wilkie Collins, was left unfinished upon his death on June 9,1870, at the age of 58.
Reading Group Guide
1. The two endings to Great Expectations (see pp. 437-38 for a note about the original ending and the text of it) have been the source of endless controversy among critics. Which ending do you think is better and why?
2. What is the role of food and drink in the novel?
3. Critic Robin Gilmour argues that although Pip believes the savagery of the marshes and the refinement of Satis House are irreconcilably opposed, in fact "criminality and civilization, violence and refinement, Magwitch and Estella, are not warring opposites but intimately and inextricably bound together." Do you agree or disagree?
4. What accounts for Pip's moral regeneration in the third part of the novel?
5. Julian Moynahan, in a very influential essay on Great Expectations, argues that "Orlick rather than Magwitch is the figure from the criminal milieu of the novel whose relations to him come to define Pip's implicit participation in the acts of violence with which the novel abounds," suggesting, for example, that Orlick, in bludgeoning Mrs. Joe, merely acts as Pip's surrogate in taking revenge on her for her cruel treatment, and that Drummle, a duplication of Orlick, is likewise a surrogate for Pip in his beating of Estella. Moynahan is in part responding to Dorothy Van Ghent's claim in her 1953 book on the English novel that "[w]hat brings the convict Magwitch to the child Pip, in the graveyard, is more than the convict's hunger; Pip . . . carries the convict inside him, as the negative potential of his 'great expectations'-Magwitch is the concretion of [Pip's] potential guilt." Which side do you take in this debate?
6. How does place function in the novel? Consider such examples as the forge, the marshes, Satis House, and Newgate Prison.
7. Margaret Oliphant wrote in a 1862 review of Great Expectations: "So far as 'Great Expectations' is a sensation novel, it occupies itself with incidents all but impossible, and in themselves strange, dangerous, and exciting, but so far as it is one of the series of Mr Dickens's works, it is feeble, fatigued, and colourless. One feels that he must have got tired of it as the work went on, and that the creatures he had called into being, but who are no longer the lively men and women they used to be, must have bored him unspeakably before it was time to cut short their career, and throw a hasty and impatient hint of their future to stop the tiresome public appetite." Do you agree or disagree with this assessment?