Great Expectations comes with, oddly enough, a great number of expectations.
The author, Charles Dickens, was so renowned in his own time, and so well recalled and respected in our own, that “Dickensian” has come to connote most of our ideas of Victorian London. Great Expectations itself is widely considered one of Dickens best and most mature works of fiction, and is frequently set as school or university text. In fact, whenever there is suggestion of teaching less Dickens, there is a plea for him to be returned: “Our children must read Dickens to grasp the universality of the human condition, compassion for human suffering, and the reality of human heroism.”
So, does Great Expectations meet expectations? Does Dickens teach us about the universality of the human condition?
Well, this depends on what the question means. Great Expectations was was Dickens’ 13th and penultimate novel, and was published serially in All The Year Round in December 1860 to August 1861 before being published in the Victorian tradition of a three volumne book form* in October 1861. The story is about a orphaned English boy, Pip, and his journey into great expectations (of class mobility) with the financial assistance of an anonymous benefactor.
This story is most definitely a product of Dickens and the Victorian era, with much of its popularity depending precisely on its exemplification of so many of the traits of both: dramatic chapters grown out of a serial format; typical bildungsroman style (a story of personal, moral and physical growth); social commentary; eccentric and memorable characters; linear timeline with a realist representation of causal relationships.
Yet while this story is entirely a product of its time, it presents with sophistication and deftness some of the more universal struggles of humanity. Although Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, amongst others, remind us that the more basic tenants of universal feeling are physiological needs, Great Expectations nevertheless addresses some of the key struggles of modern culture. Pip is a satisfyingly flawed protagonist, beset by ambition, guilt and weakness, as well as courage and kindness. The plot may be driven by wealth and class struggles, but these are powerful institutions within most modern cultures, and they are treated accordingly by Dickens. And above all, Pip learns that wealth and class are institutions that do not necessarily come with human empathy or love. But perhaps most importantly, Dickens is currently one of most powerful figures of literature, and while his legacy may be considered problematic for a huge number of reasons, it is a legacy all the same. And reading that legacy, and being able to respond to it in an informed way, is a way of engaging with it.
So, for what it’s worth, I would recommend reading Dickens: it is time to meet those great expectations.
For a short and lovely review of the book (and one that actually talks a bit more about the plot!), check out If You Give a Girl a Novel.
* This three volumne, or triple-/three-decker, form developed as a result of the popular circulating library in the Victorian era. With printing and binding still relatively expensive, this form offset costs for the publisher, who could borrow these services on credit and pay it back after selling the three-deckers to the lending libraries (especially the well-established Mudie’s Lending Library, the largest at the time). This form allowed multiple users to read different sections at once, encouraged people to finish the story by borrowing all three volumnes, and helped earlier volumnes pay for the publication of the latter. For more information, see the The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel.