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Great Expectations, Dickens's tenth novel, was published in 1861, nine years before his death. As in <David Copperfield,> the hero tells his own story from boyhood. Yet in several essential points <Great Expectations> is markedly different from <David Copperfield,> and from Dickens's other novels. Owing to the simplicity of the plot, and to the small number of characters, it possesses greater unity of design. These characters, each drawn with marvelous distinctness of outline, are subordinated throughout to the central personage "Pip," whose great expectations form the pivot of the narrative.
But the element that most clearly distinguishes this novel from the others is the subtle study of the development of character through the influence of environment and circumstance. In the career of Pip, a more careful and natural presentation of personality is made than is usual with Dickens.
He is a village boy who longs to be a "gentleman." His dreams of wealth and opportunity suddenly come true. He is supplied with money, and sent to London to be educated and to prepare for his new station in life. Later he discovers that his unknown benefactor is a convict to whom he had once rendered a service. The convict, returning against the law to England, is recaptured and dies in prison, his fortune being forfeited to the Crown. Pip's great expectations vanish into thin air.
The changes in Pip's character under these varying fortunes are most skillfully depicted. He presents himself first as a small boy in the house of his dearly loved brother-in-law, Joe Gargery, the village blacksmith; having no greater ambition than to be Joe's apprentice. After a visit to the house of a Miss Havisham, the nature of his aspirations is completely changed. Miss Havisham is one of the strangest of Dickens's creations. Jilted by her lover on her wedding night, she resolves to wear her bridal gown as long as she lives, and to keep her house as it was when the blow fell upon her. The candles are always burning, the moldering banquet is always spread. In the midst of this desolation she is bringing up a beautiful little girl, Estella, as an instrument of revenge, teaching the child to use her beauty and her grace to torture men. Estella's first victim is Pip. She laughs at his rustic appearance, makes him dissatisfied with Joe and the life at the forge. When he finds himself heir to a fortune, it is the thought of Estella's scorn that keeps him from returning Joe's honest and faithful love. As a "gentleman" he plays tricks with his conscience, seeking always to excuse his false pride and flimsy ideals of position. The convict's return, and the consequent revelation of the identity of his benefactor, humbles Pip. He realizes at last the dignity of labor, and the worth of noble character. He gains a new and manly serenity after years of hard work. Estella's pride has also been humbled and her character purified by her experiences. The book closes upon their mutual love.
"I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and as the morning mists had risen long ago, when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw the shadow of no parting from her."
<Great Expectations> is a delightful novel, rich in humor and free from false pathos. The character of Joe Gargery, simple, tender, quaintly humorous, would alone give imperishable value to the book. Scarcely less well-drawn are Pip's termagant sister, "Mrs. Joe"; the sweet and wholesome village girl, Biddy, who becomes Joe's second wife; Uncle Pumblechook, obsequious or insolent as the person he addresses is rich or poor; Pip's friend and chum in London, the dear boy Herbert Pocket; the convict with his wistful love of Pip; bright, imperious Estella: these are of the immortals in fiction.
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Alfred Harmsworth Northcliffe: “Great Expectations,” first published as a serial in “All the Year Round,” in 1861, is one of Dickens's finest works. It is rounded off so completely and the characters are so admirably drawn that, as a finished work of art, it is hard to say where the genius of its author has surpassed it. If there is less of the exuberance of “Pickwick,” there is also less of the characteristic exaggeration of Dickens; and the pathos of the ex-convict's return is far deeper than the pathos of children's death-beds, so frequently exhibited by the author. “Great Expectations,” for all its rare qualities, has never achieved the wide popularity of the novels of Charles Dickens that preceded it. We are not generally familiar with any name in the story, as we are with at least one name in all the other novels. Yet, Pip, as a study of child-life, youth, and early manhood, is as excellent as anything in the whole range of English fiction.
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