Charles Dickens and Great Expectations


In February 2012, readers and writers all over the world celebrated the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth. Celebratory lectures, exhibitions, heritage trails, TV programmes – our means of doing justice to Dickens’s work have never seemed more various. And yet nothing, perhaps, can beat a close encounter with one of his texts. Whether you’re meeting Dickens for the first time, or revisiting him after a breather, this module is all about tackling the intricacies of Dickens’s printed voice.

The text in question is Great Expectations, which was written and published over the course of a year (December 1860 – August 1861), before appearing in book form in late 1861. This module focuses on the novel’s beginning, and it comes in three sections:

• A Little History, which introduces some of the module’s themes, and situates Dickens in his historical context
• First Things First, which explores questions of individuality, genre, and narrative reliability
• Grave Reading, which investigates the mode of reading depicted at the beginning of the novel in relation to some theories about linguistic signs

A Little History

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

Great Expectations has a great beginning. Pip’s opening gambit has been pleasing and puzzling readers for a little over 150 years, and it still seems a bit of a tongue twister. It is an endearing preamble, this matter of naming and sounding ‘explicit’; and yet these Pirrips and Pips amount to something more than just a comic turn. What ‘tongue’ do novels speak? How should a narrative begin? What’s in a name? These would hardly have seemed new questions to a reader in the early 1860s, and although the beginning of Great Expectations asks us to ponder the very nature of beginnings, it should also be read, perhaps, as an illustration of late style, and a sign of how far Pip’s author had come since his own motley upbringing.

Charles Dickens (1812-70) was born in the seaside city of Portsmouth, and brought up for the most part in Chatham and the marshlands of Kent – a swampy playground that would also do for Pip, as biographers have noticed. The Dickens family moved to London in 1822, hounded by financial difficulties, and there Dickens began to meet some of the characters for whom he’d later find a place in his fiction. After a disrupted schooling and a stint at a blacking factory, Dickens worked first as a law clerk and then as a parliamentary journalist. Given his skill for prose character sketches, the reporter soon turned his eye to lengthier projects, and in 1836, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club began to appear in serial form under the name of ‘Boz’, Dickens’s homely pen name. This rambling city narrative (more commonly known as The Pickwick Papers) brought its author firmly into the limelight, introducing him to scores of readers who would follow his development with mounting interest, from short seasonal numbers such as A Christmas Carol (1843), to novels like A Tale of Two Cities (1859). On the basis of these and other kinds of literary activity, Dickens became, in various senses, a writer of great expectations. To find out more about his rise to literary fame, have a look at one of the biographies listed in the ‘Further Reading’ download, or follow this link:

Resource activities

First Things First

Great Expectations is Dickens’s thirteenth novel. It is also, critics have liked to think, one of his most personal tales, haunted by remembered geographies and early traumas. What characters inherit, and what they choose to forget, are matters of special, private importance in the novel. With this in mind, have a read of Pip’s opening thoughts again, in the context of the following passage. In what other ways does the beginning of Great Expectations seem to advocate a personal point of view? 


Grave Reading

The narrator of The Catcher in the Rye has an attitude problem – that much is clear – but the reason Holden Caulfield skims over his ‘lousy childhood’ is partly because he hopes to spare his family: ‘my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece’, he jokes, ‘if I told anything pretty personal about them’. First-person narration is a delicate business, both for those (like Caulfield) who have their families’ nerves to think of, and for those (like Dickens’s characters) who also begin their stories by paying their respects. Pip and Copperfield are considerate boys, and it is their care for honest storytelling, perhaps, which encourages them to divulge their morbid curiosities: a fascination with gravestones. What, we might wonder, can be learned from such monuments? Have a read of the following descriptions; the first is from David Copperfield, and the second, as we’ve already seen, from Great Expectations. Why do gravestones seem to matter? What stories do they tell?


Activity questions

  • Pip remembers his time in the churchyard well, but what change of mood occurs as he recollects his larger environment? Consider the paragraph which begins ‘Ours was the marsh country’, paying particular attention to the way Pip thinks about perspective.
  • Great Expectations has been adapted frequently to suit other media – for the television and cinema, and for the stage. What details are lost when the novel is dramatized? What is there to be gained by updating Pip’s story?

Reflective questions

To answer and record these questions you will need to have an account and be logged in.

Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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CAMbassador comments

Anna Jennings

Charles Dickens is one most famous English novelists, well-loved particularly for his vivid and memorable characters, and dramatic storylines. Hopefully you got a taste for this with Great Expectations, and I can only encourage you to read the rest of the novel, or to explore some more of his work (I particularly recommend A Tale of Two Cities). The resources are useful for thinking about Dickens’ writing within certain traditions – for instance, as part of the genre of the Victorian novel and the bildungsroman style. Thinking about the way in which any writer both partakes in and departs from existing traditions is often a way to provoke interesting angles on a text. You may also want to consider the fact that most of Dickens’ novels were published in instalments in literary magazines, meaning that he needed to keep his readers engaged from week to week, and encourage them to buy the next edition.

1. The resources ask you to begin thinking about the way the story is told in Great Expectations – the style of narration. Some useful terms which you might want to use as tools to further describe and think about the narration are in this resource:

2. The resources also make mention of the adaptations of Dickens’ novel to film and screen. There’s a trailer for a 2012 version which may be a useful starting point for thinking about how to stage the opening Pip scene: Great Expectations Trailer (2012) - YouTube

3. When reading some of the biographical details about Dickens’ life, you might have become curious to find out more about it. The novelist’s letters provide an interesting insight:

Further reading