Despite any literary controversy over Dickens' style, most critics agree that Great Expectations is his best book. The story, while set in the early part of the 1800s, was written in 1860 during the Victorian era that began with the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 and lasted until her death in 1901. Virtues emphasized at that time included integrity, respectability, a sense of public duty, and maintaining a close-knit family.
The period of the novel was a time of change. England was expanding worldwide and becoming a wealthy world power. The economy was changing from a mainly agricultural one to an industrial and trade-based one. With increasing technological changes came clashes with religion, and increasing social problems. Machines were making factories more productive, yet raw sewage spilled into London streets — people lived in terrible conditions as slums lined the banks of the Thames. Children as young as five were being forced to work twelve and thirteen hours a day at a poverty wage.
While the world became more democratic, so, too, did literature. Unlike the romantic literature that preceded it — literature that focused on the glories of the upper classes — Victorian literature focused on the masses. The people wanted characters, relationships, and social concerns that mattered to them, and they had the economic power to demand it. Novels were published in magazines in serial form — in ten or twenty weekly or monthly installments — and if readers didn't care for a particular story, circulation dropped and the magazine lost money. Consequently, magazines worked hard to keep their readers interested, in suspense, and buying the next copy. Dickens published Great Expectations in weekly installments that ran from December 1860 until August 1861.
In keeping with the desire to please readers, Dickens, on the advice of a novelist friend, changed the ending of the story from a sad one to a happy one. The different ending has been a point of controversy for readers and literary critics ever since. George Bernard Shaw felt the happy ending was an "outrage," especially because "apart from this the story is the most perfect of Dickens' works." Controversy aside, Great Expectations — with the happy ending — was a major success for both Dickens and his magazine.
In July, 1861, Great Expectations was published in book form in three separate volumes, corresponding to the three stages of Pip's growth in the novel. It was published as a single-volume book in November 1862. (The chapter summaries and commentaries later in this Note give both the modern chapter numbers and the original volume and chapter numbers from the three-volume-set. The first volume had nineteen chapters while the second and third had twenty chapters each.)
The story is written as a first-person story, and most consider it a retrospective one — Pip, as an older man, telling his life's story and commenting on it along the way. However, the narrator's voice sometimes gets confusing, almost as if the younger Pip is talking. John Lucas, in his book, The Melancholy Man: A Study of Dickens' Novels, says: "There are essentially two points of view in Great Expectations. One is that of Pip who lives through the novel, the other belongs to the Pip who narrates it. And the second point of view is the authoritative one, commenting on, correcting, judging the earlier self (or selves)." Whether one or two Pips, the choice of first person is an effective one. It has a confidential, confessional quality, as if Pip is talking from his heart while sitting and drinking coffee with the reader.
The locations of the story are in London or on the marshes around Kent, near the junction of the Rivers Thames and Medway. These are areas that Dickens knew well. His happiest childhood years were spent in Chatham on the eastern coast. Nearby were marshes, the prison hulks, and convicts. Also, he lived in London for years and knew the back streets, markets, and places like Newgate Prison.
Continued on next page...