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Approaching literature: reading Great Expectations
Approaching literature: reading Great Expectations

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1.4 Summary

The abrupt and striking beginning of the novel, rich with anticipatory hints (not to mention the ‘pivot’ upon which the plot will turn), is obviously a good way to start a new serial as well as a new book. The evidence is that contemporary readers were very pleased. They were absorbed, they thought it a return to Dickens's comic vein, and sales soared. As modern readers, with a willingness to read more actively and seek meanings at a deeper level if so prompted, we nevertheless accept the illusion of reality that is, after all, vital to our involvement in the whole narrative. This is created at the very start by a range of familiar realist strategies, from the rendering of the boy's thoughts and impressions when he encounters the escaped convict, to the precise number of gravestones in the churchyard setting on the windswept marshes. The dating of the start of the story to one Christmas Eve in the early 1800s is suggested parenthetically on the first page, where we learn that Pip's parents ‘lived long before the days of photographs’ (p.3) (so he has to imagine what they looked like). It is made more explicit as we read on, by the preparations for Christmas dinner (p.13), by the appearance of the King's soldiers, and by many other clues (see p.77 and the editor's note on p.493).

At a time when the novel as a predominantly realist genre appeared to have stabilised, Great Expectations occupied a fairly recently established sub-genre, autobiographical fiction, but it also incorporated other generic possibilities, in particular those of Gothic fiction and popular melodrama. For example, when the convict first comes into Pip's view, he is like an emanation from the graves in the churchyard. He is marked all over his body by the landscape and he tells the boy he wishes he were a frog or an eel. He finally limps off towards the black and deathly gibbet on the river's edge, which had once held a pirate, looking as if he were that pirate ‘come to life, and come down, and going back to hook himself up again’ (p.7). The word ‘grotesque’ can be used to describe the surprising mixture of forms, characteristic of Dickens's writing, in which human, animal and vegetable seem to intermingle, but which is nonetheless designed to win our belief. Without winning that belief, Dickens cannot hope to engage us with the moral patterning of his text.