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

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2.3 Surface realism – and beyond

Whether we are ever taken quite so far beyond the everyday is a moot point, but it is easy to see what she means in relation to Pip's guilty conscience, for example. Pip had always been treated ‘as if I had insisted on being born, in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality, and against the dissuading arguments of my best friends’ (p.23). This is a comical expression of the unpleasant contemporary emphasis upon children as little sinners who need to be bullied into virtue. The Christmas dinner at which all the adults except Joe attack Pip, morally speaking, seems to confirm this judgement. It represents the ‘real’ world of everyday experience, easily confirmed by historical evidence as well as our own awareness of how children can be terrorised by the righteous. However, there is also the child's way of seeing things – powerfully present to us as well – producing a sense of guilt so pervasive that it feels as if it is in the nature of things. Even the cattle look ‘clerical’ and accusing (p.17) and ‘when I and my conscience showed ourselves’ (p.21) we feel the boy's alienation as a non-rational state quite beyond what we might expect from someone brought up as he has been. Where does this come from?

The answer is revealed by Dickens's wonderfully sympathetic exploration of the inner dilemma of a boy caught between the demands of the terrifying, starving convict on the one hand and his inadequate surrogate parents on the other – the bullying sister with the ‘impregnable bib’ (p.8) and her submissive, child-like husband. We are told that his upbringing has made the child sensitive, and the adult narrator is quite severe about the inability of his young self to confess his ‘pilfering’ on the convict's behalf to Joe (pp.40–1). However, it is precisely this sensitivity that has led Pip to align himself with the outcast, against even Joe, leading to an irrational excess of guilt. He suffers a continual fear that his ‘criminal’ association will be discovered by the respectable citizens around him. For instance, when the man with the file arrives at the Jolly Bargemen with ‘two fat sweltering one-pound notes’ for him, he thinks of himself as on ‘secret terms of conspiracy with convicts’ (p.77).

By this stage in the novel the ‘freer form’ Dickens has adopted enables him to expand his narrative beyond surface realism, as shown in the first encounter with Miss Havisham and Satis House. This is where the second major thread of the plot begins, which is made explicit for us by the adult narrator's comment: ‘Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day’ (p.71).

Activity 4

How does Dickens establish the first link in this second thread of the plot? How do you interpret the presentation of the wealthy woman and her surroundings in chapter VIII? Re-read especially pages 56–9. What elements in the ‘manner of narration’ direct us heyond surface realism?


The link is established by the impact upon Pip of Miss Havisham and Estella. The meeting with the convict on the marshes will prove the source of his actual expectations, whereas this encounter will prove the origin of his false expectations. The ‘logic’ is not rational, the event is arbitrary, but it feels convincing, because of how it is handled. The narrative presents Miss Havisham as a grotesque creature, who appears at first as ‘dressed in rich materials’, ‘bright’ and ‘sparkling’, a ‘fine lady’, but who in the next paragraph becomes like ‘some ghastly wax-work at the Fair’, or ‘a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress’ in one of the old marsh churches. The hidden association with the convict and the opening scene is hinted at when she lays her hands on her side as she says, ‘Do you know what I touch here?’ Pip is reminded ‘of the young man’, that is, the convict's threat of an imaginary young man who would ‘get’ him.

Miss Havisham's speech is patently unreal, the diction and rhetoric of melodrama, but we accept it because we are viewing her through the frightened boy's eyes, and we have been prepared for his fanciful yet suggestive vision of things. The stopped clock, the wedding garments and the closed room seem similarly melodramatic rather than realistic, but they provide by association an indirect expression of Miss Havisham's mental condition, confirmed later by what we learn of her history. Miss Havisham's gothic surroundings alert us to an understanding of her position beyond anything the young boy could see, although as the adult narrator informs us he ‘saw more’ in the first moments ‘than might be supposed’. Her corrupting potential is conveyed to the reader, even though the boy Pip remains unaware of the implications of what he sees.

Further, we can be brought to realise, by searching out significance in the places were we may not expect to find it, that this departure from realism serves to highlight the hidden and unexpected ways in which the narrative will articulate its meaning. There are hints, for example, of Miss Havisham's ambivalence, as witch or fairy godmother (both roles are referred to, see pp.83,154), which will eventually connect with the parallel ambivalence of the convict's role as benevolent uncle or vengeful father.