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

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3.3 Dickens' characterisation

I have suggested that Miss Havisham's psyche is indirectly revealed through the associations implied when Pip first sees her and her surroundings, but how do we learn about Pip himself? We need to consider this in the light of what I have been saying about Dickens's largely external way of reporting his story, from the distanced perspective of Pip as an adult. The answer to the question takes us back to Lewes's insinuation that Dickens's vision as a writer was grotesque and unreal almost to the point of insanity. What Lewes said was that Dickens's imaginative power was comparable to the hallucinations of the insane, except that in his case the hallucinations had the ‘coercive force of realities’. Unreal and impossible as creations like Miss Havisham are, ‘speaking a language never heard in life, moving like pieces of simple mechanism always in one way’ (‘Dickens in relation to criticism’, 1872, in Collins, Dickens, 1971, p.572), they nonetheless persuade us uncritical readers to believe in them, and not simply by means of descriptive detail. Lewes thereby implied something very important about the novelist's work that I would like to explore. The suggestion is that Dickens touches on submerged or repressed areas of the personality, which can only find expression indirectly or through unexpected, even disturbing, yet persuasively vivid associations.

It was not until Wilson's 1941 essay, ‘Dickens: the Two Scrooges’, that this suggestion was developed (under the twin influences of Jung and Freud) as a serious critical viewpoint. According to Wilson, Dickens's brilliant public persona as a successful comic novelist and energetic social reformer was a cover for the deep pain he always felt as a result of his own sense of shame and rejection as a child – when he had to work in a boot-blacking factory at the age of ten, and his family were imprisoned for debt. This pain, said Wilson, emerged in his fascination for outcasts, criminals and murderers, often coupled with a sympathetic portrayal of neglected children such as Oliver Twist – or Pip. Pip can thus be understood as like his creator in being both inside and outside the society of mid-Victorian Britain. This is revealed in his relationships with Joe and the convict Abel Magwitch, Estella and Miss Havisham, and the curious parallels and similarities they imply.

This sort of approach tends to underplay the art of the writer, even as it supports rich readings of the unsettling insights claimed for the writings. However, it offers a new kind of challenge: to read Dickens as if, consciously or not, he laid bare the tensions within himself in such a way as to reach the deep and typical anxieties of his own age – and ours, shaped as it is by its predecessors. This challenge was taken up by an influential American critic, Dorothy van Ghent, who found in the complex, non-realist development of character and plot in Dickens a vision linking inner and outer worlds which explains the strange, hallucinatory surface of his narrative. Her account of Great Expectations as the type of this approach towards Dickens has hardly been improved upon.

Activity 6

Read the extract ‘On Great Expectations’', from van Ghent's The English Novel: Form and function, in Part Two. This is a densely argued and detailed text, but I suggest that you focus on the following questions to enable you to identify the main points made. How does Dickens depart from the conventions of characterization and plot familiar from other novelists? In what way, then, does Pip's inner life become available to us? (Look at van Ghent's examples.) How does this explain his relationships with the main characters around him? Van Ghent goes on to assert that there are two main themes in Dickens's writing, which are also two related kinds of crime. How, if at all, are these themes resolved in this novel?


Van Ghent claims that Dickens's writing is characterised by a ‘general principle of reciprocal changes, by which things have become as it were daemonically animated and people have been reduced to thing-like characteristics’ (Part Two, pp.247–8). Thus, Estella, ‘the star and jewel of Pip's great expectations … wears jewels in her hair and on her breast’, and says ‘I and the jewels … as if they were interchangeable’ (ibid., p.248). This is a device frequently used in fiction to illustrate symbolically a person's qualities, but in Dickens it becomes something more, since the objects seem to ‘devour and take over’ the person whose attributes they represent. Miss Havisham has used two children, Pip and Estella, as ‘inanimate instruments of revenge for her broken heart … and she is being changed retributively into a fungus’ (ibid.). She anticipates her end by referring to her relatives feeding off her when she is laid out on the same table as her decaying wedding-cake.

In addition to the reciprocal transformation of human and non-human in the Dickens world as a means of representing the inner life of his characters, the momentum of his plots is driven by moral imperatives rather than realistic events. They ‘obey a‘causal order – not of physical mechanics but of moral dynamics’ (ibid., p.249). What brings Magwitch across the oceans to Pip again is their long-standing guilt, ‘as binding as the convict's leg iron which is its recurrent symbol’ (ibid.), rather than any inherently logical plotting. Again unlike realist or (as van Ghent calls it) ‘naturalistic’ fiction, another strategy is to make the ‘opposed extremes’ of good and evil become part of a ‘spiritual continuum’ (ibid., p.250). They become aspects of each other and even of a single character – in this case, Pip. Pip's inner life is displayed by means of his fantasies, projected onto those around him. All the characters are, in some sense, aspects of Pip himself.

This means that what van Ghent identifies as the two kinds of crime in Dickens – ‘the crime of parent against child, and the calculated social crime’ – are ‘analogous’, or like each other (ibid.). Both involve treating persons as things: the crime of dehumanization. They are also ‘inherent in each other’ (ibid.), in that the corrupt will of the parent or parent-figure towards the child becomes part and parcel of the corruption of social authority: the good authority figure has become (was always potentially?) evil. The brutality exercised towards Magwitch in childhood by ‘society’ (see pp.342–3) is therefore to be understood as the same as that meted out to the young Pip. The permutations of this vision are so far-reaching that they go beyond any rational explanation. Van Ghent suggests that we are prompted to think of a solution beyond the logical, such as ‘original sin’, which indicates the need for ‘an act of redemption’ (Part Two, p.251). In Great Expectations this does take place, although it ‘could scarcely be anything but grotesque’. The redemption is anticipated by Mrs Joe's ‘humble propitiation of the beast Orlick’ (ibid., p.252), a moment that reappears as ‘Pip “bows down,” not to Joe Gargery, toward whom he has been privately and literally guilty, but to the wounded, hunted, shackled man, Magwitch, who has been guilty toward himself’ (ibid.).