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

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4.2 Great Expectations and realism

House's reading relies upon assuming that the novel is a realist text, with a satirical edge. Yet it is a reading that can be taken further, and some critics have developed a much more complex and persuasive view of the theme of gentility.

Robin Gilmour, for example, argues that Great Expectations is unique among Dickens's fiction ‘in that its real subject is not a specific social abuse, or a series of related abuses, but nothing less than civilisation itself’. Gilmour probes the implications of Pip's acceptance of the mutual dependencies of a class-divided society by showing how far Pip seems aware that his struggle towards ‘the civilised life’ is ‘sharpened by a knowledge of its very precariousness’ (Gilmour, The Idea of the Gentlemen in the Victorian Novel, 1981, p.125). Different notions of gentility were in circulation at the time, indicating various perceptions of high social status, involving wealth, property, education or ‘polish’, and moral qualities. Dickens was conscious to the point of obsession of the distance he had come as a hugely successful, self-made public figure whose early background and experience was a matter of shame to him. Yet, by the time Great Expectations was published, his marriage had broken down, and a liaison with an actress (the likely model for Estella) was kept secret to avoid tainting his public image, so he was well aware of what might lie behind the middle-class dream. The novel demonstrates, in the repression of desire and activity associated with Satis House, one cost of becoming a gentleman. At the same time it promotes a kind of moral and spiritual gentility. This is shown in Pip's acknowledgement of the Christian ideals of love and forgiveness, as when he watches Joe from his sickbed, ‘penitently whispering’: ‘O God bless this gentle Christian man’ (p.458). Dickens asserts Joe's moral gentility at the same time as he acknowledges the social distance between him and Pip. Pip cannot join Joe and Biddy in the end, he has to go abroad to make his (modest) fortune.

Is all this any more than an elaboration of House's view? It assumes that Dickens underwrites Pip's mid-Victorian, middle-class values: as a moderately prosperous, well-tutored (by the Pockets, father and son) and hard-working bourgeois, distinct from the parasitical, leisured aristocracy (Bentley Drummle) on the one hand and the brutal rural workers (Orlick) on the other. Joe represents the honest toiler, whose values Pip admires, but cannot emulate. A motif in this theme is money: notice how often and in what contexts ‘money’ is referred to, from the payment for Pip's indentures to Magwitch's fat notebook. Its centrality for Pip's expectations is made quite clear. As he recalls, ‘it was impossible to dissociate’ even the sought-after Estella from ‘all those wretched hankerings after money and gentility that had disturbed my boyhood’ (p.233). In the end, after losing all his money, he starts again (as a clerk), builds himself up to a partnership, and earns enough to return after eleven years in the East as a potential partner for Estella after all.

If the novel is taken to be exclusively realist in orientation, as this approach tends towards, it becomes difficult to avoid what George Levine has identified as the ideology of realist writing, the ideology of liberal individualism. Dickens aimed to appeal to his predominantly middle-class audience, who believed that a man could aspire to be a gentleman by cultivating such values as decency, loyalty, generosity, sensitivity and hard work, ‘cemented together’ with the Christian ideals of charity and forgiveness.Such an approach does not preclude searching and intelligent readings, which bring out Dickens's conscious mastery of his theme and form. The strong moral sense that pervades the narrative as presented by the adult narrator can be explained as a reflection of the author's own beliefs, undeniably complex and critical as these may have been. The language of the novel may thus be seen as no more than an instrument – if a finely tuned one – designed to establish and express the truth as Dickens and (some at least of) his readers saw it.

A further twist has recently been given to this broadly realist reading of the novel in its times by the cultural critic Edward Said, in Culture & Imperialism (1993). Said's book proposes (among other things) a general revision of the history of the novel as a realistic genre by asking that we see it as crucially connected with ‘the imperial process’ in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He takes Great Expectations to be one of the ‘well-known and very great novels’ in the history of the genre which can be read in terms of this ‘hitherto ignored aspect’ of novel criticism (Part Two, p.253). Said situates himself in line with Raymond Williams as a reader of novels in terms of their broadly incorporative cultural reach, their role as mediators of contemporary ‘structures of feeling’ (see p.99 above). He claims to be offering a much more inclusive and dynamic account of how the European novel operated than has hitherto been provided even by Williams, whose criticism is in any case limited by his mainly English focus.

Activity 8

I would like now to look at what Said says explicitly about Great Expectations. Read the extract from his book Culture & Imperialism in Part Two. How far do you accept Said's argument? What new insights does it provide? What difficulties, if any, do you find in his approach? You might like to think especially about the kind of novel he assumes Great Expectations to be.


According to Said, Great Expectations is ‘primarily a novel about self-delusion’, in which Pip becomes in the end reconciled to his benefactor Magwitch ‘and to his reality … as his surrogate father, not as someone to be denied or rejected, though Magwitch is in fact unacceptable, being from Australia, a penal colony designed for the rehabilitation but not the repatriation of transported English criminals’ (Part Two, p.253). Said goes on to refer to two books concerned with the ‘history of speculation about and experience of Australia’ (ibid., p.254). This is an experience in which, he says, ‘we can locate Magwitch and Dickens … as participants … through the novel and through a much older and wider experience between England and its overseas territories’ (ibid.).

Dickens took an early interest in Australia (as seen for instance in David Copperfield) as a place where labourers could do well, although they also thereby became permanent outsiders. However, Said adds, his fiction takes no interest in ‘native Australian accounts’ of conditions there, nor does he allow any ‘return’ to the metropolis (ibid.). The exception is Magwitch, the transportee whose ‘delinquency’ must then be ‘expiated’ (ibid., p.255), by Pip's acceptance of him. Pip is then himself renewed by the appearance of another child called Pip, and by the original Pip's new career ‘not as an idle gentleman but as a hardworking trader in the East, where Britain's other colonies offer a sort of normality that Australia never could’ (ibid.). This links Dickens with the set of attitudes that supported ‘Britain's imperial intercourse through trade and travel with the Orient’ (ibid.), thereby helping to normalise rather than question it in any way. The novelistic enterprise, in short, helped to keep the Empire and its peoples in their place – at the exploitable margins of British society.

This alerts us to a new set of meanings to be read from Great Expectations as a text of its time, while reasserting its liberal-conservative pull. Even without following up any of Said's sources on Australian history, we can appreciate the marginalizing effect of Dickens's fictional discourse – and that of most major novelists of the nineteenth century from Jane Austen to George Eliot onwards. However, Said simply takes it for granted that Dickens's work falls within the realist tradition of Robinson Crusoe, as if there were not enormous and critical differences between Defoe's realism and that of Dickens. These differences include all the alternative, Gothic and romance genre elements, which serve precisely to suggest the validity of the ‘outsider’ experience that Said claims Dickens avoids or ignores. His argument rests implicitly upon a familiar history of the novel as a realist genre which, even if it were still agreed, runs into serious difficulty when it meets Dickens's writings.