Great Expectations

Works by Charles Dickens

Dickens wrote a great deal of fiction and the novels listed here are the ones most readily comparable with the plot and themes of Great Expectations. Good editions of the novels are available from Penguin, Oxford World's Classics and Wordsworth Classics.

Charles Dickens:

Oliver Twist

Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9)

David Copperfield (1849-50)

Little Dorrit (1855-7)

Our Mutual Friend (1864-5)

Editions of Great Expectations

Great Expectations. Ed. John Bowen. Ware: Wordsworth Classics, 1992.

Great Expectations. Ed. Margaret Cardwell. Introduction by Kate Flint. Oxford: World's Classics, 1998.

Great Expectations (1860-1). Ed. Charlotte Mitchell. Introduction by David Trotter. London: Penguin, 2005.

  • all these editions include helpful explanatory notes, introductions and selections of criticism of the novel.


Peter Ackroyd: Dickens. London:Sinclair-Stevenson, London 1990: revised 1994.

  • an idiosyncratic book, but full of interesting insights.

John Forster: Life of Charles Dickens (1872-4), ed. A. J. Hoppé, 2 vols, London: Dent, 1969.

  • by Dickens' closest friend, with all the advantages and drawbacks of the author's intimacy with his subject.

Edgar Johnson: Charles Dickens: his Tragedy and Triumph. London: Gollancz, 1953.

  • very solid and reliable, but takes Dickens on his own terms.

Fred Kaplan: Dickens: a Biography, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988.

  • a highly professional and interesting account.

Grahame Smith: Charles Dickens: a Literary Life. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1993.

Robert L. Patten: Charles Dickens and his Publishers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

  • excellent studies of the development of Dickens' literary career.

Angus Wilson: The World of Charles Dickens. London: Secker and Warburg, 1970.

  • well-illustrated and valuable for being by a fellow-novelist

Social, political and cultural context

Asa Briggs: The Age of Improvement. London: Longman, 1959.

Eric Hobsbawm: The Age of Capital, 1848-1975. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1975.

F. M. L. Thompson: The Rise of Respectable Society. A Social History of Victorian Britain. 1830-1900. London: Fontana, 1988.

  • these books offer good historical surveys of the period in which Dickens was writing.

Philip Davis: The Victorians. The Oxford English Literary History 1830-1880. Volume 8. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Jerome H. Buckley: The Victorian Temper: a Study in Literary Culture. London: Cass, 1966.

William F. Houghton: The Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870. London: Yale University Press, 1957.

Michael Wheeler: English Fiction of the Victorian Period. 1830-1890. London: Longman, 1985.

  • general surveys of various aspects of the literary and intellectual history of the period.

John Sutherland: Victorian Novelists and Publishers. London: Athlone Press, 1976

  • complements Grahame Smith and Robert L. Patten's books (see above) with a general discussion of the world of Victorian publishing.

Peter Coveney: The Image of Childhood. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

David Grylls: Guardians and Angels. Parents and Children in Nineteenth-Century Literature. London: Faber & Faber, 1978.

James Walvin: A Child's World. A Social History of English Childhood 1880-1881. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

  • three useful studies relating to a key theme in the novel; the first two have chapters on Dickens and childhood.

General critical works on Dickens

John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson: Dickens at Work. London: Methuen, 1957.

  • fascinating study of how Dickens went about planningand writing his novels.

John Carey: The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens' Imagination. London: Faber, 1973, 1991.

  • a stimulating discussion of Dickens' themes and use of symbols.

Philip Collins: Dickens and Crime. London: Macmillan, 1962.

Philip Collins: Dickens and Education. London: Macmillan, 1963.

  • two very thorough thematic studies.

Philip Collins (ed): Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1971.

  • includes early reviews of Great Expectations.

Humphry House: The Dickens World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940.

  • readable general introduction.

F. R. and Q. D.: Leavis Dickens the Novelist. London: Chatto and Windus, 1970

John Lucas: The Melancholy Man: A Study of Dickens's Novels. London: Methuen, 1980.

  • two well-known and influential critical studies; both very persuasive in different ways.

George Orwell: ‘Charles Dickens' (1940). The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, vol. 1, pp. 454-504.

  • very influential essay, still relevant nearly seventy years after it was written.

Michael Slater: Dickens on Women. London: Dent, 1983

  • one of the most controversial subjects concerning Dickens.

Stephen Wall (ed): Charles Dickens: a Critical Anthology. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970.

  • a good selection of critical essays on a variety of topics.

Paul Schlicke (ed): The Oxford Reader's Guide to Charles Dickens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

John O. Jordan (ed): The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Andrew Sanders Authors in Context: Charles Dickens. London: Penguin, 2003.

  • three good general reference / critical works, all with useful bibliographies.

Criticism of Great Expectations

Many of the general books listed in the previous section have chapters or sections on Great Expectations, easily found from the contents page or the index. A very helpful guide to criticism of the novel is:

Nicolas Tredell (ed): Charles Dickens: Great Expectations. Cambridge: Icon Books, 1998.

  • as well as its useful booklists, this guide includes a survey of the history of the critical reaction to the novel since it was published.


[Note: Remember that websites – including this one – are secondary resources like any other. It is important to check the source of the site and to find out about the author(s). Also, remember that any material you draw from the site should be clearly referenced in essays or project work.]

Many websites contain only minimal biographical information.  Some of the more useful ones are:- The Charles Dickens Page

  • offers numerous links to other sites with more detailed information. The Victorian Web

  • a good general site for Victorian literature, with specialised information on a variety of contextual topics as well as individual authors.

  • the site of the Dickens Birthplace Museum in Portsmouth.

  • the site of the Dickens Museum in London; includes links to other sites.

  • this site is maintained by the Dickens project at the University of California.

You will find many other Dickens sites listed on the internet, but these five are the most authoritative and reliable.

Great Expectations on film and television

Great Expectations has always been one of Dickens' popular and most widely-read novels, so it is not surprising that it attracted the attention of the emerging film industry in the early twentieth century. Its range of characters, its combination of the comic and the serious, its central love story and its potential for a striking visual presentation have made it very attractive with adapters for both feature films and television programmes.

The obvious question to ask about any adaptation is:

  • How faithful is this to the original?

Although it is interesting and sometimes amusing to identify what is omitted or changed, there are other, more challenging, questions to be asked.

Some, for instance, concern the history and structure of the film and television industries:

  • Why was this version of the novel made at this time? In what ways might it be speaking to contemporary concerns?

  • Who were its likely viewers?

  • What were the motives of the studio or television company and the director?

  • What significance is there in the casting of the various roles?

Perhaps the most important questions relate to the way in which the story is interpreted, and here the answers to that original question about fidelity to the original can be reformulated as new questions.

  • Why might the director have omitted some parts of the plot (including some characters)?

  • Are there any ‘new' characters or incidents? Why are they in this version?

  • How is the story interpreted? Where does the emphasis lie?

  • How are the characters presented? Are they shown as more, or less, sympathetic than in the novel? Why?

  • What might the director's interpretation tell us about contemporary attitudes towards the issues raised by the novel?

Film adaptations of Great Expectations were released in 1917, 1922 and 1934, but those that have attracted most attention are:

Great Expectations. Dir. David Lean. 1946.

  • one of the finest films made by one of the greatest of British directors, with especially powerful early scenes on the marshes.

Great Expectations. Dir. James Hardy. 1975.

  • although the cast is packed with some of the best-known English actors of the period, this is a fairly feeble version of the novel.

Great Expectations. BBC1 Television. 1981.

  • a solid but not especially imaginative version.

Great Expectations. Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. 1998.

  • modernised and set in America and starring Robert de Niro, Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, this version offers some surprising insights into the novel.

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