A learning novel

Great Expectations may be described as a Bildungsroman: this is the German term for an ‘education' or ‘learning novel'

  • this kind of novel became popular in the nineteenth century following the publication in 1795-6 of J. W. von Goethe's Wilhlem Meister's Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship)
  • the young main character of such novels has to achieve emotional and intellectual maturity, negotiating a way through the intricacies of social conventions and expectations
  • the main character in such novels undergoes difficulty and suffering as well as pleasure and satisfaction (usually more of the former than the latter)
  • he or she has to learn to observe, understand and judge characters, their actions and surrounding social structure
  • it can thus be used as a means of commenting on, satirizing and challenging established social norms.

Such novels may offer opportunities for learning for their readers as well as their central characters:

  • the events of Great Expectations could be seen as offering the reader an opportunity to reflect on child-rearing, the law, crime and punishment, social snobbery and the damage that may be done by the desire for wealth status
  • Pip also learns a good deal about all these matters and, by the end of the novel, is able to understand what motivated the people he encountered and forgive them for their behaviour towards him
  • he is also better able to understand and judge his own behaviour and make amends to the people he has wronged.
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