Great Expectations and recent critical approaches

Literary sub-genres

Dickens adapts to his own purposes certain conventions of both the Gothic and the sensation novel. These are discussed in the section Literary context: Gothic and sensation

Feminist criticism and literary history

Feminist criticism concentrates on:

  • the presentation of female experience in character and action, frequently pointing out the misrepresentation of female characters by male authors, and challenging sexist views and statement
  • the ‘silence' of women in certain works of literature and how different those works might seem if the female point of view were more fully represented
  • in terms of literary history it draws attention to the work of overlooked or neglected female authors, who are seen as constituting a separate literary tradition, which is different from but not necessarily inferior to a tradition dominated by male writers.

Great Expectations offers many opportunities for the first two of these approaches. As it is narrated by Pip, the male point of view inevitably predominates, but it is important to bear in mind that the events of the novel might seem very different if narrated by one of the women characters:

  • Mrs. Joe, Pip's sister, often complains about her situation, and in the narrative she is presented either as a comic figure or as a domestic tyrant, but like Pip, she has lost her parents and brother
  • Miss Havisham has endured long, lonely years nursing her resentment and planning her revenge by her manipulation of Estella's feelings
  • Estella herself has experienced a strange upbringing: she has no knowledge of her true parentage and has lived in the extraordinary setting of Satis House, cut off from other children and seeing the world only as Miss Havisham represents it to her
    • there is a novel called Estella: Her Expectation, written by Sue Roe and published in 1982, which sets out to tell the story from Estella's point of view.
  • other female characters, including Biddy, Clara and Molly (Jaggers' housekeeper) also have stories of their own, which are represented entirely through the words of Pip as narrator and other male characters
  • some of the female characters are victims of the behaviour of men and the expectations of society about women's role and behaviour – Mrs Pocket is a good example.
  • Choose one of the following characters and tell her part of the story of Great Expectations from her own point of view: Biddy, Mrs Joe, Mrs Pocket, Molly.

Psychoanalytical criticism

The development of psychoanalytic theory (deriving from the work of Sigmund Freud) has had a major influence on literary criticism in a wide variety of ways. Three of these ways that are particularly relevant to Great Expectations are:

  • the relationship between the writer and the text:
    • this approach would concentrate on Dickens' own childhood and the extent to which his sense of parental neglect, his experience of working in the blacking factory and his fulfilment of greater expectations may have influenced the shape and direction of the narrative
  • the analysis of characters in psychological terms:
    • here, critics might concentrate on how characters behave, treating them as psychological cases, for example:
      • Mrs Joe's fierce concentration on housework, her anger and resentment and her treatment of Pip could all be seen as deriving from the loss of her parents and brothers, whom she never once mentions – her sense of bereavement has turned in on itself
      • Miss Havisham's bizarre and obsessive behaviour in arresting time at a particular moment in the past, so that she is constantly reminded of her pain and suffering
      • Mr. Wemmick, with his careful division of work and home life and the ways in which he protects his house as a defence against the less comfortable world of crime and punishment, is almost a split personality
      • Mr. Jaggers' obsessive hand-washing is an example of a psychological means of keeping himself clean of taint from the cases he deals with; his biting of his finger is another psychological ‘tic', suggesting that there is a good deal going on under the surface
      • Orlick's attack on Mrs Joe is an expression of his resentment against Pip; but Pip's sense of guilt also suggests that Orlick might be acting out Pip's own suppressed desire to do harm to his sister
    • critics might also concentrate on the varieties of family and parent-child relationship to be found in the novel:
      • there is a distinct absence of parents, particularly of mothers, and hardly any of the novel's main characters – Pip, Mrs Joe, Joe, Estella, Biddy, Herbert – have grown up in stable or complete families
      • there are therefore a number of surrogate parents – Miss Havisham, Joe and Mrs Joe, Miss Havisham, Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt, Magwitch – who are mostly unsatisfactory
  • the relationship between the reader and the text:
    • this approach would concentrate on the reader's response to the novel and how readers in some way work or collude with the author in the act of reading to construct meanings or satisfy unconscious wishes by their response to characters and events;
    • this is a theoretical way of stating that readers usually have empathy or sympathy with one or more of the novel's characters and may therefore identify psychologically with the fortunes of that character
      • in the case of Great Expectations, a good deal of the reader's understanding of the novel depends on the degree of his or her sympathy or hostility towards Pip
      • readers will also bring to their reading their own expectations, often derived from their previous reading of novels and how they are resolved – for example, in relation to the fate of Magwitch or the relationship between Pip and Estella
  • the construction of identity in relation to the social order:
    • in the opening passage of the novel, Pip is engaged in the construction of his own identity in relation to his dead parents and brothers, to the physical environment and to the rules of the social order
    • his realisation that he and his sister are the only survivors of this family could be seen as the source of his sense of guilt – a feeling which Mrs Joe's treatment of him intensifies
    • when Magwitch turns him upside down his view of the world is disturbed – and again this is intensified by his visits to Miss Havisham
    • subsequent events further disturb his sense of identity and it is only towards the end of the novel that he is able to inhabit a self that puts him in a stable relationship with the social world.

Formalist criticism

This subject is discussed in the section Narrative.

Post-colonial criticism

This approach to literature has emerged with the decline of the colonial empires established during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (largely as a result of the expansionist aspirations of European states in territories on other continents).

Overseas territories are referred to in many nineteenth century novels:

  • in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814), Sir Thomas Bertram's wealth derives from his sugar plantations in the West Indies, which he visits in the course of the novel
  • in W. M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1847), Jos Sedley returns from India with enormous amounts of money, and there is a fellow-pupil at Amelia Sedley's school who is clearly of mixed race
  • in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), Mr. Rochester's first wife comes from the West Indies, which is also the source of Jane's inherited fortune
  • at the end of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Mary Barton (1848), some of the characters move to a new life in Canada
  • at the end of Dickens' David Copperfield (1849-50), the feckless Mr. Micawber emigrates to Australia, where he becomes successful.

Post-colonial critics of these novels draw would emphasize that:

  • these places are seen as remote and unknowable, representing difference and otherness
  • the narratives of these novels never follow the characters who visit these distant places
  • the places are often seen as sources of wealth with little concern as to how that wealth is obtained or about the lives of slaves on, for instance, West Indian sugar plantations
  • alternatively, as in Mary Barton and David Copperfield, they provide a convenient narrative solution for characters who, for one reason or another, cannot be fitted into a future in this country.

As former colonies have become independent in the years since 1945, new voices have emerged, anxious to relate the story of colonization from the point of view of the colonized:

  • the best-known example of this approach is Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys, which tells the story of Rochester's first, West Indian, wife from her point of view.

In the case of Great Expectations, post-colonial criticism would focus on the representation of Magwitch's experience as a transported convict in Australia:

  • Magwitch's own account is the only source of information about his time in Australia; is the only source of information about his time in Australia
  • this emphasizes his fantasies about making Pip a gentleman, but says little about the hardships of life in Australia, well-documented in the historical record
  • although the novel is sceptical about the law and punishment system of England it contains very little explicit criticism of transportation – effectively, a means of disposing of unwanted individuals.

Peter Carey's novel Jack Maggs (1997) takes Great Expectations as its starting-point:

  • it looks at the life of the title character, an illegally returned convict from Australia
  • the novel also contains an unscrupulous novelist who wishes to take over Jack's life story for one of his books
  • Jack is composing his own written account of his life
  • at the end of the novel he returns to Australia, which he finds morally preferable to England and where he becomes a prominent citizen
  • Peter Carey is an Australian writer and his novel is a clear attempt to re-evaluate the convict experience and its contribution to the country's history.

Publication, distribution and reception

This subject is discussed in the section Structure: Structure and narrative.

New historicist criticism

This critical approach:

  • emphasizes the historical, social, political and cultural context in which texts are conceived, written, published, distributed, read and received
  • argues that contemporary issues, hopes and anxieties, whether or not they appear or are explicitly discussed in a particular text, may have a determining effect on the shape and direction of the text
    • books set in the future, like George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Philip K. Dick's Blade Runner (1972) tell us as much about the time in which they were written as the times in which they are set
    • Shakespeare's history plays, concerning events that take place between one hundred and two hundred years before they were written in the 1590s, reflect the problems and anxieties of the Tudor monarchy concerning such matters as legitimacy, usurpation, government and the relationship between the monarchy, the aristocracy and the mass of the people.

In the case of Great Expectations, a number of social issues are directly addressed:

  • educationand individual opportunity, which affects Pip himself, Joe, Biddy, Mr Wopsle and Orlick
  • crime and punishment, relevant to Wemmick, Jaggers, Magwitch and Molly
  • class and social ambition in a range of characters from Pip to Mrs Pocket
  • the role of money in providing opportunities for some and its absence preventing others from fulfilling their potential.

(See also Social/political context; Religious/philosophical context: Dickens and the importance of childhood; Structure: Thematic structures for further discussion of these issues).

At a deeper level, other contemporary issues can be detected:

  • the national debate about education and its spread to all classes of society
  • the role of education and class in a rapidly changing, rapidly urbanizing society
  • debates concerning the nature and role of the gentleman, which is dramatized in a number of contemporary novels, including others by Dickens, such as Our Mutual Friend (1864-5)
  • ethical questions concerning the use and misuse of money, relevant in a period when the high point of the Industrial Revolution was past and the commercial and financial sectors were developing; , relevant in a period when the high point of the Industrial revolution was past and the commercial and financial sectors were developing
  • discussions about democracy and the extension of the franchise to a larger percentage of the population.
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