The Autobiographical Content of Great Expectations
Many of Dickens novels draw from his life experiences, and therefore are autobiographical to some extent. Jean Carr makes the point that “he was ever longing to express…recollections of his own childhood, which were his grand storehouse” (453). For example in Little Dorrit, the tale revolves around the incarceration of Mr. Dorrit in the infamous Marshalsea Prison of London which held faulting debtors, and we know that Dickens own father was held for debt charges in the same prison, and his early life is palpably shaped by this event. Then again in David Copperfield the child protagonist undergoes hardship in a large factory. Dickens himself was forced to work in such a factory at a young age, after his father was imprisoned and his mother moved into prison with a large family, leaving the author practically an orphan. But Great Expectations must be described as his most autobiographical novel.
This is not only because we find more autobiographical details than any other novel, but also because the underlying theme itself expresses the idealism of the mature Dickens. The author is not only reflecting on his early life experiences, as we find in most of his other novels, but in fact he is showing to us the process of maturation, and how the mature ideology came to shaped. In this sense it is a bildungsroman, which makes it profoundly autobiographical at the same time. This is despite the fact that most of the narrative is purely fictional, and departs greatly from real life. The real purpose of the author is to present us with the inner experience of his life, and not merely to reproduce external detail. To this end he resorts to fiction most of the time, because only through fiction is the author able to depict the emerging idealism of the protagonist. For the same reason Dickens finds scope to delve in the larger issues of his times, concerning the rise of industrial society, and how it effected the relationship between the classes.
Dickens was a staunch supporter of the underprivileged, which is understandable in the sense that he picked himself up from among their midst to enjoy fame and fortune in later life. But it was not only shallow sentimentalism that he bore towards his lowly roots. The successful and mature Dickens acknowledges that he was driven by false ideologies as a young man trying to make his way in the world. This is the essential theme of the novel. The ‘great expectations’ that Pip pursues while growing up are made out to be false expectations. So that the underprivileged are not painted uniformly white, and Dickens points out that the poor in society are not necessarily driven by pure motives. But the matter does not end here. The great expectations of Pip are indeed rewarded in the end, for he comes to understand that money, gentility and social recognition are not worthy goals, and that they are such that do not bring fulfillment.
On the other hand, it is the self-denying values like compassion and benevolence that reap rewards, and this wisdom that Pip has come to is an invaluable achievement. If Pip has found such humbling wisdom in the end, it is only because he held great expectations to begin with. This implies that he expects only the best that is human, as opposed to the material. We know that Pip’s is a pure heart, and it is only the love and affection of those around him that he craves. Only his circumstances have driven him to believe that he must pursue crassly material ends in order to win the good will of people. The novel describes how Pip’s illusions are eroded as he grows up. But the expectations of Pip are ‘great’ in the sense that he aims for the highest good, only that he does not know the means to it. Dickens message is that as human beings we must aim for the best in life, but we must also be aware that the best does not reside in material appurtenances.
The same message informs how Dickens came to view the wider social picture in light of Industrial Revolution. It was a time when people were imbued with the notion of progress, so that they expected great things – for themselves, for their nation, for society. Dickens seems to stand fiercely against the general ethos of his age, and as Edmund Wilson has commented, “Of all the Victorian novelists, he was probably the most antagonistic to the Victorian age itself” (qtd. in Collins 309). But in one sense he belonged completely, in that he too held high expectations for the future. Wilson seems to miss this point, as does George Gissing, who focuses on his opposition to the materialistic tendencies of his countrymen, and explains the bitterness by saying that Dickens had grown up in a hard and cruel world (Reed 486). Chesterton tells us that we should not characterize Dickens by the bitterness, but by the hope he exuded, and that it is this latter quality that accounts for his greatness (Chesterton 21). Wilson and Gissing are products of the later Victorian period and, and by which time the earlier optimism had faded and times indeed had become hard and cruel. “The first period was full of evil things,” says Chesterton, “but it was full of hope” (Ibid 6). There is no trace of pessimism in Dickens, and we should not mistake his moral outrage for such. Dickens was not averse to progress, but he did see that people’s expectations were generally misplaced, being solely invested in the material things.
In the novel Great Expectations we find expression of the author’s deepest moral convictions. For an impressionable young man like Pip growing up at the turn of the century, the highest attainment seemed to be to become a gentleman. To this end the first aim was wealth, then after that the training of the manners that make a gentleman. Even a good general education is seen as part of this training, so the illiterate Pip wants to learn to read and write, not for the intrinsic worth that such skills carry, but because it is a step towards becoming a gentleman. After he has fallen in love with the heartless Estella, he only wants to become an equal to her in social standing, so that he may ask for her hand in marriage. Estella comes to symbolize the summit of Pip’s gross expectations, and it turns out that everything about her is false, which only reflects the nature of those expectations. She is the daughter of a lower class convict, and does not really share the noble ancestry of Mrs. Havisham.
The latter had been jilted by the upper class conman Compeyson, and so she trains Estella to prey on the male sex with a cold and malicious heart, which is part of her revenge on the sex. Apart from her pedigree, everything about Mrs. Havisham is false too. Pip idolizes her, along with Estella, because he believes her to be his secret benefactor and even this turns out to be a mistake. When Pip is leading the life of a gentleman, in the second part of the book, having been set up by his secret benefactor, he becomes lazy and dissipated, which reflects the moral emptiness that characterized the Victorian upper classes. Through all this Dickens is making the comment that Pip’s expectations of becoming a gentleman are misguided. This is because they are material expectations. In the larger context, it as an adverse commentary on the utilitarian ethos that scarred the Industrial Age.
On the flip side to this, Dickens shows that human worth can be found in the most unexpected of places, and that it does not really require a social map to find. Magwitch is a lower class common criminal, yet it is through pure benevolence that he becomes the secret benefactor of Pip. He is moved by a simple act of kindness on Pip’s part, recognizing in him a generous soul destined for great things. Dickens is telling us that when truthful even the simplest of gestures carries enormous weight. So, Pip’s kindness incites Magwitch’s generosity of setting Pip up as a gentleman. When he first discovers the source of his wealth, Pip is at first disgusted and confused. It marks the first step of the breaking down of his previous worldview based on social standing.
But then he gradually comes to realize that Magwitch is motivated by a pure heart, and he is able to contrast this with all the vanity and falseness that he has encountered so far in his existence in genteel society. One by one his prior expectations fall away, and he learns to value genuine human worth. The final conversion of Pip is marked by the fact that he helps Magwitch to escape to Egypt, being complicit in crime as he does so. In many of Dickens books we find him championing the poor, but in Great Expectations he gives a more profound and mature analysis of the social situation. It is not that the poor turn out to be morally superior to the rich, but that moral worth has nothing to do with class distinctions. It is a very democratic message, and reflects the wider reality that was taking place in Industrial Britain. The aristocratic structures of the past were coming down, and Victorian literature in particular was in tune with this process of democratization (Goodlad 121). This novel is a prime example.
Of course, the experiences of Pip differ much from those of Dickens’ own, and the most glaring difference is that the author did not have a secret benefactor, and all his success is result of diligence. Nevertheless, we are able to trace a general outline of similarity. They are both trapped in heatless occupations a children, dreaming of escape through social ascendancy. Dickens is separated from his imprisoned family, wile Pip is orphaned. Both achieve their ambitions of wealth and social position as young men in the teeming capital city, though the means are very different. To bridge this last gap we only need to consider that Pip is a larger than life portrayal of the author. We can be fairly confident that Dickens had encountered the same struggles with his inner conscience as Pip does, and had emerged with worldview upturned. In this sense we may see Pip’s story as a dramatization of this inner struggle.
We know that Dickens excels in dramatic exaggeration, and even though Great Expectations is on of his most restrained novels, the dramatic license is channeled in different ways, and towards making Pip’s story an expression of the author’s inner moral life. Evidence for this lies in the fact that there is a distinct detachment between the character of Pip and the first person narrator, which has led John Lucas to comment, “There are essentially two points of view in Great Expectations. One is that of Pip who lives through the novel, the other belongs to the Pip who narrates it. And the second point of view is the authoritative one, commenting on, correcting, judging the earlier self (or selves)” (Lucas 290). In this way the novel becomes intensely autobiographical.
In conclusion, Dickens drew from his early life experiences in much of his fiction, and Great Expectations is particularly successful as autobiography in the sense that, though diverging from the details of his life, he is able to express through the story of Pip his own moral development. Though he was critical of many of the materialistic tendencies of Industrial Britain, he shared in the general optimism of the age, which may be described as optimism in the potential of democracy, which industrialism was helping to foster. His mature ideology was that every human being is imbued with great potential, and so with the coming of democracy people were justified in holding great expectations. As Chesterton puts it, “He was the voice in England of this humane intoxication and expansion, this encouraging of anybody to be anything” (14). If Dickens was unhappy about the conduct of his countrymen, it was only because the felt that they were misled by false and materialistic goals, and therefore were squandering the opportunity that emerging democracy was bringing to them.
Carr, Jean F. “Autobiographical Narration in Dickens and Trollope.” Dissertation Abstract International. 40, 1980.
Chesterton, G. K. Charles Dickens a Critical Study. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2005.
Collins, Philip. Dickens and Crime. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.
Goodlad, Lauren M. E. Victorian Literature and the Victorian State. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2003.
Lucas, John. The Melancholy Man: A Study of Dickens’s Novels. London: Methuen, 1970.
Reed, John Robert. Victorian Conventions. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1975.