Great Expectations was Charles Dickens's penultimate novel (a.k.a. the second to last one he ever wrote), and it was originally featured in a magazine. That’s right. Great Expectations was a serialized publication lasting from December 1, 1860 until August 3, 1861. Two chapters were published every week, telling the story of a young man named Pip who aspired to be a gentleman and win over the beautiful Estella. Basically, Great Expectations (and serialized novels like it) were as close as Victorian England got to Gossip Girl, Grey’s Anatomy, or Lost. People waited anxiously every week for the next "episode" to arrive in the newsstands and on the shelves.
When he prepared to write this novel, Charles Dickens was already world famous for his robust body of work, but he was also the editor of a struggling publication called All the Year Round. This publication was no Atlantic Monthly, but it was a solid literary magazine featuring stories, essays, and illustrations. The problem was that his number one, superstar writer was churning out one seriously snooze-worthy (serialized) story. All the Year Round’s readership was diminishing, and Charles Dickens had to do something drastic to keep it from tanking altogether. As luck would have it, he had the plot for a new novel sketched out. He was saving it for publication in another (cooler and better-paying) publication, but decided to run it in his own magazine in order to stave off bankruptcy.
Though Dickens had the plot and skeleton of Great Expectations already planned, he was able to listen to the criticism and comments of his readers each week over the nine-month period (like a TV season) and to make adjustments to the novel accordingly. Much like current sitcom writers do today, Dickens paid very close attention to the criticism that his work garnered each week. In many ways, the novel was always changing form. Dickens is known as a master of the serialized novel; he was able to create enticing two-chapter segments each week, full of cliff-hangers and nail-biting action, while remaining true to the novel’s overall storyline. His stories worked well in fragments and as a cohesive whole. That’s not easy to do.
Great Expectations was widely popular and was riddled with many of the themes that fascinated Charles Dickens throughout his literary career. He was drawn especially to social justice and to commenting on the inequalities inherent to Victorian society. While England was growing rich and powerful in the era of colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, Dickens saw the injustice that ran rampant among the working and lower classes. He sought to document Britain’s underbelly and to explore the fight for survival in a time of such wealth.
Dickens, along with many other nineteenth century novelists, was also very interested in childhood and in orphans. The innocence and hopefulness of childhood contrasted heavily with the sadness and suffering that he witnessed. Dickens also was in love with doppelgangers and doubles, and so constructed the world of his novels out of complex networks of character doubles. Things come in twos in Dickensian works, so get ready for some double-hunting.
Charles Dickens wrote almost fifteen novels, none of which have ever gone out of print. He’s pretty much the bomb-diggity.
Teachers decorate their walls with them, Hallmark plasters such words of wisdom on their greeting cards, and basketball captains attempt to inspire their teammates with them. Cheesy quotes are everywhere. And, what’s worse, we secretly love them. How can you hate on a quote that tells you to "reach for the moon, because you might end up among the stars," that tells you to follow your passion? You might hate the language, but you can’t hate the message. As humans, we’re built to dream, hope, and imagine.
Great Expectations is a novel about dreaming that completely disproves that star-reaching advice. This book makes star-reaching dangerous, like an extreme sport only to be attempted by orphans who laugh in the face of danger and destruction. And what’s more, Pip’s form of star-reaching is one that we are all too familiar with: the extreme crush.
"Oh, Shmoop," you say, "we would never pursue the impossible like he does. We would never crush on someone that hard –". Oh, REALLY? You mean to tell us you’ve never had that kind of irrepressible, all-consuming, totally-distracts-you-from-your-homework kind of a crush before? You’ve never wanted to change yourself to please your crush, whether it’s Zac Efron, the girl at Starbucks, or any number of love-interests? Let's face it, you know this feeling. Pip knows it too, and he can’t fight it, even when it threatens to swallow him whole.
So, if Hallmark, our teachers, our moms, and our coaches tell us that we’re supposed to reach for our dreams, then what is Great Expectations teaching us? Is there such a thing as good dreams and bad dreams, good hopes and bad hopes?