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One cold and misty evening, a little boy meets an escaped criminal on the marshes near England's coast. No, it's not the opening of a TV crime drama (although it could be)—it's the beginning of one of Charles Dickens' most famous novels: Great Expectations.
The story of a young blacksmith boy Pip and his two dreams—becoming a gentleman and marrying the beautiful Estella—Great Expectations was serialized from December 1, 1860 until August 3, 1861. With two chapters every week, Great Expectations (and other serialized novels like it) were as close as Victorian England got to Breaking Bad or Mad Men. People waited anxiously every week for the next "episode" to arrive in the newsstands and on the shelves—and you can see why. Dickens was a master of the serialized novel, writing segments full of cliff-hangers and nail-biting action, while remaining true to the novel's overall storyline. His stories worked in pieces and as a cohesive whole—not an easy task. (Just ask J. J. Abrams.)
When Great Expectations began its run, Charles Dickens was already world-famous, but his magazine All the Year Round was struggling. So, he came up with a plan: rather than save the story he'd sketched out for a cooler and better-paying publication, he decided to run it in his own magazine.
The novel was a major success. Like most of Dickens' work, it addressed contemporary issues of social justice and inequality. 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 documented Britain's underbelly and explored the fight for survival in a time of such wealth.
But it's not all doom and gloom. (We promise.) Sure, there are broken hearts, glimpses into London's dark criminal underworld, and enough child abuse to make you want to call protective services. At the same time, it's full of hilarious characters and little slice-of-life sketches that, just like any serialized TV show, will keep you coming back for more.
Cheesy quotes: teachers decorate their walls with them, Hallmark fills the greeting card aisles with them, and football coaches give rousing speeches full of them. Cheesy quotes are everywhere. And we 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"? You might hate the language (and the basic misunderstanding of astronomy), but you can't hate the message. As humans, we're built to dream, hope, and imagine.
And, as humans, we're pretty much set up to fail.
Great Expectations shows us something that motivational posters never do: reaching for the stars can be dangerous. You get fired from your first job; you have to move back in with your parents; your crush marries the worst possible man. You know this feeling, or—sorry—you will. It's the one thing every adult human has in common whether you're a rich lady, a criminal, or a blacksmith's boy. And that's something to care about.
A Portrait of Charles Dickens
Dickens as a boy in the blacking factory, as imagined by an illustrator from 1904.
Worst Summer Job Ever
The label of the boot-blacking product whose factory Dickens worked in at age 12.
Together At Last
The happy ending version of Pip and Estella's relationship.
Black and White and Great All Over
The title page of the 3-volume edition.
Unlike most of Dickens' novels, Great Expectations didn't come with illustrations originally—but they did come along later. Here's the whole list.
Great Expectations Audiobook
All those words making you tired? Here's an audio version from Random House.
All the Dickens you could want. Ever. This website is run by the Dickens Project at UC Santa Cruz.
Where in the World is Pip?
Find out in this map of Dickens' London.
Can't keep the characters straight? Here's a comprehensive resource, if Shmoop isn't enough for you.
Time, Time, Time
Learn more about the events in Dickens' life with this neat-o timeline.
Shhh, Satis House is Sleeping
This 1917 production is as silent as the grave.
Impress Your Friends
This 1922 version is straight from Scandinavia. Apparently, "Store Forventninger" is Finnish for "Great Expectations."
… of the 1930s. This 1934 adaptation stars Phillips Holmes as Pip and Jane Wyatt as Estella.
Do You Like Oscars?
Because this 1946 adaptation won two of them.
In 1975, someone had the brilliant idea to make Great Expectations into a musical—and then remove all the songs. Bummer!
Philip Pirrip and the Prisoner of Satis House
This 1998 production stars Ethan Hawke as Pip and Gwyneth Paltrow as Estella—and was directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who was also responsible for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
You can count on Masterpiece Theater for class, and this 1999 production has it.
Born for the Part
Helena Bonham Carter plays Miss Havisham in this 2012 adaptation. Seriously, it's like Dickens wrote the part for her.
They Liked It!
Here's an original review of Great Expectations—pretty cool!
Life and Times
Dickens had 10 children and a mistress. Check out more tasty tidbits in this Atlantic Monthly article.
Here's an article from Psychology Today that asks if pursuing ideal love does more harm than good. We're pretty sure we'd know what Dickens would say… we think.
If you've got a spare two hours, check out the entire 1946 adaptation.
Everyone's favorite Gen-X heartthrob does it up as a tortured Pip in this trailer for the 1998 production.
I Want to Believe
Gillian Anderson creeps us out as Miss Havisham in this trailer for the BBC One production.
Here's the trailer for the 2012 version with Helena Bonham Carter.