Renoir Young Girl Reading

When reading any of Dickens's novels, especially David Copperfield and Great Expectations, which are the most autobiographical, it is helpful to know something about his life. For a biographical sketch of Dickens, see Dickens: A Brief Biography, by David Cody. If you have time for a bit more reading (quite a bit!), the best full-length biography of Dickens is still Edgar Johnson's Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph.

Great Expectations was published serially, one installment a week, beginning in December 1860 and ending in August 1861, in Dickens' magazine, All the Year Round. It was the 13th of the 15 novels he would write during his life. Dickens tried to be as accurate as possible with the facts in the novel. For example, to check the circumstances of trying to help Magwitch escape at the end, he studied a table of tides and even hired a steamer for the day to go from Blackwall to Southend.

On the advice of a friend, he added a happy ending to the novel at the last minute (an ending which is still in debate among critics). Other than that, there are very few corrections on the page proofs.

Dickens was one of England's leading figures in the attack on social problems caused by the Industrial Revolution. Great Expectations is focused on social reform. Through Pip, the novel attacks society's greed and selfishness; it even questions the Victorian class system. Pip defeats his greed and learns to be useful, and thus happy. He overcomes his selfishness and learns to have compassion for others. Dickens says through Pip, "Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of the earth, overlying our hard hearts."

dickens photo
This photograph was taken in 1861,
the year in which Dickens wrote Great Expectations.

As always, the critics disagree on how to interpret the novel, but a number of themes are evident:

If you'd like more information on any of the topics covered in this lecture, go to the Links page. Enjoy!

Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, Edgar Johnson
2. The Melancholy Man: A Study of Dickens's Novels, John Lucas
3. Great Expectations: A Novel of Friendship, Bert G. Hornback
4. Dickens the Novelist, F. R. and Q. D. Leavis