English Literature


Great Expectations was the next-to-last novel of one of the greatest writers of the 19th century, Charles Dickens. It was published when Dickens was at his prime, and after all the experiences that developed his style and skills. It is a brilliant, intricate and perfectly crafted novel.

To understand the context [context: The social, political and historical circumstances surrounding a text. ] of Great Expectations, you need to know about Dickens, 19th-century novels, and his writing style.

Charles Dickens

Simon Callow as Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

These facts about Dickens will help you to better understand Great Expectations.

  1. When he was 12, his father was imprisoned for debt.
  2. While his father was in prison, Dickens was sent to work in a boot-blacking factory.
  3. Even when his father came out of prison, Dickens' mother made him continue working in the factory - for which he never forgave her.
  4. In 1830, he fell in love with Maria Beadnell, but she rejected him.
  5. In 1857, Dickens, now 45, fell in love with an actress - the 18-year-old Ellen Ternan - although he never dared tell the public about her.
  6. Critics had said his previous novel, A Tale of Two Cities, was too sad.
  7. In 1858, Dickens set up his own weekly magazine - All Year Round. In 1860, sales were falling because the novel the magazine was running did not have enough action to keep people interested.

It is possible that the elements of Great Expectations were influenced by events in Dickens' life (listed above). Can you match the element to the event (the answers are at the bottom of the page)?

  • a. Dickens gave the heroine in Great Expectations the name Estella. In the story Joe, in his 40s, happily marries Biddy, who is 23.
  • b. Magwitch - the 'father-figure' in the novel - was a convict, but he was a good man.
  • c. Pip is scared Estella might look in the forge, see him at work, and despise him.
  • d. Great Expectations is full of melodramatic [melodramatic: Exaggeratedly emotional or dramatic. ] action, love and murder.
  • e. Estella cruelly repulses Pip.
  • f. Dickens packed Great Expectations full of comic characters and events.
  • g. Both Mrs Joe and Miss Havisham - the two 'mother-figures' in the novel - treat Pip badly.

toggle answer

1-b, 2-g, 3-c, 4-e, 5-a, 6-f, 7-d

19th-century literary traditions

Remember that Great Expectations was primarily a commercial project - it had to sell, to save Dickens' magazine All Year Round.

By 1860, although most people in Britain could read and write, books were well beyond the income of ordinary people. Because of this, Dickens' novels were serialised. Great Expectations was published in 36 weekly parts in All Year Round, priced 2d (two pence in old money).

But would people want to buy it? Five main kinds of novel were popular in the mid-19th century. As befits a novel trying to win back readers, Dickens crammed elements of all of these genres of Victorian writing into one book:

  1. The 'Silver Fork' novel - stories about rich people fascinated poor people.
  2. The 'Newgate' novel - people were enthralled by stories about jail, crime, the criminal underworld and gruesome murders.
  3. The 'Gothic' novel - horror stories, such as Frankenstein, set in bleak locations or scary mansions.
  4. The 'Romantic' novel - love stories such as Jane Eyre (especially where the lovers were socially mismatched).
  5. The 'Social-purpose' novel - stories such as Oliver Twist, written to bring social issues to the notice of the general public.

Can you match the element to the genre?

  • a. The novel opens in a misty graveyard. Satis House is a scary mansion, and Miss Havisham is mad.
  • b. This novel was written by Dickens to show that being 'a gentleman' has nothing to do with wealth and status, but dutiful and gentle behaviour. It was therefore an attack on Victorian social snobbery.
  • c. There are a number of lawyers, criminals and murders in Great Expectations. And it is as much the story of Magwitch as it is of Pip.
  • d. The book tells the story of Pip's love for Estella. Dickens rewrote the ending so that Pip got Estella in the end. Also, Biddy marries Joe (although he is 20 years older than her), and Herbert marries Clara Barley (even though she is socially inferior to him).
  • e. Pip becomes a gentleman, and there are lots of descriptions of the rich and elderly Miss Havisham.

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1-e, 2-c, 3-a, 4-d, 5-b

Dickens' style of writing

As you work on a particular section of text from Great Expectations, look for the following characteristics of Dickens' writing:

Simon Callow as Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

  1. Dickens was once a newspaper reporter; his descriptions show a wonderful eye for detail.
  2. Great Expectations had to fill ten columns of All Year Round each week, for 36 weeks. Dickens' style of writing therefore 'filled space', and included lots of repetition and long lists.
  3. Dickens loved words, and liked to produce a 'pretty piece of writing' in different styles. He included lots of powerful adjectives [adjective: Word that describes nouns and pronouns - for example, 'red' is the adjective in the phrase 'the red apple'. ], and is famous for his use of metaphors [metaphor: An expression used to describe and/or compare a subject/action/person by the way it feels or what it resembles - eg 'sea of troubles', and 'drowning in debt' are metaphors. ] and similes [simile: An explicit comparison of one thing to another, using the words 'like' or 'as'. 'Sleeping like a log' and 'bright as a button' are similes. ]. His descriptions often present people, their surroundings, and even the weather, in ways which reinforce each other, so that a certain 'feel' is built up through the passage.
  4. From the early 1850s, Dickens gave public readings of his novels. His writing is rhythmic and designed to be read out loud. He loved to make young women in his audience laugh or weep, so many of his characters are either hilariously comic or heart-breakingly sentimental [sentimental: Expressive of or appealing to emotions and feelings such as love and nostalgia. ].
  5. Dickens was a master of dialect [dialect: The language of a particular subset of English speakers - often those living in a particular place - having its own unique diction, vocabulary, spelling and even grammar. ] and used what is called 'substandard' speech to add to the picture of a character he was building up.
  6. In 1857, Dickens wrote and acted in a play called The Frozen Deep. Critics believe this helped him to write the brilliant sections of dialogue in Great Expectations. Dickens is famous for his exaggeration, which critics have linked to his love of the stage.

The 19th-century social, historical and cultural setting

The key social and cultural influences of the time were:

  1. Ambition

    In 1859, Samuel Smiles published his book Self-Help, which told people that if they worked hard they could improve their station in life. The 19th century was the age of the 'self-made man'.

  2. Social class

    In Victorian times, society was strictly layered - not only into rich and poor, or even upper, middle and lower class, but hundreds of 'grades'. People were expected to 'know their place', and the Church taught them to be content in their 'station'. Dickens did not like the effects of social class.

  3. Social problems

    At the time, many people were becoming aware of the need to improve the condition in which the poor found themselves. Dickens was a great supporter of social reform [reform: Change for the better, often within politics or society. ] - especially in education and prisons.

  4. Church and religion

    In Victorian times, Britain was overwhelmingly Christian. The Church dominated religion and the morals of the time. Dickens, however, disapproved of the power the Church had over people's lives.

  5. Family

    Family was at the centre of Victorian society. People had large, extended families - although Dickens was aware that not all families were happy families.

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