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Great Expectations | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Great Expectations | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Charles Dickens's Great Expectations describes the life and journeys of Pip, an orphan lifted out of poverty. Featuring a wide array of eccentric characters, the novel, first serialized between 1860 and 1861, is a coming-of-age story focused on Pip's unrequited love for Estella, a girl who treats him coldly.

Critiquing class, social structure, and English culture, Great Expectations was well-received by critics immediately. As this was Dickens's 13th novel, his writing had already been met with critical and financial success, and the book helped confirm him as one of the literary giants of his era.

1. Dickens altered the original ending of Great Expectations.

The end of the novel, when Pip and Estella reunite after years apart, originally had a more melancholy tone, foreshadowing that the two would never be together. Unsatisfied with this ending, Dickens altered his conclusion, primarily by changing the last line from, "I saw the shadow of no parting from her, but one" to "I saw no shadow of another parting from her," to hint at a more hopeful future for the pair.

2. Great Expectations was originally published in a magazine owned by Dickens.

Many of Dickens's famous novels, including A Tale of Two Cities, first appeared in the magazine All the Year Round, for which Dickens was both editor and publisher. He continued this publishing method for Great Expectations, which appeared in the magazine as a series of weekly installments between 1860 and 1861.

3. Dickens's grandfather was the inspiration for the character of Magwitch in Great Expectations.

Dickens's maternal grandfather, Charles Barrow, was a music teacher who changed careers to take a job as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office. He performed well and within one year was promoted to the Chief Conductor of Monies. Barrow embezzled a large sum from the Navy Pay Office and fled to the Isle of Man to avoid trial. This family story gave Dickens the idea for the gentleman-turned-fugitive who turns out to be Pip's benefactor, Magwitch.

4. Dickens included detailed historical elements in Great Expectations.

When he wrote Great Expectations in 1860, Dickens wanted to portray the differences between that era and the novel's setting of 1812 accurately. To do this, he included antiquated historical details that are often lost on modern readers, such as the display of a hanged corpse left to rot. Readers at the time would've known this practice had been banned in England in 1832, several decades prior to the book's publication.

5. Dickens originally wanted Great Expectations to be twice as long.

Dickens intended to craft a much longer novel, but the the publication in which the novel was first serialized imposed editorial constraints that limited its length. The first edition of Great Expectations was already considered quite long at 544 pages.

6. South Park devoted an episode to parodying Great Expectations.

Though its plot deviates significantly from that of Dickens's novel, the animated show South Park released an episode entitled "Pip" in 2000, which is a comedic take on the literary classic. Although the first part of the episode follows Dickens's plot fairly closely, the show later incorporates violence and elements of science fiction to purposely clash with the 19th-century setting.

7. Authors have rewritten Great Expectations from other characters' points of view.

A novel by Sue Roe entitled Estella: Her Expectations explores the narrative as told by Estella, discussing her strange relationship with Miss Havisham. Ronald Frame's Havisham: A Novel tells the backstory of the infamously disturbed and eerie character and how she came to be such a cynical shut-in. Frame envisions Miss Havisham as an intelligent and worldly brewer's daughter whose prospects are limited by gender and class.

8. Many characters in Great Expectations have "doubles."

Dickens wrote his characters in pairs to accentuate their similarities and differences. For example, Magwitch and Compeyson are both criminals, yet their social statuses and morality differ greatly. Mrs. Joe and Miss Havisham are both mother figures to Pip, and while they both wear specific clothing reminiscent of a lover, they contrast sharply with regard to social status.

9. Dickens often included mistreated orphans in his writing.

In addition to Pip in Great Expectations, Dickens also featured orphan characters in Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, and A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens chose to incorporate orphans as characters, often protagonists, in part due to his deep concern for England's poverty-stricken children.

10. Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow starred in a film adaptation of Great Expectations.

Great Expectations was contemporized in the 1998 film, with the action set in modern New York City. Pip's name was changed to "Finnegan Bell," played by Hawke, while Miss Havisham was renamed "Ms. Dinsmoor," played by Anne Bancroft. Paltrow starred as Estella, whose name was kept by screenplay writer Mitch Glazer.

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