Throughout his career, Charles Dickens wrote multiple bildungsroman novels (Blake 106). Great Expectations, published in 1861, is considered to be one of his greatest works both overall and within the bildungsroman genre, due to its intricate narrative and character developments. The novel addresses many of the common concerns in bildungsromane, such as finding a place to belong, discovering who one can depend on, defining what really matters in life, and coming to peace with one’s self. However, Dickens veers away from the traditional story of the underdog becoming the champion, eventually getting all that he desires while learning an important lesson about life along the way. The trials that Pip has to undergo are sometimes self-inflicted, and his perception of the world is tainted by his own ambitions. What he gains is “purely private” (Meckier). Pip not only experiences the harshness of the world, but also realizes how he too has contributed to the suffering of others. His coming of age is marked by losing everything that ambition caused him to desire and by understanding that true value is found in sentiments such as friendship and loyalty.
The scholar John H. Hagan points out that Great Expectations is divided into three distinct parts: boyhood, youth, and maturity (Hagan 54). The first part acts as a setup, both in terms of plot and character development, for the events in Pip’s life that will eventually unfold. It is in this section that he first meets the girl who enlarges his ambitions and the man who finances them. His time at Satis House causes him to feel inadequate within the social system of England; however, he does not wish to improve his character but instead his circumstances. This marks an important part of Pip’s main problem of not being able to assess the true value of things and people due to his continuous “attempts to evaluate human relations according to material considerations” (Blake 138-139).
The second part of the novel focuses on Pip’s ill treatment toward the people in whom the older, reflective Pip finds value. It is in this section that the ideas that enveloped Pip in boyhood come to completely dominate his life and eventually have “disastrous effects” (Hagan 55). Pip leaves his hometown, symbolic of him leaving his childhood, to go to London to become a gentleman with the help of his benefactor. Ironically, instead of becoming more genteel, Pip “becomes a youthful spendthrift, and, totally absorbed in selfish pursuits, neglects all in his past life that is worthy of his remembrance and gratitude” (Hagan 55). Despite these actions, he is still unable to fully integrate himself into London society, evident by his constant state of debt and failed attempts to win Estella’s love. Pip’s youth sets him up for his experiences in London. These are marked by suffering, both mentally and physically, that he must go through in order to reach maturity (Hagan 55-56).
Unlike many bildungsroman protagonists, Pip’s maturity does not come through gaining but instead through losing. He realizes the negative consequences of the mistakes he made while trying to establish his place in the world. However, this realization only comes when he loses everything. This marks Pip’s coming of age with a “wiser but sadder” element (Blake 106). Although he is unable to become the man he wanted to be, he learns that his ambitions were folly from the beginning. His experiences in the world cause him to redefine his values, understanding “money, position, and success had proven less satisfying upon attainment” (Meckier). After he lets go of his initial ambitions he is able to find happiness, acceptance, and freedom.
Some critics see this moral as the reaction Dickens had to his own fame and fortune (Meckier). The wealth and popularity Dickens received later in his life directly contrast his childhood, marked by his parents’ poverty and his father’s imprisonment (Cody, Biography). Great Expectations includes many of the elements in Dickens’s other bildungsromane, such as “responsible versus irresponsible parenting, of a loving versus a tyrannical parent, and of the right sort of role-modelling a child requires from a parent in order to develop into a mentally well-balanced adult” (Allingham). However, Great Expectations presents a much grimmer reality and moral than his earlier bildungsromane, such as David Copperfield (Blake 106). Other critics suggest his outlook was not so much a personal one as much as a critique of a society that “equates the impulse toward self improvement with base cravings for social and material advance” (Meckier). In reconciling these two points, it could be that the lesson at the end of Great Expectations represents “his own at first ambivalent and then cynical response to the Victorian emphasis on gentility” (Cody, Autobiography).
Allingham, Philip V. “The Biographical Context of Great Expectations (1861): Positioning the Novel (2).” (2001): n. pag. The Victorian Web. Web <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/ge/pva103.html>.
Blakey, Barbara Fahey. "Varieties of the Bildungsroman: Portraits of the Self in a Changing Society." Arizona State University, (1980). ProQuest Dissertations & Theses (PQDT). Web. http://search.proquest.com/docview/303027332?accountid=14244
Cody, David. “Autobiographical Elements in Dickens's Great Expectations.” (2010): The Victorian Web. Web <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/ge/auto.html>
Cody, David. “Dickens: A Brief Biography.” (2004): The Victorian Web. Web <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/dickensbio1.html>.
Hagan Jr., John H. “Structural Patterns in Dickens’s Great Expectations.” ELH. The Johns Hopkins University Press 21.1 (1954): 54–66. Web. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2871933
Meckier, Jerome. “Great Expectations and Self-Help: Dickens Frowns on Smiles.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 100.4 (2001). MLA International Bibliography. Web <http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&res_id=xri:lion-us&rft_id=xri:lion:rec:mla:R03287426>.