Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, and spent the first nine years of his life living in the coastal regions of Kent, a county in southeast England. Dickens’s father, John, was a kind and likable man, but he was incompetent with money and piled up tremendous debts throughout his life. When Dickens was nine, his family moved to London. When he was twelve, his father was arrested and taken to debtors’ prison. Dickens’s mother moved his seven brothers and sisters into prison with their father, but she arranged for the young Charles to live alone outside the prison and work with other children pasting labels on bottles in a blacking warehouse (blacking was a type of manufactured soot used to make a black pigment for products such as matches or fertilizer). Dickens found the three months he spent apart from his family highly traumatic. Not only was the job itself miserable, but he considered himself too good for it, earning the contempt of the other children. After his father was released from prison, Dickens returned to school. He eventually became a law clerk, then a court reporter, and finally a novelist. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers, became a huge popular success when Dickens was only twenty-five. He published extensively and was considered a literary celebrity until his death in 1870.
Many of the events from Dickens’s early life are mirrored in Great Expectations, which, apart from David Copperfield, is his most autobiographical novel. Pip, the novel’s protagonist, lives in the marsh country, works at a job he hates, considers himself too good for his surroundings, and experiences material success in London at a very early age, exactly as Dickens himself did. In addition, one of the novel’s most appealing characters, Wemmick, is a law clerk, and the law, justice, and the courts are all important components of the story.
Great Expectations is set in early Victorian England, a time when great social changes were sweeping the nation. The Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had transformed the social landscape, enabling capitalists and manufacturers to amass huge fortunes. Although social class was no longer entirely dependent on the circumstances of one’s birth, the divisions between rich and poor remained nearly as wide as ever. London, a teeming mass of humanity, lit by gas lamps at night and darkened by black clouds from smokestacks during the day, formed a sharp contrast with the nation’s sparsely populated rural areas. More and more people moved from the country to the city in search of greater economic opportunity. Throughout England, the manners of the upper class were very strict and conservative: gentlemen and ladies were expected to have thorough classical educations and to behave appropriately in innumerable social situations.
These conditions defined Dickens’s time, and they make themselves felt in almost every facet of Great Expectations. Pip’s sudden rise from country laborer to city gentleman forces him to move from one social extreme to another while dealing with the strict rules and expectations that governed Victorian England. Ironically, this novel about the desire for wealth and social advancement was written partially out of economic necessity. Dickens’s magazine, All the Year Round, had become extremely popular based on the success of works it had published in serial, such as his own A Tale of Two Cities and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. But it had experienced a decline in popularity after publishing a dull serial by Charles Lever called A Day’s Ride. Dickens conceived of Great Expectations as a means of restoring his publication’s fortunes. The book is still immensely popular a century and a half later.
In form, Great Expectations fits a pattern popular in nineteenth-century European fiction: the bildungsroman, or novel depicting growth and personal development, generally a transition from boyhood to manhood such as that experienced by Pip. The genre was popularized by Goethe with his book Wilhelm Meister (1794–1796) and became prevalent in England with such books as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Dickens’s own David Copperfield. Each of these works, like Great Expectations, depicts a process of maturation and self-discovery through experience as a protagonist moves from childhood to adulthood.
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