Classic Thoughts / All we need to know: Amanda Craig on the satire and humanity of Great Expectations (1861)

I FIRST knew it as a film, and, shamingly, preferred Oliver] Later, Dickens patrolled the high seas of Eng. Lit., all bombast, burlesque and sentiment. Then, quite by chance, I read Great Expectations just after university. It made the hair in my scalp stand up and dance, for until then I had had no model for the kind of novel I most liked, and hoped to write.

My classic is short, for a Victorian novel, and taut as a fairy-tale or detective story - both of which it is. From the first page when Pip, terrified into his wits, thinks the escaped convict who has risen out of the marshes is going to cut his throat, it is thrillingly alive. Mocked by the mad Miss Havisham and beautiful Estella; beaten by Mrs Joe, patronised by Jaggers and confused by Wemmick; befriended by Herbert, humiliated by Magwitch and humbled by Joe; the mystery and comedy of Pip's education is the greatest Bildungsroman ever written. No scene or character is deformed by that excess of melodrama which mars the earlier work, yet all, down to the unseen Bill Bailey, are shimmeringly particular against the blackest of backdrops. It is perfectly shaped: the journey that began in terror and water ends in it, with regeneration offered as an ambiguous, misty coda. The protagonist who begins as a pip, a seed, grows into a whole human being, ripened by adversity. The prose is faultless.

For this, Dickens's second-tolast completed novel, is genius mature. It contains the plot of Oedipus, towards which all literature, including the most comic, aspires if it is to have any significance. Yet if it were only, as E M Forster indicated, the story of 'the mistake made by a young man as to the sources of his fortune', it would not be so revolutionary, nor so moving.

Great Expectations is rare in English fiction in showing the deformities of spirit visited upon the socially ambitious, a deformity strangely ignored by modern novelists despite its manifest evil. One gets a whiff of it in Trollope, and more in Thackeray, but it is Dickens who shows what we know to be true, that unless we are very careful, money, education, manners and taste (though excellent things in themselves) cut us off from all that is loving and humane.

To show this in fiction is satire of the most subtle and far-reaching kind. It is also immensely brave, for it cuts across the reader's perennial desire for wishfulfilment. We do not want to be told that kind hearts are better than coronets, and we want those coronets for our imaginary selves.

Pip's real discovery, casually underlined by the fact that his story begins on Christmas Eve, is not the truth about his mysterious benefactor, nor indeed Estella's parentage, but of his conscience. He hates Magwitch, saves him because he gradually realises that to be a gentleman is to be 'generous, upright, open and incapable of anything designing or mean', and comes at last to love him and to utterly repudiate the false greatness and real snobbery with which he has been imbued. Such self-knowledge is never reached without painful struggle: I suspect everyone, unless from an unusually harmonious background, knows something of it. But without it, none of us grow into our expectations, great or otherwise.

We see Pip inside-out and outside-in, for he even tells us how the locals satirise his lordly swagger back home. He is foolish, and yet, how sympathetic] When at last he asks Joe's forgiveness, and Joe gives it - can anyone read that without emotion? I do not believe in art as therapy or selfexpression, but I think its power comes because Dickens finally felt able to forgive his own father the blacking factory: and who does not need to forgive a parent, or to ask forgiveness? Pip's voice speaks to our deepest selves. It is a masterpiece of narrative irony, at once poetic and conversational, characteristic yet authorial.

Great Expectations contains everything that obsessed Dickens - orphanage, justice, madness, meanness, beggary, inheritance and innocence - but subsumed. It teaches us about love, friendship, mercy, the things that make us human: and that is all we know, or need to know.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas