This Day In Literary History
On August 3rd, 1861, Great Expectations, the classic novel by the legendary English writer Charles Dickens, was published. Specifically, the final installment of the novel was published.
Like most novels of the time, Great Expectations first appeared in a serialized format. It was published in installments in Charles Dickens' own weekly literary magazine, All The Year Round.
Great Expectations tells the tale of Philip "Pip" Pirrip - his unexpected rise from poor orphan boy to wealthy gentleman, and the life lessons he learns in the process. The novel opens on Christmas Eve in 1812.
Pip, then seven years old, is a poor orphan boy being raised by his older sister and her husband. Pip's cruel sister resents having to take care of him and beats him.
Her husband, Joe Gargery, is a kind and humble man who works as the village blacksmith. He becomes a father figure to Pip.
On Christmas Eve, in the village churchyard, little Pip meets a man he at first believes to be a poor, starving soul - until he sees the man's leg shackle. He's actually a convict named Magwitch who escaped from a prison ship.
He scares Pip into bringing him some food and a file to cut away the shackle. Pip steals the goods from his sister's house and brings them to Magwitch. The convict is surprised and moved by Pip's kindness and generosity.
Later, Pip receives an invitation to the house of Miss Havisham, a wealthy old village woman. Miss Havisham lives with her adopted daughter, Estella, and for several years, Pip visits them regularly and keeps them company.
Miss Havisham is a haunted, ghost-like woman who always wears an old, yellowed wedding dress. She was jilted at the altar - an act of cruelty that scarred her for life. As the years pass, Pip falls in love with Estella.
One day, Miss Havisham tells Pip that he can't visit her anymore because it's time for him to begin his apprenticeship with Joe Gargery. Having tasted the good life at Miss Havisham's, Pip is miserable as an apprentice blacksmith.
He wants to marry Estella, but fears that she will see him as common and beneath her. What he doesn't know is that Miss Havisham is raising Estella to be a cruel woman destined to break men's hearts.
After Estella leaves the village, Pip's fortunes change literally when a lawyer arrives to tell him that he has inherited a large sum of money from an anonymous benefactor, on the condition that he leave for London immediately and become a gentleman. Pip agrees.
In London, he studies with a tutor and lives with his new friend, Herbert Pocket. Pip determines to become a gentleman and is ashamed of his old, common life with Joe Gargery, from whom he grows apart. Pip believes that Miss Havisham is his benefactor, and that she wants to make a gentleman of him so he can marry Estella.
One stormy night, Pip learns the truth about his anonymous benefactor. It wasn't Miss Havisham at all - it was Magwitch, the convict he'd befriended years ago on Christmas Eve.
Moved by Pip's compassion, Magwitch left him his money so he could become a gentleman. What's more, Magwitch will soon arrive for a visit. Appalled that he was financed by a convict's fortune, Pip fears that Estella will never marry him.
When Pip is reunited with her and Miss Havisham, he finds that Estella is unhappily married to a man named Bentley Drummle. He also learns the truth about Miss Havisham's jilting. When the old woman accidentally sets herself on fire, Pip saves her life.
Later, he decides to flee with Magwitch, who is still wanted by the law. When he makes one last visit to the badly burned Miss Havisham, she repents and asks Pip to forgive her, which he does.
With the help of his friend Herbert Pocket and Herbert's friend, Startop, Pip tries to help Magwitch escape, but the convict is caught thanks to his old enemy, Compeyson - the swindler who jilted Miss Havisham. The two men fight, and Compeyson is killed in the struggle.
A badly injured Magwitch goes to jail, and Pip finally realizes that Magwitch is a good and noble man. He tends to his ailing benefactor, visiting him every day.
Pip soon makes a shocking discovery - Magwitch is Estella's father. He tells him on his deathbed that he wants to marry Estella, and Magwitch dies a happy man.
Penniless again and ill, Pip goes home, where Joe Gargery nurses him back to health. After he recovers, Pip goes into business with Herbert Pocket. Years later, Pip decides to make one last visit to Miss Havisham's old house.
There, he finds Estella wandering about, and learns that her marriage is over. She asks Pip to accept her as a friend, and the novel ends with the hope that they may finally be together.
That's just a threadbare outline of this epic novel, a haunting Gothic classic that must be fully read to be appreciated. This is Charles Dickens at the apex of his power as a storyteller.
Dickens revised the ending of Great Expectations prior to its publication. In the original ending, Pip finds that Estella has remarried following the death of her abusive husband. He tells her that he's glad she became a better person than the girl Miss Havisham raised her to be.
Having lost his true love, Pip never marries. Dickens' friend, writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, told him that this ending was much too sad and encouraged him to change it. So he did, ending the novel on a happier note.
Many scholars and writers prefer the original ending, which they believe is more consistent with the tone of the story. It often appears as an appendix in new editions of the novel.
Great Expectations is considered to be one of the greatest and most sophisticated works of English literature ever written, and rightfully so. It has been adapted for the stage, radio, screen, and television over 250 times.
Quote Of The Day
"Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There's no better rule." - Charles Dickens, from his novel Great Expectations
Today's video features a complete reading of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Enjoy!