Transformation in Great Expectations

March 16, 2015

I was asked to give my thoughts about the theme of Transformation in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations for the Drama Channel on UKTV. You can read my contribution here. Longer thoughts are below:

Great Expectations, with its plot that twists and turns on the knife-edge of transformation, is, undoubtedly, one of Dickens’ finest works. Its perspective acts as a social commentary, which aims to have a transformative power within society as Dickens uses it as a platform to critique and challenge a consumer driven mode of living. While the bildungsroman form and first person narrative allows Dickens, and in turn the reader, to chart the growth of Pip from a naïve boy, unable to pronounce his own name, to an ungrateful young man who is far too ‘accustomed to [his] expectations’. Eventually the transformative power of the truth enables Pip to settle in his final shape as a gracious and sincere adult who knows his correct place in the world. However, I would argue that perhaps this novel is most powerful in its presentation of the refusal to transform. Miss Havisham, witch-like and bitter, presides over her disintegrating wedding feast functions as a warning bell for failure to change and, in doing so, remains one of the most enduring and powerful images in Dickens’ oeuvre. In turn, as well as the characters’ transformations (or lack of), the narrative itself also undergoes a transformation, as Dickens’ proofreader Edward Bulwer Lytton was unconvinced by his original ending and urged him to reconsider to please his audience. The first ending was considerably more melancholy in tone, leaving the reader with the sense that it is impossible to achieve all of one’s dreams, however, the second, and final ending, allows the possibility of a future for Estella and Pip, albeit an ambiguous one. It seems fitting that this cycle of transformation ends with the reader’s influence and wishes transforming Dickens’ intentions as he in turn transforms and challenges us.

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