Sunday, March 20, 2016

Great Expectations

One of Dickens's most beloved works has a marvellous opening, Pip in a graveyard where his father, mother, and five brothers are buried. Having no memory of them, he forms an impression of their appearance based on their tombstones.

Like David Copperfield, the novel is a coming-of-age story written in the first person. Pip and David are both "posthumous" children, and like Dickens they are ashamed of their origins. As they strive for status, they acquire nicknames (Pip's handle being Handel and David's Daisy), are repeatedly bilked by their servants, and fall in love with the wrong woman.

David becomes a famous writer and arrives at happy matrimony after the convenient death of his first wife, the ditsy Dora. Pip too becomes a gentleman, but his world is turned upside-down when the woman he loves marries a cad and the source of his wealth turns out to be an embarrassment. It is not Miss Haversham who endowed him, but Magwitch the escaped criminal.

Biographer Fred Kaplan refers to David Copperfield as "a thinly concealed autobiographical fantasy." In Great Expectations the ugly truth is revealed and the happy ending ditched, making the book a sort of David Copperfield gone wrong. Some critics have seen this as a re-imagining of Dickens’s own later life: a wealthy and respected writer afflicted with marital unhappiness and longing for a woman he could not have, at least not publicly.

Ellen and Estella

Estella is believed by many to be based on Ellen Ternan. The agony Pip feels over the difficulty, if not impossibility, of winning of Estella is similar to that of Dickens in being unable to claim Ternan, at least openly. If so, he may have received some bitter satisfaction over the ironic reversal of their positions. Pip fails to win Estella because he is her social inferior. Dickens was in the opposite situation – wealthy and famous while Ternan was a relative unknown.

Whether or not his interest in Ternan was consummated remains as inconclusive as the ending of Expectations. How apt!

The Ending

The original ending was unequivocal: Pip and Estella do not end up together.  But Dickens was persuaded by Bulwer-Lytton to rewrite the ending, which, although I was prepared to dismiss it, I found myself preferring, my main reason being that the original ending is too brief, no more than half a page. The revised ending is fleshed out better.

Many however do not like it because they see in it a suggestion that Pip and Estella will eventually get together, which goes against the tenor of the book.  The possibility is there, but whether or not it happens is unclear. It is in fact an ambiguous and very modern ending.

The Problem of Orlick

First of all there is the improbable rescue of Pip by Herbert et al, who save him from being murdered. Yet after this violent scene Dickens then makes Orlick a comic figure by having him rob Pumblechook and getting drunk in the process. The humour seems misplaced.

It is interesting to see how movies deal with this. The Pumplechook business at the end can be easily omitted, but how to handle the improbable saving of Pip? 

The 2011 mini-series (with Gillian Anderson as Miss Haversham) makes a clever adjustment by having Orlick let Pip go. He does it to prove that he is better than Pip or at least better than Pip thinks he is. Thus the improbable arrival of Herbert is unnecessary, and yet is in keeping with the theme of forgiveness in the book.

The 2012 film (with Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch) goes one step further – it removes Orlick from the story entirely.