Assess the extent to which Great Expectations is a realist novel

The primary aim of the realist novel is to represent real life at the time in which it is written. The author aims to create for their reader a believable world and uses a number of techniques in order to do this. In order to assess the extent to which Great Expectations can be viewed as a realist novel this paper will aim to, firstly, look at the techniques used by Dickens which contribute to creating an illusion of reality and then draw to the forefront examples of inherent features of a realist novel and examine Dickens’ use of these features in the novel.

Finally it will go on to address characteristics of other genres in Great Expectations and examine how the novel may fall outside our idea of realist. One of the first key ways in which Dickens creates an illusion of reality is through his use of narrative technique. In order to tell the story he employs a first person narrative in the form of Pip. The use of such narration draws in the reader immediately which helps the reader to quickly identify with the narrator and therefore believe in him.

So, I called myself Pip and came to be called Pip’[1] almost suggests that the narrator is personally introducing himself to the reader and the informal ‘so’ sets a tone with which the reader can feel comfortable. Furthermore, Dickens uses a dual narrative technique whereby Pip, as an adult narrator, tells the story of his childhood. This type of narration helps the author to create what would appear for the reader an honest and believable narrative.

For example, ‘I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly’[2], shows how the narrator is able to comment on some of the naive ideas of his childhood and the reader sees this as the narrator honestly revealing information about himself. The use of narrative technique in order to create reality is reinforced by Dickens’ use of dialogue, whereby he represents the way in which people speak. Mrs. Joe Gargery’s utterance, ‘oh, a p-r-recious pair you’d be without me’[3] provides a good example of this.

His use of the filler ‘oh’ and the extended ‘r’ sound along with the contraction ‘you’d’ show how is re-creating the true to life way in which people speak. Additionally he tries to re-create dialect in his work, for example Joe says to Pip ‘you and me is always friends’[4] and although not grammatically correct Dickens’ uses this in order to represent the true to life speak of someone of Joe’s geographical and social group. Characterization and setting are also important elements in the realist novel.

As Walder points out the construction of character is central to the aim of the realist novel[5] and this can clearly be seen through Dickens’ careful construction of the central character, Pip. Dickens uses the first chapter of the novel in order to draw the reader sympathy towards Pip and then as the novel progresses the reader follows the journey of growth both physically and morally. In the opening paragraphs we learn first of all of the demise of Pip’s immediate family followed directly by a scene of Pip in a threatening situation.

Dickens has clearly positioned these two events close together at the start of the novel in order to impact upon the reader and create interest for Pip’s story. Consequently, reader is drawn in to follow Pip as his attitudes and values change as the novel develops. In terms of setting, Dickens again uses the first chapter to introduce the reader to a setting that is geographically believable – ‘ours was the marsh country down by the river’[6] , this shows immediately a setting that the reader can either identify with or strongly imagine and therefore helps to create an illusion of reality.

Another strong feature of the realist novel is its engagement with issues of contemporary life and this is therefore another reason for which the reader may render Great Expectations a realist novel. It has a clear engagement throughout with particularly striking elements of Victorian society. Throughout the novel Dickens deals heavily with the contemporary issue of social class. The reader of Great Expectations meets a range of characters from throughout the social class system and is presented with a stark contrast between them all. For example, the striking contrast between Pip and Estella as children.

She overtly criticises his lower class ways and condescendingly refers to him as ‘boy’[7] repeatedly as if he is an inferior being to herself. By drawing such a stark contrast between the characters of different social classes Dickens is able to draw to the attention of the reader the unfairness of the class system. As well as the unfairness of the system, Dickens highlights the negative effects of the class system through the way in which Pip’s elevation to a higher social standing has left him with contempt for Joe who has cared about Pip all his life.

Dickens carefully shows the difference between the two characters when they first meet and greet each other in London -‘Joe, how are you Joe? ’ and ‘Pip, how air you Pip? ’[8] Pip’s use of Standard English compared to Joe’s dialectic speech illustrates the difference between them and the rift that would appear. In addition to Dickens’ critique of the class system he also casts doubt upon the judicial system in Victorian England. He draws our attention to the unfair sentencing of criminals through the sentencing of Magwitch and Compeyson, illustrating how the legal system favours wealthier criminals by giving them shorter sentences.

A final feature of the realist novel that is inherent in Great Expectations is the concern for moral truthfulness. In this sense the novel is didactic because it aims to educate its reader. The contemporary issues addressed above help the reader to understand the moral message of the novel. Pip’s realisation that it is Joe is who is a good and honest man despite his social standing serve to illuminate for the reader the importance of a person’s morality over their positioning in society again mocking the values of class-based society.

Furthermore the revelation of Magwitch as Pip’s benefactor show that despite being a convicted criminal he still has a true conscience and is capable of performing worthy actions. Both of these examples point to the idea that a person’s label or positioning in society is far less important than their moral character, and the strong message this moral conveys serves to illuminate the novel as realist.

Given the features of the text that have so far been examined, one might be inclined to conclude that Great Expectations was ultimately a realist novel. It is however necessary to turn our attention now to features of the text that may challenge this idea and offer an alternative reading in to the novel. For example, critics have argued that Great Expectations contains features inherent to the gothic genre. According to Allingham the gothic novel is a novel of novel of suspense, horror, fear, and superstition[9].

Looking again at the opening setting of the novel, whilst its realist features remain clear, we can also see a very gothic setting; the ‘tombstones’, the ‘dark flat wilderness’ and the ‘savage lair’[10] all clearly present a scene of fear and suspense which throws question upon the realist setting. Furthermore the description of Satis House and its inhabitant Miss Havisham add to the gothic description. She is described as ‘corpse-like’ [11] and ‘wax-work and skeleton’ [12], images which again are associated with fear and horror and create an unnerving effect on the reader.

Inside the house all the clocks are stopped at the same time, ‘twenty minutes to nine’ creating the image of a world suspended in time, which strongly contradicts the idea of the realist novel. As well as the inherent gothic sub-genre of Great Expectations it could also be argued that the novel contains elements of the romance genre. For example, Pip’s infatuation with Estella serves to be an important catalyst in the novel. His love for her is his motivation to be a gentleman and reach an elevated social position, around which a large part of the plot is based.

Walder has also pointed out another element of the novel which fits into the romance genre, in the sense of Magwitch as Pip’s benefactor. He argued that this resembles the romance genre whereby distant or long-lost relatives can turn up when they cause most surprise. [13] These examples again demonstrate a far departure from the realist elements of the text. It is clear from the argument above that, despite initial examination, it would prove exceptionally difficult to categorize Great Expectations as a purely realist novel due to the sub-genres that it so clearly contains.

However, it remains that clear that realism is a strong genre within the novel and many elements are covered that fulfil the primary aim of the realist novel. It is also necessary to note that there are quite possibly a number of other interpretations and genres within the novel that have not been addressed here and therefore the fairest conclusion to draw is that one must refrain from trying to categorize this novel as any particular genre but look at it as having many realist features with numerous possible sub-genres within.