Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

Discovering Dickens

Community Reading Project

Charles Dickens

Great Expectations

Historical Context



<i>Great Expectations</i>


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This illustration, by Marcus Stone, appeared in the 1862 edition of Great Expectations. The original serial (1860-1) and the 1861 editions of the novel were not illustrated.


A Note on the Ending of Great Expectations:

There is, famously, more than one ending to Great Expectations. Dickens, on the advice of a friend -- the novelist Bulwer Lytton -- cancelled his intended ending in favor of a happier one. Thus, the novel ends, in all the versions printed during Dickens' lifetime, with the reunion of Pip and Estella on the grounds of Miss Havisham's old house. Pip affirms, in this ending, that he "saw the shadow of no parting from [Estella]."

The ending that Dickens had originally devised is reproduced below. Instead of coming back to see Joe and Biddy after eleven years (as Pip says he did at the beginning of Chapter 59 in the published version of the novel), he is gone only eight years in the cancelled ending (Mitchell 508). This original ending is as follows:

"Dear Pip," said Biddy, "you are sure you don't fret for her?"

"I am sure and certain, Biddy."

"Tell me as an old, old friend. Have you quite forgotten her?"

"My dear Biddy, I have forgotten nothing in my life that ever had a foremost place there. But that poor dream, as I once used to call it, has all gone by, Biddy, all gone by!"

It was four years more, before I saw herself. I had heard of her as leading a most unhappy life, and as being separate from her husband who had used her with great cruelty, and who had become quite renowned as a compound of pride, brutality, and meanness. I had heard of the death of her husband (from an accident consequent on ill-treating a horse), and of her being married again to a Shropshire doctor, who, against his interest, had once very manfully interposed, on an occasion when he was in professional attendance on Mr. Drummle, and had witnessed some outrageous treatment of her. I had heard that the Shropshire doctor was not rich, and that they lived on her own personal fortune.

I was in England again -- in London, and walking along Piccadilly with little Pip -- when a servant came running after me to ask would I step back to a lady in a carriage who wished to speak to me. It was a little pony carriage, which the lady was driving; and the lady and I looked sadly enough on one another.

"I am greatly changed, I know; but I thought you would like to shake hands with Estella too, Pip. Lift up that pretty child and let me kiss it!" (She supposed the child, I think, to be my child.)

I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham's teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.

Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, a friend of Dickens', and a popular Victorian novelist, convinced Dickens that a happy ending would be more acceptable than the ending he originally proposed (as given above). Lytton, whose novel A Strange Story was to be published serially in All the Year Round upon the conclusion of Great Expectations, had been reading Dickens' work as it was produced, in advance of publication. Dickens, persuaded to make the change that Lytton urged, apparently concluded that the alteration would increase the popularity of the work. In a letter to John Forster (his close friend, and later his biographer), he discussed the change as follows: "I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could, and I have no doubt that the story will be more acceptable through the alteration" (Letters, vol. 9,- 432-3).

The story was indeed "acceptable." When Great Expectations was published as a whole in July 1861, it went through five impressions before the end of the year (Law 31). The response to the ending, however, varied. A review in the Athenaeum of July 13, 1861 resisted the notion of a happy conclusion. The reviewer wrote, "most particularly are we grateful for the uncertainty with which the tale closes, as we interpret it. We do not believe that Pip did marry Estella, though there are two opinions on the subject" ("Contemporary Responses" 526). The other opinion was, of course, that Pip and Estella were reunited and married after all; and though this opinion seems to have met with general approval among those who believed in it, it did not please all of its adherents: The Saturday Review, on July 20, 1861, remarked that "[t]he plot ends before it ought to do. The heroine is married, reclaimed from harshness to gentleness, widowed, made love to, and remarried, in a page or two. This is too stiff a pace for the emotions of readers to live up to. We do not like to go beyond a canter through the moral restoration of a young lady" ("Contemporary Responses" 530). These objections notwithstanding, the novel was popular, and an immense commercial success.


Coddleshell, she had wrote out: "Coddleshell" is Joe's rendering of "codicil" -- a sort of legal post-script to a will, attached to change or modify the provisions previously enumerated.

'Hundred and twenty-three pound, fifteen, six: Pip's debt to the jewelers, which he is unable to attend to because of his illness -- and unable (given the confiscation of Magwitch's property and his own unwillingness to benefit further from that source of income) to pay -- is in the amount of almost 124 (123 pounds, 15 shillings, and 6 pence). Joe pays this bill, which -- considering his income -- is particularly generous. Even were he earning the highest average wage earned by blacksmiths during this period (Joe pays Pip's debt in 1829 [Meckier 168]) -- Joe would probably not have made more than 62-63 per year (for further details, see related notes on blacksmiths' wages in Issue 1). He thus pays Pip's jewelry bill at the cost of almost two years' wages.

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