Study Questions for Great Expectations

Orphans, orphans, orphans....

Great Expectations is frequently taught in high-school English classes--often to the dismay of students, many of whom find the novel uninteresting. But--and you can trust your professors here-- the novel ages well, and many of us who did not much care for it when we were younger find it engaging, even moving, in later years. What is it about the themes and characters in the novel that, arguably, make it more appropriate for older audiences? Put another way, what is the place of loss and regret in this work, and why might those elements demand a more mature reader to be properly appreciated?

Unlike Pickwick, Twist, and Bleak House, novels in monthly parts that were published with illustrations, Great Expectations was published in weekly parts with no illustrations. Do these differences alter our reading experience of Dickens in any ways? Or can you detect any stylistic or structural changes in the way our author narrates his tale, changes that descend from the hurry to compose the novel and the inability to rely on the input of a creative illustrator?

We might think about narration in a different way. Here, Pip tells his story, and he is often painfully self-aware of his failings. But is his character as narrator ironically complex? How does he compare to Esther Summerson, who narrates half of Bleak House? Are there significant narratological differences between these two psychologically acute characters?

The striking opening of Great Expectations has often been commented on. How does the opening section serve to encapsulate themes and even images that will recur throughout the novel?

Dickens creates a number of fascinating characters in this novel--Miss Havisham, Estella, Joe, Biddy, Herbert, Wemmick, Jaggers, and of course Magwitch. How does Dickens use language to invest his characters with a sense of life?

We noted that Dickens's earlier novels were increasingly socially conscious--this was especially true of Bleak House. Does Dickens again play social critic in this novel? Or is Great Expectations more introspective, perhaps more interested in the difficulties of personal behavior and honor than social problems?

Dickens originally penned a different ending to the novel--a conclusion that was actually typeset and in proofs before he changed it. You'll find that original ending--considerably shorter than the later one--in Appendix A of our text. What do you make of the change? Which ending seems to best fit the mood of the overall novel?

Since this is the last Dickens novel we will read and discuss in class, it is worthwhile to consider Dickens's growth as an author. How do narration, structure, and characterization differ in this novel from those that preceded it, especially an earlier work such as Pickwick?

How does one translate Herbert Pocket's ever so useful expression, "Not at all, I am sure!," into serviceable Latin?

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