Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1947
With works such as “A Christmas Carol” or “Oliver Twist”, Charles Dickens remains one of the most well-known authors of Victorian England to date. As an author he is highly successful already during his lifetime. Like most of his works, his novel “Great Expectations” wasn’t published all at once but in several parts that were printed in newspapers in weekly installments. Dickens is often credited with inventing the serial narrative form, which is currently experiencing a renaissance in the medium of television. Publishing a work in several parts allowed Dickens to modify fictional events and characters according to his readers’ preferences, a strategy that is still commonly used by producers like Netflix in order to boost audience rates today.
As a bildungsroman, “Great Expectations” follows the personal and moral development of its protagonist Pip, a penniless orphan who unexpectedly comes into money. Supported by an unknown benefactor he can afford to climb the social ladder in London as a young man until one day he realizes where the money actually comes from. His patron is not, as he believed until now, the eccentric widow Havisham but the convict Magwitch, whose path he crossed in his childhood. Shocked by this realization Pip decides to stop accepting the money.
Poverty, criminality, and social standing are typical motifs for Dickens, who in his works always addresses issues of the time and society he lived in. The novel’s critical undertones suggest a correlation between increasing wealth and moral decline. Another central question that “Great Expectations” raises is that of the legitimacy of wealth. The novel contrasts two kinds of wealth: Miss Havisham’s, which is socially acceptable although it’s derived from the work of others; and that of Magwitch, who, despite being a self-made man, has made his money in a penal colony in Australia and whose wealth is thus not acceptable.
How the parameters to measure deserved or undeserved, morally acceptable or unacceptable wealth have changed today is a question also asked by bestselling American author Jonathan Franzen. In his latest novel, “Purity”, he loosely adapts Dickens’ plot and shifts the question of money and morals to the 21st century. The novel’s protagonist does not only go by the same name as Dickens’ hero Pip, she also grows up a kind of half-orphan, and finds herself inheriting money that, according to her mother, comes from criminal business activities. In this case, the family wealth isn’t based on the exploitation of other people, as Miss Havisham’s is, but on the exploitation of animals; here, the criminals of the 21st century are the business tycoons of the meat industry. But the question of the morality of money yields no easy answer. Thus “Purity” illustrates that the moral absolutism of Pip’s mother, who lives in debt and poverty, is no viable alternative either.