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Dickens' Humor


Some Themes in Great Expectations


English II

Mr. Sullivan 

NB: Recall my disclaimer for defining a word or term. "de" and "fin" are Latin for "about" and "line." Thus, to define something is to encircle a concept with language. For example, I feel nervous and unsettled when I climb up to the roof to read my Whitman poetry. I visit the doctor and he informs me that I suffer from Vertigo. I feel somewhat better because I now know, with the help of language, the source and cause of my reaction to heights. Does this cure my issue? Of course not right away, but I am on the way to better health in high places. Does it provide a better understanding of the context of my issue? Yes, and that is the same pattern of understanding we will try to emulate by illuminating some themes in this text.


Alienation: simply the condition of being isolated, estranged. Now, consider Dickens choice of characters and contemplate how being an orphan captures the essence of isolation. Notice how the plot revolves around at least four known orphans: Mrs. Joe, Magwitch, Estella and Pip himself. All suffer from loneliness but each reacts differently. For your written work, evaluate the reactions. In life and literature, the way we react and respond to a situation offer reveals our character.

Honor's definition of alienation: sometimes generally used to suggest depersonalization, disenchantment, estrangement, or powerlessness, alienation is actually a philosophical word with a lengthy history. The most particular conceptions appear in Hegelianism, Marxism and existentialism.Simply put, in Hegel, alienation's were various stages in the development of human consciousness: the lowest was immediate perception of sense-data, the next a consciousness of self, the next the abstraction of reason, and finally the world of the spirit, manifest in religion and art. Alienation is perhaps not the happiest translation of his Entaüsserung, which was the dialectical (see dialectic) process by which the mind moved from one of these stages to the next -- a move which entailed the recognition of the illusion of the first stage and a move beyond it, as if the mind became alien to itself, only to return to itself later in a higher stage. In Marx alienation meant the proletariats economic, psychological and other senses of separation from the products of their labor, the forces of production, and his own social formation (see also species-being). In existentialism, generally, alienation is the experience of the world as absurd (see authentic, Dasein).


Guilt: remorseful awareness of having done something wrong. The law of the land, the King's law, as the soldiers declare when they interrupt the holiday dinner, provides an interesting context or backdrop to this theme. As we read the novel, let's follow those who commit crimes, such as Pip who steals for the convict, and then we will ask the result of each crime. Does the character suffer from the King's punishment or a higher power? In the end, we discover with Pip that guilt and innocence are both complicated issues. Now, we are also sliding into bildungsroman.


Bildungsroman. (German) A novel or tale of growth or development, usually from adolescence to maturity.

NB: do you remember how we found this one definition in class using Google? It's also in your class email folder, but here it is again. Focus on the various aspects and parts. Recall, too, how we made comparison to "coming of age" movies, such as Clueless, as other examples.

The term Bildungsroman denotes a novel of all-around self-development. Used generally, it encompasses a few similar genres: the Entwicklungsroman, a story of general growth rather than self-culture; the Erziehungsroman, which focuses on training and formal education; and the Kunstlerroman, about the development of an artist. (The Space Between, 13) Although Great Expectations, Aurora Leigh, and Waterland may fit one of these more specific categories, for the purposes of comparison, I shall discuss the Bildungsroman genre as a whole and how it applies to all three. My definition of Bildungsroman is a distilled version of the one offered by Marianne Hirsch in "The Novel of Formation as Genre":

1. A Bildungsroman is, most generally, the story of a single individual's growth and development within the context of a defined social order. The growth process, at its roots a quest story, has been described as both "an apprenticeship to life" and a "search for meaningful existence within society."

2. To spur the hero or heroine on to their journey, some form of loss or discontent must jar them at an early stage away from the home or family setting.

3. The process of maturity is long, arduous, and gradual, consisting of repeated clashes between the protagonist's needs and desires and the views and judgments enforced by an unbending social order.

4. Eventually, the spirit and values of the social order become manifest in the protagonist, who is then accommodated into society. The novel ends with an assessment by the protagonist of himself and his new place in that society.


Great Expectations is widely considered to be a direct descendant of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, the prototypical Bildungsroman. Aurora Leigh takes the genre and complicates it with problems of gender in Victorian society. Waterland reconsiders personal growth in a postmodern context, using narrative not for description, but rather as the vehicle for maturation.



Content for the above was copied and gleaned from a great teaching resourse: Novels for Students, Volumes 1-12. Comp. and Ed. Elizabeth Thomason. Michigan: Gale Group, 1999.