Great Expectations


The very title of this book indicates the confidence of conscious
genius. In a new aspirant for public favor, such a title might have
been a good device to attract attention; but the most famous
novelist of the day, watched by jealous rivals and critics, could
hardly have selected it, had he not inwardly felt the capacity to
meet all the expectations he raised. I have read it as it appeared in
installments, and can testify to the felicity with which expectation
was excited and prolonged, and to the series of surprises which
accompanied the unfolding of the plot of the story. In no other of
his romances has the author succeeded so perfectly in at once
stimulating and baffling the curiosity of his readers. He stirred
the dullest minds to guess the secret of his mystery; but, so far as
I have learned, the guesses of his most intellectual readers have
been almost as wide of the mark as those of the least apprehensive.
It has been all the more provoking to the former class, that each
surprise was the result of art, and not of trick; for a rapid review
of previous chapters has shown that the materials of a strictly
logical development of the story were freely given. Even after the
first, second, third, and even fourth of these surprises gave their
pleasing electric shocks to intelligent curiosity, the denouement
was still hidden, though confidentially foretold. The plot of the
romance is therefore universally admitted to be the best that
Dickens has ever invented. Its leading events are, as we read the
story consecutively, artistically necessary, yet, at the same time,
the processes are artistically concealed. We follow the movement of
a logic of passion and character, the real premises of which we
detect only when we are startled by the conclusions.
The plot of Great Expectations is also noticeable as indicating,
better than any of his previous stories, the individuality of
Dickens's genius. Everybody must have discerned in the action of his
mind two diverging tendencies, which in this novel, are harmonized.
He possess a singularly wide, clear, and minute power of accurate
observation, both of things and of persons; but his observation,
keen and true to actualities as it independently is, is not a
dominant faculty, and is opposed or controlled by the strong
tendency of his disposition to pathetic or humorous idealization.
Perhaps in The Old Curiosity Shop these qualities are best seen in
their struggle and divergence, and the result is a magnificent
juxtaposition of romantic tenderness, melodramatic improbabilities,
and broad farce. The humorous characterization is joyously
exaggerated into caricature,--the serious characterization into
romantic unreality. Richard Swiveller and Little Nell refuse to
combine. There is abundant evidence of genius both in the humorous
and pathetic parts, but the artistic impression is one of anarchy
rather than unity.
In Great Expectations, on the contrary, Dickens seems to have
attained the mastery of powers which formerly more or less mastered
him. He has fairly discovered that he cannot, like Thackeray,
narrate a story as if he were a mere looker-on, a mere knowing
observer of what he describes and represents; and he has therefore
taken observation simply as the basis of his plot and his
characterization. As we read Vanity Fair and The Newcomes, we are
impressed with the actuality of the persons and incidents. There is
an absence of both directing ideas and disturbing idealizations.
Everything drifts to its end, as in real life. In Great Expectations
there is shown a power of external observation finer and deeper even
than Thackeray's; and yet, owing to the presence of other qualities,
the general impression is not one of objective reality. The author
palpably uses his observations as materials for his creative
faculties to work upon; he does not record, but invents; and he
produces something which is natural only under conditions prescribed
by his own mind. He shapes, disposes, penetrates, colors, and
contrives everything, and the whole action is a series of events
which could have occurred only in his own brain, and which it is
difficult to conceive of as actually happening. And yet in none of
his other works does he evince a shrewder insight into real life,
and a clearer perception and knowledge of what is called the world.
The book is, indeed, an artistic creation, and not a mere succession
of