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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - Barron's Booknotes
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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

Dickens is one of the world's best-loved writers, and Great
Expectations may be Dickens' most autobiographical work.
Although an earlier novel, David Copperfield, followed the
facts of Dickens' life more closely, the narrator David seems a
little too good to be true. The narrator of Great Expectations,
Pip, is, in contrast, a man of many faults, who hides none of
them from the reader. If Pip is a self-portrait, Dickens must
have been a reservoir of inferiority complexes, guilt, and
shame.

Many other aspects of Great Expectations are autobiographical,
too. The beginning of the novel is set shortly after Dickens'
birthdate (1812) in the country of his childhood-the Kentish
countryside by the sea (the nearest large town is Rochester,
where Miss Havisham lives). Dickens wasn't an orphan, as Pip
is, but he may well have felt like one. His parents, John and
Elizabeth Dickens, were sociable, pleasant people, but Mrs.
Dickens was a careless housekeeper and Mr. Dickens, a minor
civil servant always spent more money than he made. When
Charles, who was the eldest boy, was nine, the Dickenses
pulled up roots and moved to London to try to live more
cheaply. Charles was appalled by the cramped, grubby house
they lived in there, and even more ashamed when his father
was arrested and taken to debtors' prison. The rest of the
Dickenses were allowed to move into prison with their father,
but twelve-year-old Charles had to live on his own outside.

His mother arranged for him to get a job in a filthy, rat-infested
warehouse, pasting labels on bottles of boot blacking (a kind of
shoe polish). This time of his life was so miserable that he
never told anyone, not even his own wife or children, about it.
He was called "the young gentleman" by the other boys at the
factory, who resented his air of being better than they were.
But he did feel that he'd come down in life, and he developed a
bitter sense of ambition and self-reliance: he vowed never to let
himself be poor or in debt again. This situation lasted only a
few months; then John Dickens received an inheritance from a
rich aunt (a windfall of money also crops up in Great
Expectations) and the family moved out of prison. After much
pleading, Charles was allowed to quit his job, but he never
forgave his parents for making him take it. Yet later, when he
grew up and became wealthy, his irresponsible parents blithely
sponged off him, until he basically had to disown them. It's no
wonder that his books are full of inadequate parents who have
warped their children.



After leaving the warehouse, Charles was allowed to return to
school, but the schoolmaster was so cruel and malicious that
the boy learned almost nothing (his books are full of terrible
schools and teachers, too). He felt cheated because he never did
get the classical education of an English gentleman; instead, he
had to pick up what he could himself, mostly by reading novels
and by going to the theater, which he loved his whole life long.
For a while he thought about becoming an actor, but acting
wasn't a respectable career back then, and Charles desperately
wanted to be respectable. Instead, he took a job as a law clerk
(lawyers and the complex legal system are often satirized in his
novels). From there he went on to become a court reporter,
then a newspaper reporter assigned to cover Parliament. This
brought him his first reputation, as a political commentator. His
talent was obvious and, coupled with his amazing capacity for
hard work, fueled by fierce ambition, he rose quickly in the
world of journalism. Eventually, he was asked to write his first
book of fiction, The Pickwick Papers, a loose series of comical
sketches which made him an overnight sensation. He was only
25, but from then on everything he did was golden. His novels
were always best-sellers, and he was a celebrity, as a movie
idol or pop star would be today.

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