Like the character Pip, Dickens also had a difficult upbringing and struggled as a boy. The writing of Great Expectations can be viewed as a cathartic attempt by Dickens to come to terms with the painful facts of his childhood—particularly his family's chronic economic instability, which leads to his eventual imprisonment for failure to pay his debts.
Working to Live, Living to Work
That Pip becomes Joe's apprentice as a blacksmith is no random event. When Dickens was 12 years old, he was consigned to work as a child laborer at Warren's Blacking factory and was separated from his family as a result—all of which took place over the course of two months. This period in young Dickens' life, then, represents both a literal and metaphorical orphaning. This sense of primal loss and fear of impending economic ruin manifested itself later in Dickens' own Herculean and obsessive efforts to busy himself (often simultaneously) as a writer, editor and public speaker—as if this were the only way he could ensure himself and his family of a financial solvency that his own father could never provide.
How Pip Succeeds Where Dickens Did Not
Where the creator (Dickens) and his creation (Pip) diverge is that Pip (through his suffering and disappointment) learns to accept his station in life. By the end of his saga, Pip has, for the most part, shed his illusions (his "expectations") and is able to live a simple but fulfilling life as a clerk in the company of his great friend, Herbert Pocket.
Dickens, on the other hand, seems to have never adequately internalized the lessons of his own life and success. In an autobiographical fragment, he wrote: "Even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life" (as a child laborer).
Serialized between December 1, 1860, and August 3, 1861, Great Expectations was an extraordinary success, selling (midway through its run) more than 100,000 copies weekly in Dickens' magazine All the Year Round.
Published in book form in July 1861, it was considered by contemporary critics to represent a return to Dickens at the peak of his powers, deftly mixing comedy and tragedy and with a rich brew of major and minor characters. By the end of that summer, the book had gone through four printings. Later critics were equally responsive. Playwright George Bernard Shaw felt that Great Expectations was Dickens' "most compactly perfect book," and the respected poet Swinburne found Dickens' novel to be unparalleled "in the whole range of English fiction."
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