In one of the many plots woven into the web of Middlemarch, George Eliot reimagines Charles Dickens’s fantastic story of Pip and his “great expectations” through the much more realistic story of Fred Vincy.
Since stories were first told, authors have drawn inspiration from characters or plots and adapted them to address the pressing issues facing their contemporary society. The tendency to borrow, adapt, or reimagine a text has existed for centuries and is a technique that allows an author to convey a message that may be specific to current events through the guise of a specific plot or character that brings a sense of familiarity to the reader. The bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, is a classic example of a style that has been reimagined in a variety of genres, time periods, and social contexts. The story of Pip, the protagonist of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations has acted as an inspiration for many later texts, including George Eliot’s Middlemarch. While both novels are set and were written during the nineteenth century, Dickens’s and Eliot’s unique writing styles illustrate the ways in which the basic elements of a story can be incorporated into wholly different texts that express different social statements. In one of the many plots woven into the web of Middlemarch, George Eliot reimagines Charles Dickens’s fantastic story of Pip and his “great expectations” through the much more realistic story of Fred Vincy.
Philip Pirrip, or Pip, is a powerful example of a young, poor orphan who believes that wealth and the status of a gentleman will bring him joy and fulfill his desire to belong in society. Drawn to the wealthy lifestyle of Miss Havisham, first mentioned in the novel as “an immensely rich and grim lady who lived in a large and dismal house… and who led a life of seclusion,” and her adopted daughter, Estella, Pip hopes to become wealthy and win over the young lady Miss Havisham has raised to break the hearts of men who show an interest in her.1 Based on Pip’s first observations regarding Miss Havisham, the status of her home, and her relationship with Estella, the protagonist appears to be oblivious to the risks of wealth and the inability of money to inherently bring joy, and instead seeks to elevate himself to a financial position worthy of the young woman who has been taught to toy with him.
Great Expectations also considers the difference between an abundance of money and an abundance of character, morality, and kindness through the character of Joe Gargery. Married to Pip’s sister (referred to as Mrs. Joe throughout the novel), Joe Gargery is depicted as a simple, uneducated blacksmith who cares deeply for Pip and acts as the moral compass and father-figure throughout Pip’s accumulation and eventual loss of wealth. While Miss Havisham and Estella represent the “great expectations” that Pip aspires to achieve, Joe represents the life that Pip willingly rejects in the process of improving his social standing.
Despite Pip’s rejection of Joe’s lifestyle and his desire to “make Joe less ignorant and common, that he might be worthier of [his] society and less open to Estella’s reproach,” Joe remains loyal to Pip and pays off the debts that the young gentleman finds himself unable to afford.2 While Joe’s loving, forgiving character remains a constant throughout the novel, Pip recognizes changes within himself as a result of his financial elevation. As he “grow[s] accustomed to [his] expectations,” Pip’s narration begins to focus on the effects of wealth on his life and finds that while he is wealthy in the material sense, he is poor in life satisfaction and genuine joy.3
While Pip’s story acts as a prototype for many later novels, George Eliot’s implementation of a Pip-like character, Fred Vincy, in her novel Middlemarch highlights the original text’s detours into the fantastic while emphasizing the realistic nature of the “expectations” story. Fred Vincy is the product of a childhood and social status that is nearly the opposite of Pip’s formative years, yet there are several parallels in the novels that should be taken into account, especially the similarities between the roles of Miss Havisham and Featherstone and Joe Gargery and Caleb Garth.
In Great Expectations, Pip believes that Miss Havisham is acting as his benefactor, aiding him in his journey to become a gentleman so that he will be worthy of Estella’s hand in marriage. While Jaggers is legally bound to secrecy through his agreement with Pip’s true benefactor, Abel Magwitch, Miss Havisham does nothing to contradict Pip’s theory and chooses to “let [Pip] go on,” accusing him of making “[his] own snares.”4 Although Miss Havisham’s lack of transparency was intentional, her claim that Pip trapped himself into his own theory of the world around him proves true, with a similar complication occurring in Middlemarch. When considering Fred’s false assumption, it does not involve the identity of a benefactor; rather, it involves the existence of a benefactor or inheritance at all. As a result of his uncle Featherstone’s hints that he will receive his estate upon his death, Fred is “of a hopeful disposition, and a vision had presented itself of a sum just large enough to deliver him from certain anxiety.”5 Like Pip, Fred can see the opportunities that will be afforded to him once he receives the inheritance he believes to be his; however, Featherstone has two wills and only one designates Fred as the recipient of Stone Court.
With no inheritance and increasing debts Fred finds himself relying on Caleb Garth, the character who most reflects Dickens’s Joe Gargery. Like Joe, Caleb cares deeply for those around him, especially Fred, and finds himself helping him even when it may not be the wisest decision for his own family. Caleb epitomizes the idea of hard work and represents the lifestyle that Fred truly desires. Both Joe and Caleb help cover Pip and Fred’s debts, respectively, despite the sometimes ungrateful or irresponsible actions of the young men. Although Fred’s story is not quite within the constraints of a bildungsroman, Eliot’s adaptation of Pip’s coming-of-age story is built on the foundation of a flawed character with whom readers can identify and his efforts to find a path in life that is not dictated by his parents but by his own aspirations. Fred struggles to allow himself to be guided by his feelings for Mary Garth, and his expectations go beyond inheriting an estate.
While the desire for upward social mobility and the status of a gentleman is realistic enough, especially for the time period, Dickens incorporates many unrealistic, fantastic elements into the plot of Great Expectations. Many aspects of the novel stand out as unusual or gothic in style, but none more so than the initial setting. In the opening lines of the novel Dickens establishes the setting as the marsh country, with young Pip standing in the churchyard, a “bleak place overgrown with nettle,” where his parents and five siblings are buried.6 The dull, bleak descriptions of the marshes immediately channel the suspense and darkness of the gothic style; however, Dickens also incorporates humor through Pip’s narration to provide comedic relief as he addresses his status as an orphan, describing the deaths of his siblings by saying they “gave up trying to get a living.”7 The combination of humor and gothic descriptions adds to the fantastic undertones of the text, with each new plot point bringing about the question of its likelihood in everyday life and blurring the lines between realism and fantasy. Female characters in Dickens’s work are often depicted in a caricaturesque style, with their negative traits often taken to the extreme. One example of this exaggerated, illustrative style in Great Expectations is Miss Havisham, Pip’s supposed benefactor. When Pip first lays eyes on Miss Havisham and her home, he notes that “her watch had stopped at twenty minutes to nine,” and describes her appearance, stating that “the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes.”8 As Pip—along with the reader—later finds out, Miss Havisham was left at the altar on her wedding day and, while heightened emotions would be common in such a situation, her reaction remains extreme: She has attempted to stop time in her world. While it is clear that Miss Havisham has not succeeded in literally freezing time, as seen through the aging of the materials she has surrounded herself with, her belief that she can lock herself in her home and halt her life at a single moment reveals the fantastic nature of the plot. Although the melodramatic elements of Great Expectations add to the entertainment value of the novel, they also distance the plot from the everyday life of the Victorian reader and, through that distance, allow the reader to escape into the story of a young man, his convict benefactor, and the eccentric woman living in her wedding dress rather than bringing the reader to confront the realities of a financial situation they could likely face themselves.
One of the effects of Eliot’s reimagination of Dickens’s “expectations” story is that the gothic and fantastic elements of Great Expectations are restrained while realism is brought to the forefront, bringing a serious, more lifelike tone to the struggles that Fred faces throughout Middlemarch. George Eliot expressed a strong belief in both the power and necessity of writing realism, a style that she tends to adhere to throughout Middlemarch despite the complex and often convoluted fictitious plot. Despite its categorization as fiction, Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life thrives on the realistic complexities of everyday life in an English town. A self-described “belated historian,” the narrator of Middlemarch describes the responsibility of “unravelling certain human lots and seeing how they were woven and interwoven.”9 In combination with the subtitle of the novel, A Study of Provincial Life, it is clear that Eliot is pursuing realism to the extent of labeling her novel a “study” and her narrator a “historian,” often bringing the text to read like a methodical, scientific observation rather than an emotion-based account of one’s childhood. The use of the third-person narrator in Middlemarch, compared to Pip’s first-person narration in Great Expectations, also enhances the realistic nature of the novel as it allows the reader to experience Middlemarch, in many ways, like those who reside in the town.
Throughout Fred’s story, there are several realistic elements that contrast with the fantastic events of Pip’s coming-of-age story. The melodrama surrounding the identity of Pip’s benefactor, who is later revealed to be the convict Abel Magwitch, contributes to the suspenseful and gothic nature of the novel. Similarly, the role that Magwitch plays in Pip’s journey to become a gentleman is odd considering the tenuous connection between the two characters and Magwitch’s inability to enter England as a free man. The identity of Fred’s expected benefactor, on the other hand, is clear from the beginning of Fred’s story and the familial connection between Featherstone and Fred allows for a realistic transfer of property, despite the complex nature of the Middlemarch family tree and the existence of Featherstone’s illegitimate son.
Another element of realism within Fred’s “expectations” story is the setting. Fred’s relationships, employment, and home all exist within the same location, Middlemarch, whereas Pip’s story occurs primarily in two locations, the marshy village and London. While the existence of a character in a single place does not necessarily establish realism, the contrast between the two young men emphasizes the way that, unlike Fred, Pip must leave his home in order to achieve his expectations. Pip’s travel between London and his home with Joe and Mrs. Joe not only illustrates the disparity between his social status in the two places but also lends itself to the fantastic illusion that Pip is experiencing two separate lives. George Eliot’s more realistic style shows that achieving one’s expectations does not require that one’s past be erased or avoided. In the case of Fred Vincy, the disappointment of not meeting his “great expectation” by inheriting the Stone Court estate brings out his true character and, through hard work, he achieves his original expectations of wealth and simultaneously secures Mary’s hand in marriage.
While Eliot strives to imbue her fictional work with realism, there are many elements of the “realistic” text that could be considered as crossing the line into melodrama. Although the circumstances of Fred’s expected inheritance and Featherstone’s multiple wills fit in Eliot’s realistic fiction, the scene in which Featherstone orders Mary to burn one of his wills includes the exaggeration and heightened emotions often found within gothic or melodramatic texts. Featherstone is described as lowering “his tone with an air of deeper cunning” as he instructs Mary to retrieve the two wills from his closet; however, as he quickly says “look here! Take the money—the notes and gold—look here—take it—you shall have it all—do as I tell you,” his frantic tone and reactions to Mary’s refusal reflect, to a certain degree, the overly dramatic nature of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.10 Similarly, the dramatic irony of Mary’s actions causing Featherstone’s estate to go to his illegitimate son, Joshua Rigg Featherstone, rather than Fred, the man that Mary wants to marry, seems to be the result of one-too-many coincidences, causing the scene to read as melodramatic rather than realistic. On the other hand, Great Expectations is not wholly gothic or fantastic. One of the most significant examples of realism throughout the novel is the way that Dickens uses the city of London as one of his settings. Rather than drawing inspiration from the city or seeking to solely encapsulate the feel of London, Dickens places the novel within his London, so much so that Pip’s wanderings throughout the city could be easily followed on a map. In the case of Great Expectations, the heightened realism of the London setting helps to create a balance between reality and fantasy, while in Middlemarch melodrama is used to increase the stakes of the plot and establish the dramatic irony of Mary effectively eliminating Fred’s chances of receiving the inheritance.
One of the primary themes of Pip’s “expectations” story considers what it means to be a gentleman versus a gentle man, or a man of good character and morals. Pip changes to achieve his “great expectations,” only to realize “that [he] should have been happier and better if [he] had never seen Miss Havisham’s face, and had risen to manhood content to be partners with Joe in the honest old forge.”11 Although Eliot’s reimagining of Pip’s story through the character of Fred Vincy includes similar themes, the message of Fred’s journey to achieve his expectations seems to stretch further and be more focused on Fred’s individual development rather than the recognition of the value money may or may not possess. While Pip’s expectations require change on his part—gaining an education, learning proper etiquette, and leaving his home, among others—Fred’s expectations shift to fit the man that he is becoming, instead. His father’s belief that he should use his schooling to become a member of the clergy, as well as the hints dropped about him receiving Featherstone’s estate, are both expectations that were thrust upon him in a way that echoes Pip’s sudden notification that he has a benefactor. By abandoning his father’s expectations and working with Caleb Garth, Fred is able to marry Mary, his final expectation and the woman he has loved since childhood. What is most striking in Eliot’s realistic approach to the “expectations” story is the fact that Fred still has his own flaws. According to the narrator, they “cannot say that he was never again misled by his hopefulness,” yet “his hopefulness had not led him to expect [wealth].”12 By rejecting the expectations of others and adopting those that bring him fulfillment, Fred recognizes the joy that comes from achieving one’s own expectations while coming to understand the value of living as a gentle man, as Pip discovers in Great Expectations.
Eliot’s reimagination of the Dickensian “expectations” story concentrates on bringing the dark, gothic elements of Pip’s story into the light of Middlemarch and the novel’s realistic style. While Pip’s story acts as a basic structure for Eliot’s adaptation, the realistic foundation of Fred’s story illustrates the ways in which one’s expectations can change or adapt based on life’s circumstances. By exploring the story through realism, Eliot makes the issue of social mobility versus positive character feel more realistic and immediate for her contemporary readers who were likely familiar with the more fantastic story made famous by Dickens. Eliot’s use of Dickens’s “expectations” story channels her contemporary audience’s awareness of the earlier text and, through that familiarity, the adaptation has the opportunity to address both the nature and value of one’s expectations.
- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (Penguin, 2008), 51.
- Dickens, Great Expectations, 109.
- Dickens, Great Expectations, 272.
- Dickens, Great Expectations, 360.
- George Eliot, Middlemarch (Penguin Classics, 2015), 128.
- Dickens, Great Expectations, 3.
- Dickens, Great Expectations, 3.
- Dickens, Great Expectations, 58.
- Eliot, Middlemarch, 135.
- Eliot, Middlemarch, 300.
- Dickens, Great Expectations, 272.
- Eliot, Middlemarch, 781.