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“The narrative voice is an important element in the use of realist and non-realist techniques and conventions.” Discuss this statement with reference to one of the following novels: Frankenstein, Fathers and Sons, Great Expectations.
One of Dickens’ finest novels, Great Expectations, was written in the age of Realism – the genre, which the author used extensively in his works. The nineteenth century realist novel tried to convey the illusion of reality and describe contemporary life and attitudes in a way immediately accessible to the reader. The effect is usually achieved by demonstrating a broad set of conventions and stereotypical character development techniques. Typical realistic conventions include recognisable settings located within a specific time and place, a clearly delineated social and economic world with consequent restrictions, and detailed descriptions in simple, largely referential language (Watt, The Realist Novel, p.222).
However, Great Expectations cannot be categorised as realist so simplistically. From the first pages it becomes apparent that apart from realistic techniques the author tries to incorporate a lot of sub literary elements in the narration, the most significant of which are Gothic, romantic and fairy-tale.
It is also worth noting the choice of narration adopted in Great Expectations, in other words, from whose point of view the story is told. Charles Dickens uses the first person narration, the method which was becoming rather popular amongst novelists at that time.
Let us try and establish the adopted “point of view” and perspective of the novel, and determine what realist and non-realist elements and conventions the author exploits in the book. Finally, we will think about what the connection is between the narrative voice of the novel and the author’s choice of these techniques.
Great Expectations is set in Victorian England at the time of some important and dramatic changes in the society. The Industrial Revolution made it possible for men from humble backgrounds to achieve great wealth and social status. However, the strict division between the poor and the upper class still remained.
In the novel Dickens applies the first person past and present spoken method of narration. The basic structure of the novel is the chronological development of Pip’s life, starting from his early childhood, to the pursuit of his “great expectations”, his shattered illusions and consequently rejection of the high life. The story is told by the middle aged Pip, who is not only the voice telling the story, but also the protagonist – the character around whom the main plot revolves. Because Pip is narrating the story many years after the events in the novel took place, the readers are more likely to identify with him , than if the story was told by a child who is not yet able to pass on a mature and critical judgement on life due to lack of experience.
What makes the choice of narrative in Great expectations so unique is the use of the dual perspective – a matured Pip looking back especially to his childhood years and trying to reassess the people and circumstances that played an important role in his lifet. The dual perspective is clearly established in the opening paragraph of Chapter 1:
“My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip,
my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more
explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.” (Dickens, 1859, p285)
Or in Chapter 8, for example, during Pip’s first visit to Satis House, Estella humiliates Pip and he recollects: “As I cried I kicked the wall, and took a hard twist at my hair; so bitter were my feelings” (Dickens, 1859, p321). At the time, Pip the child, cannot contain his agony in a heart rending manner which deeply affects the readers. In the next paragraph, however, Pip the adult presents us with more mature reflections on the injustice: “My sister’s bringing up had made me sensitive… I was morally timid and very sensitive.” Reflected by the matured Pip in the perspective of the omniscient narrator, “Great Expectations’ first person narration employs the wisdom of hindsight to define the events and characters of the story.” (www.writework.com) The convention of retrospect in the example above produces a deep psychological effect and compassion, given access to Pip’s motivations and feelings.
Now that we have established the perspective of the story and noted Pip’s candid and convincing first person narrative , let us move on to some important realist techniques that Dickens uses in Great Expectations.
The typical attribute of the nineteenth century realist novel is putting a commonplace character, usually of working or middle class, in the centre of the narration – the technique also known as “celebration of the ordinary”. In Dickens’ novel Pip is a typical lower class boy, being raised in the family of a blacksmith. Another character Biddy “was not beautiful – she was common, and could not be like Estella.” The actions of the book take place in a number of archaeologically realistic settings. His parents lived “long before the days of photographs” (Dickens, 1859, p285) which gives us a rough idea of the time at which the events will be taking place. London is described as “a most dismal place; the skylight eccentrically patched like a broken head, and the distorted adjoining houses looking as if they had twisted themselves to peep down at me through it.”(Dickens, 1859, p382) The use of realistic time and settings help to create a strong idea of reality, or rather, the illusion of reality, something the wider audience can relate to in order to connect with the book.
However, in Great Expectations Dickens does not always remain faithful to the conventions of a realistic novel. Deviating from realism, he tends to incorporate alternative popular genres within the narration. Gothic, for instance, plays an important role in creating the mood and setting throughout the story. The misty marshes near Pip’s childhood home in Kent, the churchyard “overgrown with nettles” and “the dark flat wilderness beyond it” (Dickens, 1859, p285) set the novel’s bleak mood from the very beginning. The setting makes the readers sympathise with this little boy wandering about though the gravestones of his family. The “magical” world of Miss Havisham, “the bride within the bridal dress” that “had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes” (Dickens, 1859, p318) is paralleled with the grotesque depiction of the Satis House, which was “of old brick and dismal, and had a great many iron bars to it.” (Dickens, 1859, p316) The Gothic element in this case causes the audience to possibly anticipate some unusual twists, connected with this morbid place or the people occupying it, further in the story.
Through the eyes of young Pip, however, the Satis House and its dwellers symbolise a romantic illusion of the upper class life. It is because of his predominance of cold-hearted Estella, who was raised by Miss Havisham to torture men and “break their hearts,” Pip embarks on his journey of “great expectations.”
The novel also includes some fairy-tale elements, which Dickens mostly employs to convey the uncommon dialogue or speed up parts of the story that seem to drag. In Chapter 1, when young Pip meets the “fearful” convict, “with a great iron on his leg” – the convict is depicted as a fairy tale monster, the product of a young imagination. The main storyline of the novel, which is Pip’s incredible makeover into a gentleman, also employs the fairy-tale technique. ” I am instructed to communicate with him… that he will come into a handsome property, that he be immediately removed from his present sphere of life and from his place, and be brought up as a gentleman.” (Dickens, 1859, p367) In order to get this unrealistic storyline across, Dickens uses the fairy-tale structure to tell Pip’s story. With the absence of these fairy-tale elements, the readers could find it hard to believe in Pip’s exceptional character development and amazing series of coincidences.
We have already established the basic strategies of a realist novel which Dickens uses in the book – the chronological linear structure, the omniscient narrator, accurate descriptions of the settings, ordinary characters and the plot, which deals with moral and social issues of that time. The choice of the narrative method in Great Expectations is important in delivering these realistic techniques, adding credibility and truthfulness to the plot. Incorporating alternative genres in an otherwise realist narration makes the readers step back from this reality; moreover it is a rather sophisticated way of adding a whole lot of subtext to the story for the readers to enjoy. Be that large than life characters of Miss Havisham and Mr Pumblechoock or the grotesque settings of the marshes and the Satis House. These elements add a touch of irony, humour and fancy to the protagonist’s honest first person narrative and contribute to the entertainment value of Great Expectations.
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