Charles Dickens is often accused of all kinds of crimes against literary refinement: pandering too much to popular taste, over-sentimentality and creating grotesque characters. These may or may not be failings but the criticisms have sometimes tended to overlook or obscure just what a brilliant novelist he was. In Great Expectations, he set out to square his accounts with critics of this kind.
Dickens particularly resented the fact that his early novels were criticised for relying too heavily on coincidence. This criticism was certainly merited: In his first novel, Oliver Twist, the young Oliver is saved from the streets by pure chance and taken in as a charity case by a wealthy family who just happen to be his actual relatives who have spent ten fruitless years searching the country for their lost boy!
But when he wrote his masterpiece, Great Expectations, he set out to rebut once and for all this kind of criticism. And he chose to do it in a spectactularly literary way. To a casual reader, the complex web of interwoven characters and incidents seem to be bristling with coincidences on practically every page. Here are just some of the major instances.
When young Pip visits Satis House at the bidding of Miss Havisham, he meets and fights a boy in the garden. The fighting boy later turns out to be Miss Havisham’s nephew Herbert Pocket and the first person Pip meets and shares rooms with when he later goes to London to be turned into a gentleman.
On an early visit to Miss Havisham, Pip passes on the stair Mr Jaggers, Miss Havisham’s lawyer. “Whom do we have here?” asks Jaggers, to which Estella replies, “A boy.”
On Pip’s 14th birthday he tells Miss Havisham he can no longer come to visit as he must now start his apprenticeship to Joe Gargery, the blacksmith. Miss Havisham gives him some gold sovereigns – a sign that she wishes to reward him for his kindness to her.
When Pip is 20, it is Mr Jaggers who calls at the smithy and announces that Pip has “great expectations”. We and Pip naturally draw the conclusion that it is Miss Havisham who is his mysterious benefactor.
This suspicion is confirmed because when he arrives in London to be educated the first person he is introduced to by Mr Jaggers is Herbert Pocket, Miss Havisham’s nephew.
When Pip comes of age at 21, Joe Gargery visits him in London and tells him that Miss Havisham wishes to see Pip because she has something very particular to impart to him. When Pip arrives, expecting Miss Havisham to disclose herself as his benefactor, he finds he has been summoned to meet Estella, now grown up like himself. While Pip is there, Mr Jaggers pays a vist.
There are many other incidents, great and small, that lead us to the conclusion that Pip’s good fortune is the result of Miss Havisham’s philanthropy.
In reality, the entire complex plot turns around a single tiny, trivial event deliberately inserted into the narrative by Dickens to misdirect us – Pip’s meeting with Mr Jaggers on the stair, as a child, at Satis House, and the single exchangeof dialogue between Jaggers; “Whom do we have here?”, and Estella; “A boy”.
The single plotting coincidence of which this meeting is the outward sign is that both Miss Havisham and the convict Magwitch share the same lawyer in Jaggers.
That single momentary encounter on the stairs – unimportant in itself – is the epicentre of a vast, swirling galaxy of misunderstandings, misdirection, rashness, deceit, conceit, snobberies, heroism and, ultimately, the resolution of an epic story, brilliantly told.