The Afterlife of Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations" in the Late 20th and Early 21st Century

The differences in modern adaptations: reliable ''faithful'' vs. unreliable ''unfaithful'' adaptation

Term Paper, 2014

24 Pages, Grade: A



1. INTRODUCTION – The representation of the Victorian period in Dickens’s Great Expectations
1.1 The theme of a constant class competing mostly provoked by Industrialization
1.2 Work and money as a society link
1.3 Possession – physical and material

2.1 The use of the very title of the book Great Expectations in the popular culture – online web pages, shops and restaurants, contemporary comic books Great Expectations
2.2 Dickens day and Dickens Festival
2.3 Why are we still reading Dickens? Is it because we want to know more about the period in which he lived in, or because we can identify ourselves with his characters?
2.4 Why is Dickens still so widely adapted and why?
2.5 The differences in modern adaptations: reliable ''faithful'' vs. unreliable ''unfaithful'' adaptation
2.6 Great Expectations by BBC, mini-series (2011)
2.7 Great Expectations by Alfonso Cuarón (20th century Fox)




1. INTRODUCTION – The representation of the Victorian period in Dickens’s Great Expectations

1.1 The theme of a constant class competing mostly provoked by Industrialization

It seems that the 19th century industrial development and generally the period called Victorian age was not suitable for the urban writer such as Dickens. It should not come as a surprise that Dickens was not very satisfied with the period he lived in, or with people around him. The fact that he had already sold the lease on his London house and moved to the swamp – North Kent Marshes, before he started to write the novel Great Expectations may come as a proof for this statement. Dickens was forty-eight then, and he could not stand pollution and bad public health, or the famous London fog of which he wrote so much in his novels Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. There is however always a huge diversion between rural and urban in Dickens’ novels, especially in Great Expectations. Because of this huge distinction Tristan Sipley in her work ‘ The Revenge of ‘Swamp Thing’: Wetlands, Industrial Capitalism, and the Ecological Contradiction of Great Expectations ’ divides Dickens in the two groups - “pastoral Dickens” and “gritty urban Dickens”. In Great Expectations marsh, the place where the main protagonist – Pip lives (the marsh) is without a doubt showed as a place of wrongdoings, criminality and everything bad; We must not forget that Pip met Magwitch (the convict) not so far from his home, and also Orlick (a bad young character tainted by the place in which he was raised – the marsh). Even later in the novel, when Magwitch encounters Pip in London, he somehow carries the marsh surroundings metaphorically described in the weather: ‘… wretched…stormy and wet…a vast heavy veil had been driving over London from the East, and it drove still, as if in the East there were an Eternity of cloud and wind…and gloomy accounts had come in from the coast, of shipwreck and death[1] ; also people living there are shown as uneducated and poor, except Miss Havisham who is living in the old residence away from the city. On the side, the city is shown as a place of success; a place that holds gentlemen and the whole bourgeois society; a place where everyone is given a chance to become wealthier and more successful. The similar thought is held even nowadays; country parts of a state are always believed to be places where the poor people (working class) live, and cities on the contrary are believed to be places where wealthier, educated people live, especially in our country, since the situation has quite changed in some particular western countries.

1.2 Work and money as a society link

In his handling of Magwitch, Dickens achieves a more complex binding, both of the aggression associated with work and money, and of social anger. Pip’s attempt to buy off Magwitch with clean notes, only to be reminded of the sweated money wrapped around the file, reveals that work and money link the high and low more decisively than any potential for right feeling.’[2]

The excerpt above also proves that Dickens did believe that Victorian England was corrupted, and that justice was always more leaned to the rich/wealthy ones - Compeyson, rather than to the poor ones – Magwitch. We can say that Magwtich is a criminal because he have to be one, in order to survive, and Compeyson is a criminal because he can be, and because of his personality. We cannot but ask ourselves: “Have times really changed?” In our country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the situation is pretty much the same, and maybe this is the reason why we really read Dickens even today – we can identify with his characters very easily. Dickens literally divided and depicted his characters by this belief, so that readers (who were also aware of the same thing) could sympathize better with the novel characters; constantly throughout the novel, Dickens presents the class subdivision of the period. It stretches from the most worthless criminals, such as Magwitch, to the low, working class of marshes, such as Joe, Pip, Biddy, etc., to the middle class, such as Pumblechook and to the rich, high class, such as Miss Havisham. It was obvious that people that belonged to the highest class did not want to intervene the people from the lower class. Miss Havisham may be an exception, but again, she did it only to hurt Pip. This is best seen when Pip arrives in London. The Gentlemen did not want any communication with him, until he became gentleman himself. In the book itself, we can read explicit lines, where Dickens stresses his awareness of the class division, describing marshes as completely another country: ‘… Ours was the marsh country …”[3], and also the lines describing Pip’s extremely happy state after he receives mysterious inheritance that removed him from the lower part of the society: ‘… No more low wet grounds, no more dykes with sluices, no more of these grazing cattle…farewell, monotonous acquaintances of my childhood, henceforth I was for London and greatness …’[4]. The message gets clear after those lines; somehow the place where you live in describes you as the person and your mental state. The same opinion remains in our society as well, even though one hundred and fifty-three years passed. Tristan Sipley discusses this same idea as: ‘… to see Pip not simply as an individual, but as a figure for a larger class-­ ‐ perspective and for a whole set of assumptions about the natural world under the emerging industrial capitalist order.’[5] and also describes the marsh as a space in-­ ‐ between stages of development. However, the same marshes are described more positively by the end of the novel. This same place will be the place where Pip will spend the rest of his life, happily with his beloved Estella. Dickens’s attitude toward the Industrial period is never certain. According to Phillip Collins in his article ‘ Charles Dickens and Industrialism ’ Dickens saw both the good and the bad in it.

1.3 Possession – physical and material

Dickens also discusses the theme of possession throughout this novel. For the people of the Victorian age in England, material possession, that was the most important one, however, was not the only one; of course, without any doubt, it was very important, as it is nowadays, as it will always be, but at the moments, it seems that physical possession also matters. This theme wriggles constantly through the novel, but not so explicitly. For example, Miss Havisham proves that she cannot live on her own, not just because she does not have anyone, or because she is not in good relations with her relatives, but because she needs to own someone whom she can control; that someone in her case is Estella; she is not just a persona who takes care of Miss Havisham, but she makes her more valuable and more interesting. It was very important for Miss Havisham to control Estella and to shape her personality and looks in a way that she likes, only because she feels better like that. Later in the novel, it seems that Miss Havisham cannot live without Estella at all and that she acknowledges she is not an interesting persona for others without Estella by her side. Pip, for example, stopped paying her visits when Estella was away; during that period Miss Havisham ’s health and condition enormously deteriorated; she fell even deeper into depression; it is never actually elaborated in the novel, what really brought her to an end; it could be that the end of physical possession (Estella) ended her life, because she felt that she really has nothing left – no family, no happiness, and even all her wealth could not help her at that moment. The same theme is also shown throughout the relation between Pip and Magwitch, who, did it all to become wealthier and more appreciated, because only in that way, he could help an old friend – Pip. His plan was not only to make Pip rich, and give him all that he could never have, but he wanted to turn him into the gentleman, and it seems that he also wanted him in his possession; that would have made him even wealthier. During the Victorian period people felt more valuable if they had many servants, who would work for them, and whom they would feed and simply of whom they would care about. The same situation was earlier in the history of the civilization, and it seems that this situation has never really changed, except by the law. Even today, people feel better if they have someone finishing their job and cleaning after them, or simply if they helped someone became more successful, because they know that they are the one who did it for that particular person.


If Dickens anticipated some of these contemporary trends, then tracing the misshapen forms of his survival in today’s world will tell readers something about themselves—and about Dickens too.[6]

Everybody who visits bookshops has noticed that Dickens’s novels can almost always be found on the bookshelves. This means that Dickens’s novels are widely read nowadays, and that people are buying them a lot. Dickens somehow continues to exist in the contemporary popular culture, in the postmodern period in which we live too. According to Jay Clayton the term ‘postmodern’ can be effectively used to characterize a wide (but hardly comprehensive) set of contemporary phenomena, including theoretical positions about the impossibility of truth and the deconstruction of the subject; an ironic stance in popular media such as film, television, comics, and advertising; pastiche and eclecticism in architecture, art, and music; the commodification of everyday life; even lifestyles and belief patterns[7].

2.1 The use of the very title of the book Great Expectations in the popular culture – online web pages, shops and restaurants, contemporary comic books Great Expectations

We have already established in the introductory part that Dickens life and later on his novels, among which also Great Expectations, can be seen as a symbol of early Capitalism; this phase of Capitalism still exists. Dickens’s Capitalism is probably the industrial one; this phase of Capitalism marked his early life and it should not come as a surprise that it is present in almost every novel of his. We can also say that Dickens wrote about so-called bureaucratic Capitalism too, which is still present today in class subdivision generally. While reading his novels, we can really feel the spirit of an industrialized city, because we are familiar with it and because, perhaps, we are living in similar surroundings. The work ethic and the ideology of the institutions such as courts or prisons has not changed; the alienation of certain characters, such as Wemmick or Miss Havisham is also something familiar to us, because we can easily characterize with them. According to Jay Clayton this fact has undoubtedly made it difficult for readers to see how he could have anything to do with a cultural position associated with advanced capitalism—postmodernism.[8] Dickens characters are more similar to the characters from modern literature, described and presented in different way that characters often are in the 19th century novels. This is yet another reason that proves that is very easy for us to understand his characters because they are, in many ways, similar to ourselves – deconstructed[9] as Jay Clayton points it out. This is, however, just beginning. It is not hard to find references to Dickens and his novels in the media. The Eagles, an American rock band from 1971, published the widely famous track named ‘ New Kid in Town’ [10] (from their 1976 album Hotel California) that reached the Billboard No. 1 the next year; The track tells about one boy with great expectations who is in his friends’ eyes is something new, and the boy is also in love with a girl, all of which is a direct reference to the story of the novel Great Expectations and Pip himself. Tasmin Archer, an English pop singer, called her first album Great Expectations in 1992. It seems that the name of the novel somehow turned into a phrase extensively used in the modern media. According to Jay Clayton investigating it seems that a search of a magazine database turned up fifty-nine articles published in a single year that used the phrase “great expectations” in their titles.[11] What is really interesting is that the most of those articles (such as the one from the periodical called Museums Journal by Mulhearn Deborah and the one from the New York Times by Callow Simo[12] ) are explicitly connected to Dickens, the information that proves that Dickens is still an actual theme of interest. Dickens also continues to live on the Internet, and it keeps being the interest of the online generation. According to Jay Clayton Dickens has one of the largest Web presences of any literary figure. There are a lot of websites devoted to Dickens, some of which are used by his fans such as the The Victorian Web (, other used for clothing such as the Victorian Vanities ( for the lovers of the 19th century fashion and the costumes from the Dickens novels. Other pages are used mostly by students for their homework or by scholars who are interested in more details of his works and life, such as the David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page (, with the scholarly articles on many topics as his biography or even more complex ones connected to the various contexts (religious, political, etc.) of his novels. The very first web page devoted to Charles Dickens, still current, is the one created in 1995 named The Dickens Page (, created by the professor Mitsuharu Matsuoka from the Nagoya University in Japan. This is not the end. There are more factual institutions that carry some references to Dickens. For example, there is a pub named The Dickens Inn located in Philadelphia and in London. The phrase Great Expectations can be also found in Dallas, as the name of the maternity store and in the Richmond as the name of the candle store. There are also some other stores, slightly different in the name, such as the Baked Expectations (the name of the restaurant in Winnipeg), the Great Hair-Spectations (the beauty salon in Brooklyn), the Grape Expectations (the wine bar in Manhattan) all of which Jay Clayton investigated and mentioned in his book “Charles Dickens in Cyberspace[13]. On Dickens’s 200th birthday, in 2012, Google start screen[14] was managed out of characters from his novels; one click on it and users were able to check out all Dickens’s novels available on Google Books. The University of Warwick made the mobile app dedicated to the great novelist called Celebrating Dickens; the mobile app offers podcasts, videos and images of Victorian Britain, many articles and adaptations.

2.2 Dickens day and Dickens Festival

Many people do not know that England celebrates so-called Dickens Day every year, usually in October, November or December. Dickens day is almost an academic tradition in England, ought to connect Dickens’s fans, scholars, students and everyone else who celebrates this figure. Universities are proud to establish their special programs regarding this occasion. Programs include readings of Dickens’s novels and interesting parts of his biography; the main parts are parallel panels consisting of various lessons given by professors from many universities; Last year, the most successful lessons in the School of Advanced Study – University of London were ‘Declining and Falling for History in Our Mutual Friend’ and ‘Dickens and the Historical Jesus’. In the Westfield city Dickens day ‘featured events are so family friendly. They include interactive Dickens Dinners; Royal Music Halls, an historic house tour and invigorated Lanternlight Parade and Mayor’s Tree Lighting which mark the climax to the Dickens Days Downtown Strol’l. This is not the end. This year, in Kent, there will be held Dickens Festival, lasting from 30th May 2014 to 01st Jun 2014. The festival presents a weekend of honor, celebration, entertainment, parades, readings, competitions, and costumes – everything for Dickensian discovery. The aim of the festival is to bring together the Victorian theme together with Dickens’s characters; the theme of the festival this year is Dickens’s favorite child - David Copperfield.

2.3 Why are we still reading Dickens? Is it because we want to know more about the period in which he lived in, or because we can identify ourselves with his characters?

“Charles Dickens was a close observer of human nature who found endless interest in the theatre of ordinary life.”[15] - John Gray

“We need to read Dickens's novels, because they tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are.”[16] Anonymous high school student

“He has always been loved by ordinary people because they knew he was on their side. The rich are less keen on him. We should remember that he took high art to the masses.”[17] - Claire Tomalin

After all of those facts, we cannot but ask ourselves: “Why are we still reading Dickens?” We are reading his novels, firstly because we have to; many schools put some of his novels as part of the reading schedule. Unfortunately, this is not the case in our schools. According to some sources and some individual thoughts, another reason may be that Dickens simply presented a unique and spectacular view into the period he lived in. His descriptions are vivid ruthless and bold, but still very definitive. He was one of the rare writers who were able to describe hard life and struggles of poor people; his life depictions are different from ours, but the reality of those remains the same. It is really easy for us to feel the life, but also the emotions of his characters while we are reading his novels; Dickens was the best at capturing feelings, hope and fears of all his characters so realistically, and he brought to life struggles and battles of England’s poor, openly writing how unfortunate and desperate they were. Dickens truly was a significant author of the time, because people appreciated his power to change the perception of England, especially London and people, usually marginal ones who lived there. Dickens was aware of this fact; he once proudly claimed that “he knows London better than anyone other man of all its millions.”[18] The truth is that London was a city of Dickens’s success, but also a place of his mistreatment as a child; Hungerford Market was the scariest place for him during all of his life. He could not cross it without remembering that he had to paste labels on the blacking factory’s products in order to save his destiny; for him, London was the place of disgust, a stony and cold city fulfilled with lost hopes, almost like Eliot’s The Wasteland, but back then also, like nowadays, very celebrated city. During Dickens’s lifetime London has been “more excavated, more cut about, more rebuilt, and more extended than at any time in its previous history.”[19] Dickens would walk around this transforming and noisy city, carrying his notebook and marking its pages with new ideas and new descriptions. It should not come as a surprise that his contemporaries (including ourselves) see Victorian London trough Dickens’s eyes; According to Jon Michael Varese, one of the writers from The Guardian, the reason why we still read Dickens may be that he was not just a man of his times, but because he is a man of our times also. People are always interested in the insight and investigation of the human psyche, and Dickens’s analysis is very detailed, precise and deep; it is almost as if he states things about our society and ourselves individually, simply by describing different personalities or habits still familiar to us. Undoubtedly some Dickens’s fans and readers will always be Pip, seeking for and craving someone out of their league, others will be Estella, living with the curse of their beauty and raised by a wrong mother, some will be Miss Havisham, living the hell because they are left by a loving one, and some will always be Magwitch, believing that they are innocent and that they can buy real happiness; it is always so easy to sympathize with Dickens’s characters. They are real assurances that this writer, whether we read him or not, is a living proof of who we are during the best and the worst of times. Dickens’s subjects and themes are also universal as his characters; he wrote of everyday problems: love, family and struggle that comes together with those; we are still having problems with prisons, banks, government and crime. It seems that after all, human nature does not change that easily. There are many talented contemporary writers, but they write in a different manner. Nobody writes like Dickens anymore; his themes can be copied or come as an inspiration, but his style of writing and his collection of words and phrases surely cannot; reading Dickens nowadays can be an issue and a real challenge, because his words are not common anymore; however, it is not impossible, especially thanks to the reference and guide books that can make reading Dickens as fun as it was more than hundred years ago. After all, Dickens’s novels are not classics because they have a history, but because they have quality. However, according to Jay Clayton, Dickens’s existence nowadays is particularly present during Christmas; adaptations and cartoons of his famous novel A Christmas Carol are usually aired on TV immediately. Ebenezer Scrooge is still a very famous and familiar figure during Christmastime and in some commercials, such as Canadian Tire with saying “Spend like Santa, Save like Scrooge.” Jay Clayton also discovered that Dickens’s Christmas Village is the bestseller in gift shops. Dickens was also present earlier in the 20th century – during and after World War II; famous comic book series named Classics Illustrated adapted many classics, among which Great Expectations (two times). The first issue came out in 1947, now very prominent collector’s item, with two struggling men, one manacled with chains locked around the hands and feet, the other with upraised fist and a reddened, bloody bandage around his head[20] on its cover. According to Jay Clayton, Dickens’s image was more serious and coherent, an instrument of cultural consolidation, not consumerist expansion.[21] Second issue came out in 1990, this time with the image of deathly Miss Havisham and beautiful Estella, including Pip who is observing them.

2.4 Why is Dickens still so widely adapted and why?

“Dickens! Should’st be living at this hour and should’st be writing for Slate and publishing fiction online. The world needs vivid laughter, wider vision. Even just to recall the names of characters—Smike, Scrooge, Guppy, Copperfield, Nell—is to wake to lost possibilities of what novels can reach and do.”[22]

The revolutionary invention of film in the 19th century immediately proved to be widely accepted and favorite media of the audience. Quite simultaneously with that discovery, the theory and the phenomenon of adaptations occurred; filmmakers were, and still are in a constant search of novels, stories and narratives to transfer into the new media – film. From Dickens first appearance, in print form, his novels and stories almost straightaway become adapted into other media, first of which stage, from his own times. Since that, it seems that Dickens has uninterruptedly been modified into plays, soap operas, films, toys, series, comics and even new novels. Among all other classics – and all classics are everlasting with elusive quality, and among all Victorian writers, Dickens has been adapted the most; it is hard to notice the presence of other classics in popular culture, but on the other side, Dickens’s works perfectly fit there. The fact is that Dickens created twisting, snaky plots and that he wrote for various magazines and because of that his works are easily transferred into films or miniseries; Dickens was not only a regular writer but also a visual one – his lengthy descriptions, language and the names of his characters suit very well for film directors. According to British fantasy novelist Philip Pullman many scenes from his novels, especially Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are nothing less than shooting scripts complete with camera angles, and with stage direction in the appropriate present tense[23]. Philip Pullman concluded his introduction to Roman Polanski's 2005 film, saying: ‘ Later in Dickens' career, he was actually writing for a medium that didn't yet exist: I mean the cinema.’[24] All of these phenomena created ‘ the other Dickens ’, the one who, in the popular culture, is more familiar to non-readers, rather than to an audience that actually read some of his novels. It is considered that around a hundred of silent films were made inspired and based on the works of Dickens mainly in England, but also in the USA and all around Europe; The first of these, named ‘ Scrooge, Or Marley's Ghost ’ ( was produced in 1901 and still exists; it lasts for six minutes and it was made by a stage magician. In 1913, the first lengthy, but still silent Dickensian film came out named David Copperfield. The last silent film based on Dickens’s novels was A Tale of Two Cities established in 1925. After silent films, more and more non-silent adaptations came out and they never stopped being produced; this makes Charles Dickens the most adapted author in the world. During the 20th century, according to Jay Clayton more than seventy movies were made out of Dickens’s works, including seven inspired by the novel Great Expectations. Among those seven, there is even a Hollywood adaptation of this novel, directed by famous Alfonso Cuarón.


[1] Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Page 558

[2] Jordan, John O. The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens. The late novels: Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend by Brian Cheadle. London: © Cambridge University Press, 2001. Page 81

[3] Dickens. Great Expectations. Page 3

[4] Dickens. Great Expectations. Page 261

[5] Sipley, Tristan. “The Revenge of ‘Swamp Thing’: Wetlands, Industrial Capitalism, and the Ecological Contradiction of Great Expectations.” The Journal of Ecocriticism January 2011: page 20

[6] Clayton, Jay. Charles Dickens in Cyberspace – The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture. New York: © Oxford University Press, Inc., 2003. Page 147

[7] Clayton. Charles Dickens in Cyberspace. Page 147

[8] Clayton. Charles Dickens in Cyberspace. Page 148

[9] Clayton. Charles Dickens in Cyberspace. Page 149

[10] The song can be listened to for free at:, 27th July, 2014

[11] Clayton. Charles Dickens in Cyberspace. Page 150

[12], 27th July, 2014

[13] Clayton. Charles Dickens in Cyberspace. Page 152

[14] Please check image no1 for a screenshot;

[15], 1st August, 2014

[16], 1st August, 2014

[17], 1st August, 2014

[18] Jordan O. The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens. Page 117

[19] Jordan O. The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens. Page 106

[20] Clayton. Charles Dickens in Cyberspace. Page 154

[21] Clayton. Charles Dickens in Cyberspace. Page 154

[22], 13th August, 2014

[23], 13th August, 2014

[24], 20th August, 2014

Excerpt out of 24 pages


The Afterlife of Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations" in the Late 20th and Early 21st Century
The differences in modern adaptations: reliable ''faithful'' vs. unreliable ''unfaithful'' adaptation
University of Sarajevo
English Language and Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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charles dickens, english language, english literature, england, cultural studies, victorian england
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Enver Kazić (Author), 2014, The Afterlife of Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations" in the Late 20th and Early 21st Century, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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