The Art of Storytelling: Great Expectations
There are many differences between the art of Dickens’ Great Expectations and the art of George Eliot, and the differences exemplify both the strength and weaknesses of Great Expectations. The two main differences are in the type of, and goal of, each authors’ imagination – Eliot’s a subtle imagination, used to probe reality, while Dickens’ is a grand imagination, used to create an unreality. The other difference is in the authorial eye of the story: Eliot’s eyes is far above her stories, enabling her to stand time still and explore the moments, characters, and actions of her world extra-textually, while Dickens’ eye is always in the story, moving with the pace of the action, being surprised and disappointed with the characters. While Dickens loses the ability to sculpt his works in the way Eliot affords, Dickens affords himself a masterful method of storytelling, that is truly to be learned from.
While both artists works are very imaginative, they are so in entirely different ways. Dickens’ is a grand imagination, and Eliot’s is a subtle one. While Eliot tries to keep her stories and characters life-like, Dickens seems to venture as far from reality in his plots and characters as possible. Every character of Eliot’s is whole – that is, they are well-rounded, with their abilities, their short-coming, actions that fall in line with their general principles, and actions that don’t. Eliot uses these characters to explore various elements of human reality and human folly: Casaubon shows us the folly of mistrust, Dorothea the reality of perseverance, and as her characters are revealed more deeply, we see ourselves in them and learn from them. This cannot be said of any character in Great Expectations other than Pip, who does deal with very human problems. But the rest of Dickens’ characters in Great Expectations do not. We do not sympathize with Mrs Havisham’s grief as she stops all of her clocks and grows ragged in her room while brainwashing one child and torturing others; we do not sympathize with Mr Jaggers cold heartedness as he helps people only to help himself and has no life other than his business; we do not sympathize with Estella’s lack of imagination as she cannot make herself feel because Mrs Havisham tells her not to; and we do not sympathize with Joe’s good-heartedness, as he never resents Pip for the way he treats him. These characters are all grotesques in the literary meaning – exaggerations of real human traits. While Eliot imagines a world and characters so close to the real world that her philosophizing extends onto life, Dickens imagines a world and characters so unreal, that he cannot philosophize about life through them, but they do stand on their own in a way none of Eliot’s characters do: while Eliot’s characters are very particular to her novel – no one thinks of Dorothea Brooke or Will Ladislaw without thinking about Middlemarch – Dickens’ characters grow larger than their novels‘ binding, assuming mythic proportions, impressing themselves on people’s minds extra-textually. But what good is this if the characters do not convey human truths? – this becomes a bit clearer when Dickens‘ means of examination is explored.
Eliot and Dickens both command their novels, controlling what happens unafraid of criticism on that count, but Dickens conceals his command much more than Eliot. He does so by altering his relationship to his work. Where Eliot’s authorial point-of-view on her novel is the bird’s-eye-view, taking in the whole scope of the novel at any given time, and assessing as one able to do so, Dickens point-of-view is always submerged in the action of the novel. We never see Dickens in Great Expectations, in fact, we rarely see Pip. Most of the time neither Pip’s age nor appearance is clear, but the world around him is very clear, and very vivid. Dickens walks through his world of Great Expectation, through Pip, observing and noting what is happening, never rising above it and commenting on it, but thoroughly involving us in it. Whereas we are never shocked with the events that shock Eliot’s characters – we are not shocked when Lydgate falls for Rosamond – because we have been told why said events would happen far before they do, we are truly shocked with many of the events as Pip is in Great Expectations. While we expect him to become a gentleman at some point, we do not expect it to be given to him, and once it is given to him, we expect it to have been done so through Mrs Havisham, ans we are shocked when both of these untruths become truths of the novel. Though the characters and actions of Dickens’ Great Expectations are far less true to real life than those of Eliot’s novels, through Dickens’ submersion in his unreal world, we internalize the events and emotions of Great Expectations and they come alive in our minds, if nowhere else.
Because of Dickens’ massive imagined world and submersion in it, we lose Eliot’s philosophical explorations that she affords herself by freely exploring a seemingly real imagined world, but we gain a magnificence in story telling and myth-making that is truly superb and to be learned from. From the first scene of the novel, we are divulged in it with the author and the narrative. While it is said of many great novels that their opening scenes not only set the stage for the rest of their story, but, if read carefully, also contain the action and themes of the entire novel – from Joyce’s conflicted narrator and spiraling towers of green and red at the beginning of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to Tolstoy’s authorial declaration on families that opens Anna Keranina – this is nowhere more true than in Great Expectations, where the first scene contains the actions, themes, and every other propelling force that drives the novel.
At first we do not pay much attention to the way Dickens has Pip introduce his first memory, the first scene of the book, “My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things.” On a first reading of the novel, this can be taken as a wordy way of saying “my first memory,” but later, Pip steps away from the narrative, and tells us to “Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.” This brings us back to that first scene, in which both Pip and Abel were scared by thorns, and puts a whole new weight on it. We see that that first memory, the first scene of the book, was the not merely a first memory, not some obscure memory that stuck with Pip for no particular reason, but is his first memory because he thought back to it often throughout his life because it affected every element of his life; and thus it is the first scene of the novel because it affects and propels and leads into everything that comes after: Pip’s life.
In it, the language of the novel, Pip’s innocent voice, which mesmerizes and pulls the reader along throughout the novel, is introduced, “Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea.” It also introduces the innocence of the narrator and the realities we will discover along with him as he reminisces on the mistakes he made reading his father’s headstone; and it introduces us to the first of the grotesque characters that will populate the novel: “A fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones and cut by flints, an stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.” And, though we don’t not know it yet, we are introduced to almost all the action of the novel through this one character and the tendencies revealed between him and Pip and about Pip in this scene.
The novel continues in this vein, never leaving an immediate cause and affect of actions. The next scene takes us to Pip’s house because Pip goes there on a mission propelled by the first scene. We hear about the house in the same hypnotic language of the first scene, which continues throughout the novel, and we meet two more characters, both characterized as grotesquely as the first. The first in this scene, Pip’s sister goes, into three fits of hysteria in this chapter that would be unimaginable in real life or a George Eliot novel, but that bring this character off the page and into our heads. The second character, Joe, is unparalleled in his good nature in real life, but perfectly characterized and good natured for the sake of the novel.
While I will quickly admit that I think Eliot the greater artist, I will also defend Dickens as the greater story teller. For, while Eliot’s human explorations and artistic writing is absent in Dickens’, it is lost to create mythic characters that will rise off the page, and to tell the story as concisely and immediately thrillingly as it can be told.