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Is Great Expectations a Romance?

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Before being able to classify a novel, correctly or otherwise, into a certain genre, it is necessary to understand that genre and what constitutes it. The idea of a romance has changed somewhat since the time Great Expectations was written-now, it would be easy to confuse a ‘romance’ with a ‘romantic novel’. The themes and issues involved in a typical, traditional romance are rather different to those explored in a modern romantic novel, which usually centres around the commonly understood view of ‘romance’ meaning love.

In a glossary of literary terms, romance is defined as follows:

Romance: A broad term, usually denoting a narrative with exotic, exaggerated, often idealized characters, scenes, and themes.

If you were to look up romance in a dictionary, you would be informed that the word romance as a noun has a number of main meanings. The first deals with love-the second, describes it as “A mysterious or fascinating quality or appeal, as of something adventurous, heroic, or strangely beautiful”-the third, explains the idea of romance in literature, usually medieval, mentioning “chivalric heroes’ and ‘extraordinary or mysterious events”.

Although romance nowadays is widely understood to be closely associated with sexual love, the definition of a romance is more than this. A romance is usually fantastical, with adventure and mystery intertwined-more than just a love story. The main focus, though, would be a pair of lovers-perhaps torn apart by circumstances beyond their control-and there may be various subplots, but none substantial enough to overshadow the main storyline.

It is difficult to classify a book into a certain genre, especially a novel such as Great Expectations. There are many points it is necessary to consider; the themes and issues within the novel, the style of writing, the characters, also the intention of the author. We must consider whether or not Dickens wrote the tale as a romance, whether he intended it to be read as such, also whether it is read as such. The social commentary is strong in this book, as in many of Dickens’s other works. It may be the case that Dickens wished to include some aspects of a romance into the novel, thus making it appealing to the average reader of a time when the romance was a popular genre, meaning more people could be aware of the points the novel makes. Of course, Great Expectations does have some qualities typical of a romance, and others not.

There is a fairly wide range of themes and issues in Great Expectations, some which support the statement that the novel is a romance, some which oppose it. Some of these include self-improvement, or self-discovery; pride and revenge, and the consequences thereof; justice, both legal and natural; humanity, and how it can be affected by adverse circumstances. These issues could or could not make up a romance-it depends on how the author deals with them, what the context is, and how they are supported by characters, language and style.

The word ‘romance’ originally referred not to a genre, but to the vernacular French language. It was a term commonly used in literature to separate French fiction from ‘real’ literature, which was invariably written in Latin. However, in the twelfth century the term became more exclusive-it no longer referred to all French literature, but to a certain type, which dealt with the adventures of knights and was extremely popular among the French-speaking courts. Women played key roles in these narratives; the main audience for them were the ladies of the court, who liked to read tales in which women were crucial. The idea of courtly love (love between a lowly man, and a woman whose station in life was higher than his) became very popular.

There are some parallels to this within Great Expectations, although it was written so much later. Estella and Miss Havisham (as well as Biddy to a lesser extent) play a very important role in the novel-indeed, without the two of them, many events in the novel wouldn’t have taken place. Also, Pip’s love for Estella reflects the idea of courtly love, as she is so out of his reach. The fact that Pip tries to ‘improve’ himself to gain her affection is similarly a notion that may be used in a romance. “…she’s more beautiful than anybody ever was, and I admire her dreadfully, and I want to be a gentleman on her account.” Estella has made Pip feel dissatisfied with his way of life; he has become besotted with her, and wishes to change who he is for her.

There are other aspects of the novel, which support the idea that it is a romance. There is an element of mystery within the novel, for example, Pip coming into property, yet not knowing the identity of his benefactor. “…that he will come into a handsome property. Further, that it is the desire of the present possessor of that property, that he be immediately removed from his present sphere of life and from this place, and be brought up as a gentleman – in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations.” and “…that the name of the person who is your liberal benefactor remains a profound secret…”

His notion that Miss Havisham is making him a gentleman in preparation for a joining with Estella, however misguided, seems to be very typical of a traditional romance. The language Dickens uses in the conversation between Jaggers and Pip heightens the mystery; for example his use of the words ‘profound secret’, ‘present sphere of life’, added to the very formal legal terms used, which all leave the reader feeling intrigued.

Estella’s parentage, also to a lesser extent, that of Pip, is another romantic idea within the novel. There is an enigma surrounding Estella’s past; when Pip inquires as to who her parents were and when she was adopted, he is told: “There has always been an Estella, since I have heard of a Miss Havisham.” To not know who one’s parents are, or to have been an orphan all one’s life, is undeniably a romantic concept, however unpleasant in reality-it paves the way for all sorts of eventualities, and automatically adds an element of mystery to a character, essential in a romance.

There are constituents of Great Expectations that are synonymous with a traditional romance. For example, many elements of the plot are fairly unrealistic and fantastical-the character of Miss Havisham, her eccentricities and her life, the way she obsesses over Estella and lives her life through her: “She hung upon Estella’s beauty, hung upon her words, hung upon her gestures, and sat mumbling her own trembling fingers while she looked at her, as though she were devouring the beautiful creature she had reared”. The ending of the story, a reconciliation and suggestion of love and friendship between Estella and Pip, is a most unlikely one-however, a true romance must have a happy ending.

The character of Miss Havisham is very romantic. The idea is whimsical, a bitter elderly woman who allowed her life to be shaped by one moment: “The day came, but not the bridegroom. He wrote her a letter………at which she afterwards stopped all the clocks. ………she has never since looked upon the light of day.” The notion of her ‘never seeing the light of day’ is effective, calling to mind memories of various characters in childhood fairytales. Although she appears a bitter, cold, callous woman, the fact that she cared so much as to let one event ruin her entire life shows us that she wasn’t always like this. She once loved, with all her heart, which is why she is such a tragic figure now. This sort of theme is typical to a romance.

Estella, as a character, is also a romantic figure-the idea of her is romantic, a beautiful young woman being brought up solely to break men’s hearts: “That girl’s hard and haughty and capricious to the last degree, and has been brought up by Miss Havisham to wreak revenge on all the male sex”. However, as you can see from the quote, her actual personality is not typical to that of a romantic heroine. Far from being soft and simpering, she is “a tartar”. She tells Pip she “cannot love”, states, “I have no heart… I have no softness there, no – sympathy – sentiment – nonsense”. Estella’s story, what Estella has become through the heartbreak of Miss Havisham’s life, is tragic.

Tragedy is synonymous with romance. A true romance is scarcely complete without some element of tragedy, and the story of Miss Havisham and Estella adds this to the novel. Chapter 38 is a pivotal part of the story, in which the true extent of what Estella has become is revealed. Her inability to feel human emotion, even for the woman who brought her up. The argument between Estella and Miss Havisham employs the use of much repetition: “So proud, so proud…” “Who taught me to be proud? Who praised me when I learned my lesson?” “So hard, so hard…” “Who taught me to be hard? Who praised me when I learned my lesson?” so as to give it an almost poetic, lyrical effect; a feature of a romance. Estella uses the analogy of daylight to attempt to explain her situation:

“If you [Miss Havisham] had taught her [Estella], from the dawn of her intelligence, with your utmost energy and might, that there was such a thing as daylight, but that it was made to be her enemy and destroyer, and she must always turn against it, for it had blighted you and would else blight her; – if you had done this, and then, for a purpose, had wanted her to take naturally to the daylight and she could not do it, you would have been disappointed and angry?”

This too is romantic, the idea of comparing love to daylight, and lack thereof to darkness.

However, there is other tragedy within the novel that is bald and real-life, the like of which would not be typical of a romance. For example, the story touches a lot on the idea of unhappy marriages (Joe and Mrs Joe, Estella and Drummle) and cheerless home life (Joe’s childhood: “My father, Pip, he were given to drink, and when he were overtook with drink, he hammered away at my mother, most onmerciful. It were a’most the only hammering he did, indeed, ‘xcepting at myself.”) The way in which Joe so simply describes what must have been painful for him contrasts starkly with Estella’s elaborate speeches and Miss Havisham’s dramatic poetry. Far from dramatising his past, Joe makes excuses for his abusive father-“But my father were that good in his hart that he couldn’t abear to be without us”. The difference in the language and the context is moving, yet not characteristic of a romance. The main argument against the statement that Great Expectations is a romance would be its realism.

While Miss Havisham is unrealistic, and the ending whimsical, there are many elements of Great Expectations which are realistic. Dickens often uses his novels as a means of social commentary. In Great Expectations he makes points about the judicial system especially, as well as class and social status, education, and childhood. A romance is usually not the best method of political observations, which defies the whole point of a romance.

The idea of improving oneself to win over an admired person is in itself a romantic idea-however, it could be argued that in the context of the novel, it is totally against romance. Pip turns his back on his roots, feeling ashamed of his family and his life: “I thought long after I laid me down, how common Estella would consider Joe, a mere blacksmith: how thick his boots, and how coarse his hands”… “I was ashamed of him.”. He is blinded by wealth and status, and chooses this above all that was good and true in his life, including Joe-this isn’t noble or chivalrous, this isn’t what a romantic hero would have done. The gentleman Pip becomes, greedy, selfish and scornful of his old way of life, is unpleasant to say the least; here Dickens is commenting on ‘gentlemen’ of the time. More typically to a romance would be the idea that all gentlemen were noble and chivalrous.

The main plot of Great Expectations doesn’t centre around love, or indeed relationships of any kind, and it isn’t fantastical. Dickens also uses comedy within the novel, which would not usually feature in a typical romance. Comedy is made of Mrs Joe’s death and funeral, whereas in a traditional romance this would have been romanticised and dramatised.

In conclusion, there are arguments both for and against the statement that Great Expectations is a romance. There are points within the novel that do support the idea of it being a romance; however, many aspects would not typically feature in a romance.

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