An English merchant living and working in Egypt, likely in the mummy export business, although he never specifies, writes the strange story of how he was subject as a child to not just one but three conspiracies. This is substance of Great Expectations. We are all victimized by one conspiracy, the one where so-called grown-ups manipulate our lives – force us to go to school, prevent us from doing whatever we want whenever we want – for secret reasons of their own. But Pip, the narrator, was by bad luck the target of two additional conspiracies that almost ruined him.
As a result of the conspiracies Pip is elevated in social class and has romantic troubles. He also becomes monstrously self-absorbed, but that is perhaps an ordinary result of adolescence. Eventually the conspiracies, all threes, collapse in on themselves. The usual childhood conspiracy is escaped by becoming an adult; the others end in rather more exciting ways. A thrilling boat chase! What is it with Victorian novelists and boat chases.
The narration of the central mysteries of the novels involves some of the most skillful sleight-of-hand moves I have ever read, invisible upon the first reading, obvious on the second. Pip never cheats. But of course he is writing from the distance of many years and knows how the story goes. He knows the solutions to the mysteries.
See, for example, the penultimate paragraph to Chapter 32. Young Pip has just visited fragrant Newgate Prison and is about to meet cold, beautiful Estella, the source of his romantic troubles. At this point, Pip believes that there is only one unusual conspiracy at work. Yet this is what the older Pip writes:
I consumed the whole time in thinking how strange it was that I should be encompassed by all this taint of prison and crime; that, in my childhood out on our lonely marshes on a winter evening, I should have first encountered it; that, it should have reappeared on two occasions, starting out like a stain that was faded but not gone; that, it should in this new way pervade my fortune and advancement.
Here Pip, and I suppose Dickens, is, a little past the halfway point, directly declaring the solution to the mystery plot but in a way that the first-time reader likely just nods along with Pip – “Yes, that is strange.” Now, Great Expectations is not actually a mystery novel, meaning that the solution to the mystery will be handed over to the first-time reader two-thirds of the way into the novel, just seven chapters later, since the mystery itself is not all that important.
Still, here we have just one reason that a reread of Great Expectations is so much fun. The magician is so skilled.
The last paragraph of that chapter is just one line. It remains mysterious, even on rereading:
What was the nameless shadow which again in that one instant had passed?
It is a mystery to the fictional author. It is the reason he is writing the book.