Pip is writing Great Expectations long after its events, maybe thirty-five years from the first scenes and twenty years from the end of Chapter 58. Some of this is explicit, some I am inferring.
Thus Pip’s ironic tone towards his own life story. He has achieved some critical distance.
So many problems are solved by this device. In many earlier novels, Dickens has trouble creating interesting, non-stereotypical heroines. He has trouble with heroes, too, but it takes him longer to figure out what to do with idealized, too-virtuous women.
But when Pip idealizes the perfect, wise Biddy, I am learning something not about the limitations of Charles Dickens but about the psychology of Pip. It makes sense for Pip to make Biddy perfect, or, in particular, to always make her sound like an adult even when she is nine years old. Maybe that is how Pip remembers her. Maybe that is how he wants to remember her.
Similarly for the idealized father-figure Joe, who admittedly also has a lot more personality; similarly for the idealized (quite differently idealized) Estella. Pip is telling the story his way. And see that quotation about Biddy and the black-currant leaf, just the kind of action that gives the illusion that the character has a life outside the book.
Dickens writes a character a certain way in the third person and it is a flaw. He writes her the exact same way in the first person and it is clever. Yes, that’s right.
A new problem is created: why is Pip such a good writer? Like the other Dickens first person narrators, David Copperfield and Bleak House’s Esther Summerson, Pip is not quite as good a writer as Charles Dickens, but he is still awfully good. Scott Bailey has been writing about the case of Bleak House, where he works on the difference between Esther and “Dickens.” This is the one place in Great Expectations where I really have to suspend my disbelief. But it is a familiar problem.
I do not remember third-person Dickens spending too much time with the dreams of his characters, but both Pip and Copperfield (also writing in distant retrospect) report their own. Here is fourteen year old Pip on the eve of leaving his family to be educated in London:
All night there were coaches in my broken sleep, going to wrong places instead of to London, and having in the traces, now dogs, now cats, now pigs, now men – never horses. Fantastic failures of journeys occupied me until the day dawned and the birds were singing. Then, I got up and partly dressed, and sat at the window to take a last look out, and in taking it fell asleep. (Ch. 19)
Pretty strange, like a Breughel painting. At the end of Chapter 31, Pip dreams that he has to “play Hamlet to Miss Havisham's Ghost, before twenty thousand people, without knowing twenty words of it.” There are some other examples. This might have made a good blog post.
Here is the core of another post I thought about writing: Great Expectations is a straightforward parody of the “benevolent patron” device that Dickens has leaned on since The Pickwick Papers (1836), where a jolly rich fellow swoops in and fixes whatever can be fixed at the novel’s end. Dickens has been undermining his own device since Bleak House, where he is more subtle about it, but by the time of Great Expectations the mine has apparently been dug and it is time to fill it with gunpowder and demolish the benevolent patron for good.
I guess I will wait to write that post after the next time I read Bleak House. For this one, the credit goes to Dickens, not Pip.