Charles Dickens – Great Expectations

Charles Dickens – Great Expectations

Follows the volatile fortunes of Pip, an orphan taken in by his abusive sister and her kind husband, a blacksmith. While still a child, he also spends time working in the household of a reclusive wealthy woman, and begins an apprenticeship to become a blacksmith. From these humble beginnings he is gifted a sizable fortune from an unknown benefactor. This places, ahem, great expectations on Pip to reject his lower class origins and become a gentleman.

Pip finds neither success nor happiness in his new life, and eventually falls into debtor’s prison. What struck me the most about this novel is how Pip redeems himself at the end: not by re-embracing stereotypical Dickensian poverty, but by pursuing the bourgeois commercial virtues.

Wealth, honestly earned, is a good thing, Dickens surprisingly argues. Pip joins a company started by one of his longtime friends, works hard and lives frugally, climbs the ladder and pays off his debts, and repairs burned bridges in a happy ending.

It reads a bit like a soap opera, in part because it originally appeared in serial form over the course of about a year, necessitating frequent cliffhangers and plot twists. Also, Dickens can be saccharine, and Pip comes off as a bit of a twit sometimes, as does Estella, his aloof love interest.

But contrary to Dickens’ popular anti-market reputation, he lauds Montesquieu-style doux commerce at the same time he disdains ancien régime noble wealth. Many people forget there is a difference between the two.

The values Dickens praises in Great Expectations are the same ones that made modern prosperity possible. This is a major thesis of economic historian Deirdre McCloskey’s work. The post-1800 Great Enrichment was possible because cultural values and the tone of conversation among regular, everyday people went from relatively bourgeois-hostile to relatively bourgeois-friendly.

Culture influences social institutions, which in turn influence economic processes. Dickens, probably unknowingly, was part of the process. Pro-bourgeois novels such as Great Expectations are one reason you can reasonably expect to see your 80th birthday.

Remember this the next time one of your more pedantic friends poo-poos novels, movies, and other pop culture. That stuff is important, not just enjoyable.

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