- Authoring Desire:Great Expectations and the Bildungsroman
In a letter to John Forster written in April 1861, Dickens described "the general turn and tone of the working out and winding up" of Great Expectations as "away from all such things as they conventionally go"(Letters 9: 403). Though he remained unclear as to his meaning, Dickens was in all probability alluding to the novel's decidedly unmatrimonial ending, which, as is well known, he was eventually convinced to rewrite. The rest is history, and Dickens's decision resulted in a critical controversy that echoes to this day. For most scholars, the revised ending is a "happy" one–and less satisfactory–presumably because it advances the promise of a reunion between Pip and Estella. Contra this interpretation, I maintain that the revised ending moves "away from all such things as they conventionally go" even more than the original one in that, by refusing to do away with Pip's desire for Estella, it strains the novel's relationship to the conventions of its genre. For while Great Expectations is often cited as one of the most representative Bildungsromane, the novel's structure and its ending show generic tensions worth exploring.
In Unbecoming Women (1993), Susan Fraiman identifies two imperatives of the Bildungsroman: mobility and individuality (126). Through its investment in Pip's moral and emotional growth, Great Expectations prioritizes these two imperatives while simultaneously questioning the possibility of their existence. It is not difficult to understand, for instance, how Pip's fantasies of social mobility become tainted with the criminal through the revelation of the truth behind his expectations. Less has been said, nevertheless, about the novel's stance vis-à-vis the imperative of individuality, especially as informed by Pip's obsession with Estella. Thus, this article will proceed in a twofold manner. First, in an attempt to provide a corrective to critical stances that often ignore the novel's romantic plot,1 it will scrutinize the role [End Page 347] that Estella and Miss Havisham play on Pip's Bildung, particularly on his desire to become a gentleman. Second, by turning to René Girard's model of triangular desire, it will argue that whereas Magwitch's criminal stain constitutes a destabilization of the values of the Bildungsroman, in particular that of mobility, it is ultimately Miss Havisham's aberrant authorship of Pip's desires that most deeply unsettles the novel's genetic composition. The article will conclude by contending that the revised ending is consistent with the novel's treatment of authorship and is therefore no less desirable than the original ending.
The novel works toward the establishment of an aberrant authorship from the very beginning. The scene in the churchyard is relevant because, among other things, it situates Pip's entrance into the linguistic realm in a space cohabited by the convict and the "taint" of crime that encompasses him. In this sense, Brooks is right to identify in Magwitch the "intrusion of an aberrant, contingent authorship" (130). Yet an analogous intrusion occurs upon Pip's arrival to Miss Havisham's house. Much as the earlier churchyard scene sets in motion the events necessary for the convict plot to unfold, Pip's first visit to Satis House the following December introduces him to, on the one hand, the world of wealth that he will mistakenly read as the foundation of his expectations, and, on the other, to Estella, without whom the energies released by the convict plot would have been wasted. More important, if the churchyard scene introduces Pip to the covert author of his expectations, this scene presents him with the just as covert author of his desires and fantasies of gentility, without which there would be no novel in the first place.
To better understand how desire, passionate and ambitious, constitutes the main operating force behind Great Expectations, one can look at Pip's ecstatic love declaration to Estella upon learning of her engagement to Bentley Drummle. This scene is illustrative of the functionality of desire in Pip's way of understanding the world around him. It comes when, devastated by the news of Magwitch's patronage, he shows up at Satis...