Dickens: 2nd Thoughts & Great Expectations cover

Dickens: 2nd Thoughts & Great Expectations

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Most of us wish we had the benefit of a do-over at some point in our lives. Perhaps something we regretted saying, or an act left undone. Second thoughts can be tantalizing, and even our greatest novelists were not immune from doubt.
In fact, the version most Dickens fans are familiar with in modern-day versions of Great Expectations isn’t the original.
Warning: This NoteStream includes spoilers!

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Dickens: 2nd Thoughts & Great Expectations

Most of us wish we had the benefit of a do-over at some point in our lives.

Perhaps it was something we said to our spouse or boss; it may be the time we sent F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon back to Amazon complaining it was missing some pages at the end.

But enough about me. Even our greatest novelists were not immune from doubt.

For months, many of you have shared the journey through Great Expectations with us at NoteStream with the assumption, no doubt, that Charles Dickens knew where he was heading with the plot even if Pip, Estella and co were left in the dark from page to page.

Photo by George Herbert Watkins, 1858

Yes, of course he was making it up as he went along. Indeed, Dickens was quite the populist in his day, molding the latest installments of his serialized novel in such a way as to entice the public into reading on.

Dallas didn’t come up with the cliffhanger concept, you know.

What may come as a surprise to some is that Dickens wasn’t too proud to scribble down an alternative, reader-friendly version of his greatest novel. Much as Hollywood directors will be persuaded by studio bigwigs to swap their artsy, gloomily realistic closing of their movies for a more optimistic happy ending, Dickens felt the pressure to, well, jolly up his final couple of paragraphs.

In fact, the version most Dickens fans are familiar with in modern-day versions of Great Expectations isn’t the original.

His replacement, offering hope for Pip and Estella and even raising the possibility that they lived happily ever after (although I doubt that!) was, he thought, an improvement. But he didn’t sound altogether convinced. You could even argue, if you dare, that the revised ending cheapens the novel. Just a touch.

It wasn’t as drastic as, say, Daniel Craig’s pre-Bond film Layer Cake (2004), in which the two possible endings offered the opportunity of life or death for the principal character, but Dickens’ late switch out did, for some at least, challenge the central theme that life didn’t always live up to expectations. We get to see that Pip gets about as much as he deserves and not a jot more until you get to the revised final few paragraphs when he (maybe) gets Estella.

Charles Dickens in his study at Gadshill / S. Hollyer. c1875

Dickens was such a master of language that he was able to hedge his bets. Even his “happy ending” was melancholic and open to interpretation.

He decided to make the change after showing the proof of his final chapters to his aristocratic friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a hugely popular crime and novelist of the time. We don’t know how the conversation went but presumably Bulwer-Lytton took the role of the Hollywood studio chief and Dickens was the creative talent hungry for commercial acclaim.

‘Bulwer was so very anxious that I should alter the end… and stated his reasons so well, that I have resumed the wheel, and taken another turn at it,” wrote Dickens later.

He added: “I have put in as pretty a piece of writing as I could, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration. Upon the whole I think it is for the better.”

Having submitted the original in the summer of 1861, Dickens took his friend’s advice and changed the book’s outcome.

Readers of the novel will have their own opinions on the merits of the two versions. If you’ve been with NoteStream on the journey, you’ve certainly earned the right to choose.

The Original Ending

“I was in England again–in London, and walking along Piccadilly with Little Pip–when a servant came running after me to ask would I step back to a lady in a carriage who wished to speak to me. It was a little pony carriage, which the lady was driving; and the lady and I looked sadly enough on one another.

‘I am greatly changed, I know, but I thought you would like to shake hands with Estella too, Pip. Lift up that pretty child and let me kiss it!’ (She supposed the child, I think, to be my child.)

I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.”

The Revised Ending (standard since 1862)

“‘I little thought,’ said Estella, ‘that I should take leave of you in taking leave of this spot. I am very glad to do so.’

‘Glad to part again, Estella? To me, parting is a painful thing. To me, the remembrance of our last meeting has been ever mournful and painful.’

‘But you said to me,’ returned Estella, very earnestly, ‘”God bless you, God forgive you!’”And if you could say that to me then, you will not hesitate to say that to me now–now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but–I hope–into a better shape. Be as considerate and good to me as you were, and tell me we are friends.’

‘We are friends,’ said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench.

‘And will continue friends apart,’ said Estella.

I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

Or perhaps Pip woke up and discovered it had all been a dream and he was sitting with his head in his hands and a fierce hangover in the corner nook at the Blue Boar!

Let us know what you think!

Do you prefer Dicken's revised ending?