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The average Victorian serial novel spoke about the sort of lifestyle nineteenth-century readers wanted for themselves. Charles Dickens was a talented novelist known for skills in serial writing. It was he who made the serial popular again after its near death from the crisis of the English tax. A serial is an ongoing story told over time in monthly or weekly installments. Great Expectations, in serial form, is a novel that was printed in weekly installments in Dickens's magazine, All Year Round. In its analysis it has proven to live up to true serial form.
In the serial form of Great Expectations there are two chapters in every weekly installment and seven chapters in each monthly installment. The entire novel consists of nine monthly and thirty-six weekly installments. In most serials there is more than one plot line in each installment. In Great Expectations this holds true. In both the weekly and monthly installments the plot lines seem to shift from chapter to chapter. So, although there is only one plot line per chapter, there are multiple plot lines in every installment. The nineteenth-century serial was meant to be a continuing story with each and every installment, in the sense that the interruptions do not seem like drastic cutoffs from the story. Each installment seems to end one part of the story nicely while still keeping the reader guessing and waiting for the next installment to pick up where the last one left off. The pick-ups of installments are individual beginnings that follow the plot line of the previous installment. A pattern that seems to follow with each installment is that the ending of an installment closes a chapter, while the pick-up of a new installment begins a new chapter. A second pattern is that each installment does not include a complete plot line, such as beginning-climax-ending. The complete plot line seems to expand over the course of the entire novel.
Publishing played a major role with the serial novel. The popularization of the serial came about when the English tax was proposed. Newspapers and magazines used bigger sheets of paper to avoid the tax and used serials to fill up this extra space. Many serials of the nineteenth-century were not published alone but in newspapers and magazines. Included with them were advertisements and illustrations. In serial form Great Expectations included illustrations within the novel.
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Serials in the nineteenth-century mirrored the life of the middle class and gave them greater hopes for better things. During this time Great Expectations tried to stress the betterment of life that Victorian readers were striving for. From the beginning Pip has an ambition to be educated: "'I say, Pip, old chap!' cried Joe, 'what a scholar you are!' 'I should like to be' said Pip" (60; ch. 7). Education being important during Victorian times, Pip was stressing what people wanted. Gaining a sense of where Pip lived was as important as who Pip really was to the readers of the nineteenth century. They talked about and lived through the characters of the serial novels. The point of the serial was to entertain but also for people to get caught up and involved in the characters' lives. In order for readers to be involved there had to be plenty of descriptions of the characters and the places around them. In Great Expectations the descriptions kept the readers involved and talking. For instance, at the very beginning Pip tells us about his name and his family name: "My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip . . . I called myself Pip" (23; ch.1). Pip also describes for the reader the surroundings of his home: "Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea" (24; ch.1).
What made the readers even more involved and gave them more to talk about were the thoughts inside the characters' heads. Pip makes the reader feel for him and he makes the reader become a part of who he really is by letting them in his head, especially when he is leaving his sister and Joe for the first time:
I had never parted from him before, and what with my feelings and what with soapsuds, I could at first see no stars from the chaise-cart. But they twinkled out one by one, without throwing any light on the questions why on earth I was going to play at Miss Havisham's, and what on earth I was expected to play at. (67; ch.7)
From the very beginning we learn about Pip and follow his life developments and changes. From this we learn that Pip is a confused young boy, as he is at the beginning, but at the end Pip is a man who has learned about wealth, love, death, and true friendship: "We are friends," he tells Estella as they drift apart once again (439; ch.59). The type of growth that Pip made makes him a complete person, the type of person Victorian serial readers wanted to be.
As Great Expectations is a follow through of Pip's life, the content seems rather serious in nature. However, there are also some light comical scenes displayed to bring out the sense of humor in readers. Victorian serial readers did not read serials to become depressed; they wanted a lighter side to the life they were living. An example in Great Expectations is the performance of Hamlet, for despite its reference to Shakespeare, Mr. Wopsle's performance is anything but serious. Mr. Wopsle "appeared with his stocking disordered," and "he had tumbled the king off the kitchen table" all with "musical madness." So much had happened that even Pip thought "the whole thing was droll" (241-42; ch. 31).
Most serial critics thought the most important part of the serial was for the story to escalate from single character and plot line to multiple characters and plot lines, and Great Expectations did just this. We see not only the development of Pip and the way that he improved his self worth and lifestyle, but also we see the changes and the development of the people around him. From beginning to end it is easy for the reader to see Pip grow up and see what exactly he went through to get there.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Ed. Janice Carlisle. Boston: Bedford, 1996.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Ed. Edgar Rosenberg. New York: Norton, 1999.