NEW: A Serial Reading of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations

This seminar is full. A Newberry Library Adult Education Seminar (7 virtual sessions, September 14 to October 26, 2023). Registration begins August 23, 2023.

This seminar offers a full exploration of what G. B. Shaw called Dickens’s “most compactly perfect book.” We’ll work through Great Expectations—a haunting, gothic love story of innocence and experience—by reading it spoiler-free in consecutive parts, reflecting the novel’s original publication schedule. The seminar concludes with a session devoted to David Lean’s 1946 film adaptation of the novel. Seven sessions.

Materials List

1) Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics Edition. ISBN 978-0-141-43956-3. This edition is highly recommended for all participants, since referring to the same edition helps us locate specific passages easily during lecture and discussion. (Passages will also be indicated by chapter number, which are the same for any edition.)

– For the first session, please read only chapters 1-7 of the novel, but please do not read the introduction.

2) Great Expectations (1946 film, directed by David Lean). Streaming at the Criterion Channel, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV. Also available on DVD.

3) Other materials will be emailed throughout the seminar and made available online.

Seminar Description

In Great Expectations, Dickens had produced, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, his “most compactly perfect book.” Our seminar sessions will allow for a full exploration of this compact masterpiece, beginning with a consideration of the narrating voice, a beautifully controlled literary performance that reflects both innocence and experience. If Pip as a narrating character reflects autobiographical dimensions of Dickens—and he does—he is no David Copperfield. Participants will find Pip’s narration deeper, darker, more confessional, more frightened, and yet more assured than Dickens’s earlier hero. 

Great Expectations illuminates, in remarkable stages that are in turn violent, sensitive, and humorous, the transformations of identity provoked by lived experience. In this novel, Dickens explores the moral redemption of a very self-aware individual trying to unravel—or being incapable of unraveling—the tangles of desire, greed, and generosity that form the core of his personality.

While most of Dickens’s novels were originally serialized in monthly parts of their own, Great Expectations was published in 36 weekly installments as part of the magazine All the Year Round, from December 1860 to August of 1861. These “teaspoon” installments (as Dickens’s contemporary Thomas Carlyle called them), are comprised of short, even lyrical chapters. In this seminar, we will begin with two sessions that each focus on four of the original installments (40 and 50 pages, respectively), followed by the remainder of the sessions focusing on seven installments each (about 100 pages each). The purpose of this schedule is not to recreate a Victorian reader’s experience (although that issue does will up in discussions), but to help us focus on the details of the narrative from the very beginning of our experience with the novel.

After we have finished the novel, we’ll discuss one of the many films adaptation of Great Expectations. David Lean’s 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations is unique, I think, among film adaptations of Victorian novels. It’s true to the novel and yet so distinct a story in its own right that I believe participants could even watch it before getting to the novel. Moreover, we will already have seen how strikingly cinematic Dickens’s prose can be, particularly in Great Expectations. Discussing the film’s own features as cinema will reinforce our seminar’s appreciation of this quality in Dickens’s novel. Lean’s film will also highlight multiple interpretations of the story, particularly of the ending. And finally, discussing the film gives us all one more swing at considering the novel in retrospect.   

Sessions will also include short film clips from several of the other adaptations of the novel, as well as spoiler-free excerpts from critical materials and tips on what to look for in each installment. These tips include suggestions for noting particular plot points, character changes, and specific “must-read” sections, among other hints for active reading. PowerPoint slides will serve to highlight some of the historical, artistic, and literary references in the novel, offering a kind of “annotated novel” experience prompted by the text of Great Expectations itself. Slides will also highlight Newberry Library materials relevant to the novel, including images from the original chapters in All the Year Round as well as the 1861 three-volume first edition held in the Special Collections. 


Session One (9/14/23): Chapters 1-7

Session Two (9/21/23): Chapters 8-13

Session Three (9/28/23): Chapters 14-24

Session Four (10/5/23): Chapters 25-37

Session Five (10/12/23): Chapters 38-48

Session Six (10/19/23): Chapters 49-59 (end)

Session Seven (10/26/23): David Lean’s adaptation of Great Expectations (1946). Participants will be asked to watch this film any time ahead of the session.

Image: “Pip waits on Miss Havisham” (detail), by Marcus Stone, for an 1862 edition of Great Expectations. Newberry Library, Special Collections.