One of the most curious aspects of Great Expectations is the existence of alternative endings, whose relative merits and implications have been passionately debated by critics, ever since the unused ending was published as a footnote in Forster’s 1870 biography of Dickens. (The most detailed study of the case is ‘Putting an End to Great Expectations’, an essay by Edgar Rosenberg, published in the Norton Critical Edition.) Many writers have revised or tweaked details of the text after publication – notably Henry James – but it’s hard to think of another major novel in English which presents this delicate problem.
Dickens sent the last chapters of Great Expectations to the printer in the middle of June 1861. To relax after his efforts, he then went to stay with his wealthy aristocratic friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a hugely popular crime and historical novelist (no longer read today) whom he greatly admired and respected. Dickens decided – we don’t know precisely why - to show his host the last chapters of Great Expectations in proof.
What Bulwer-Lytton read in the final paragraphs was this: Pip hears that the oafish Bentley Drummle has died and Estella has quietly remarried a country doctor. One day, two years after his return from the east,
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.
Bulwer-Lytton advised Dickens against this downbeat ending – again, on what precise grounds we do not know for certain. ‘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. Upon the whole I think it is for the better’ was his explanation for the change in a letter to Wilkie Collins, and one can only assume that Bulwer-Lytton had told Dickens, in the manner of a Hollywood producer, that the public would crave a more positive outcome to the novel.
The substitution, almost always selected in modern editions, has Pip and the widowed Estella meeting in the grounds of Satis House.
“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 parting 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 benChapter
“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.
Just to complicate the matter, the final line also exists in two other versions. ‘I saw no shadow of another parting from her’ has been the standard reading in editions since 1862, presumably authorised by Dickens, but the first editions read ‘I saw the shadow of no parting from her’, while the manuscript reads ‘I saw the shadow of no parting from her, but one.’
The Piccadilly ending has an exquisitely understated and offhand melancholy to it, matched to the tough message that life does not neatly deliver one’s dreams of perfect happiness – all Great Expectations are doomed, even when, like Pip, you have learnt lessons the hard way. Dickens knew this first-hand: in 1855, when his marriage was collapsing, he had been overwhelmed with excitement on receiving out of the blue a letter from Maria Beadnell, the great passion of his youth, whom he had not seen for over twenty years. Their subsequent reunion was a disillusioning disappointment, inasmuch as Maria proved to be a plump and garrulous married matron devoid of her former allure. Estella was Pip’s dream as Maria was Dickens’ - a dream from which he had to wake.
The Satis House ending has usually been thought to imply that Pip and Estella walk off into the sunset together. But there is considerable and, I think, deliberate ambiguity to that last line. Although they leave holding hands, Estella has just stated that she wishes to remain alone (“and will continue friends apart”), while a couple of pages previously Pip has told Biddy that he intends to remain a bachelor. Of course, they may be protesting too much, as people do, and in truth mean the opposite. But the joining of hands could be amicable rather than romantic, and what Pip perhaps means in the final line is that their parting in the ruins of the past had been final, because any bitterness or misunderstanding had been emotionally resolved and they did not need to meet again – both can now go onwards into their own separate lives. Had Dickens wanted Pip and Estella to live together happily ever after, he could easily have done what he does at the ends of David Copperfield, Little Dorrit and Bleak House and told us as much.
The second ending shows Dickens trying to have it both ways. He didn’t want to betray Pip and Estella with the merry sound of wedding bells followed by the patter of tiny feet which Bulwer-Lytton probably advised, but entertainer that he was, always with one eye on the market, he must also have realised that his sentimental readership wouldn’t have felt satisfied by the bittersweet inconsequentiality of the meeting in Piccadilly. The first edition’s awkwardly phrased ‘I saw the shadow of no parting from her’ does indeed imply marriage, and the manuscript’s ‘I saw the shadow of no parting from her, but one’ is even more emphatic, implying their union unto death. Yet Dickens scratched both of those versions out, and his last thought was to authorise something which allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusion.
That said, I still feel the Piccadilly ending is truer to the book’s underlying mood (as does Edgar Rosenberg in the Norton Critical Edition essay). For those who demur, the case for the Satis House ending is forcefully made by Q D Leavis in Dickens the Novelist.