Roberta Writes – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: The mystery of two endings

Did you know that Charles Dickens re-wrote the ending of Great Expectations?

He made this change after he’d submitted the final chapters to the printers in June 1861. He was apparently persuaded to make the change by a close friend who felt he should end the book in a way that left the reader hopeful that Pip and Estella might get together. It is recorded that Dickens was reluctant to make this change but was eventually won around to the idea of a more conventional ending that he had originally written.

The initial ending depicts Pip accidentally meeting Estella on the streets of London. Estella has lost her first abusive husband to death, but has remarried. Pip recounts this chance meeting as a once-off and there is not expectation by the reader that the two will ever get together. Pip does express a sense of satisfaction and peace that time has softened Estella and made her kinder.

The published ending depicts Pip accidentally discovering Estella in the abandoned garden of Satis house (Miss Havisham’s house that burned down) when he returns to visit Joe and Biddy after many years abroad. Estella has been widowed after an unhappy life with her abusive husband. In the final lines of the novel, Pip comments ambiguously that he “saw the shadow of no parting from her.”

Harry Furniss
1910
13.7 cm by 8.9 cm (5 ⅜ by 3 ½ inches), framed

“I saw no shadow of another parting from her.” — p. 461.
Dickens’s Great Expectations, Library Edition, facing p. 456.
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
https://victorianweb.org/art/illustration/furniss/26.html

This ending leaves the reader with the impression that Pip and Estella might finally be together but the nature of Dickens’ writing and the use of the word shadow hints at possible mists to come.

The misty marshes near Pip’s childhood home in Kent is an important setting in this book and is used as an instrument by Dickens to symbolize danger and uncertainty. Pip initially meets Magwitch the convict in the graveyard on the marshes on a misty evening and that has significant implications for his future. The search for the convicts by the police also happens in the mist as does Orlick’s kidnapping of Pip. The day Pip travels to London after receiving news of his great expectations is also depicted as being misty, as is the night when Magwitch arrives at his door later in the book.

Old Orlick means murder – Picture credit: https://www.charlesdickenspage.com/illustrations-great-expectations.html. This is one of 21 etchings by Frederick William Pailthorpe (1838-1914) are from the Robson & Kerslake edition from 1885.

The hint at shadows and mist in the closing paragraphs with Estella in the garden at Satis house could thus easily hint at further turmoil to come for Pip.

From another perspective, by the end of the novel, the reader is aware that Pip misreads situations and makes incorrect assumptions so the idea that this could be just another wistful idea or ‘expectation’ is not fully expelled.

Personally, I felt that the original ending would have been better and would have given Pip a real chance to move on with his life and find someone better and nicer than Estella. I did not like her even if she was a product of Miss Havisham’s upbringing.

What do you think? Which ending do you think is better for this novel? Do you think Pip and Estella get together based on your reading of the original ending?

45 thoughts on “Roberta Writes – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: The mystery of two endings

  1. I’ve met women like Estella before. So glad I never got involved too deep with them!
    As long as Pip doesn’t get together with her he’s far better off single waiting for someone else…..anyone else actually!

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  2. Be careful what you wish for may be the lesson of this story. I like the ending he chose as it leaves the reader thinking and has created many discussions over the years, such as this one.

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  3. Excellent post, Robbie! Both “Great Expectations” endings have their merits, but I like the original one better. Seems more realistic and mature, albeit not as “happy.” I’ve read that Nathaniel Hawthorne also reluctantly made the ending of “The House of the Seven Gables” more upbeat after some pressure.

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  4. Robbie, the dual ending seems familiar, but I had forgotten about it. Although I know Dickens got push-back for a lot of what he wrote, and made changes to keep people happy (or at least compromise).
    I’m not ashamed to admit that I need a happy ending. Life is full of more than enough sadness. I find nothing less intellectual or less valuable in wanting to be entertained. Although with this story, neither ending felt genuinely happy to me. Hugs on the wing.

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  5. Interesting story about the ending, Roberta. I see valid points on both, and both certainly at least go with the trend that some Dickens’ scholars that after David Copperfield, none of Dickens’s novels had an actual happy ending.

    I feel torn. On the one hand, readers do need hope and happiness, but I do feel it’s better if characters move beyond toxic relationships, and certainly happiness should not go against logic.

    Maybe the original ending would’ve indeed been better. I wonder if readers would’ve questioned Dickens whether they got together (like Gone with the Wind fans did to Margaret Mitchell).

    Fun fact: Moby Dick had a different ending, too, where they killed the whale (but I don’t know whether Melville or the publishers changed it so that the whale got away).

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  6. Hi Andrew, thank you for joining this conversation and expressing your thoughts on this. Often relationships don’t work out and if Pip got together with Estella I don’t think he would be happy. The suggestions of the book were than Pip gained a realisation of what he had lost by effectively turning his back on Joe and Biddy. He would be doing that again if he married Estella as she though a certain way and softening would not necessarily have changed that aspect of her thinking. I think it is great that both endings are available for us to consider and effectively choose our own preferred ending. I have not read Moby Dick but the death of the whale would have probably been more realistic even if it would have been less popular with romantic readers.

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  7. HI Teagan, if you studied this book at any time I’m sure the two endings would have come up. I never studied this one at school, they always gave us the obscure titles like Hard Times. I think most people do like happy endings and that is why he changed it into something a little more in line with a happy ending. I suppose that when academics discuss the merits of this change the do it from a purely literary and academic point of view and not from the point of view of an author who did need to keep his readers happy at the time.

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  8. HI Jan, lovely to see you. I suppose Dickens was inferring that Estella too had changed and learned from her own unhappy life. That being said, I also prefer the original ending from a scholarly perspective. It fits the book better.

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  9. I found your post to be very interesting, one that will certainly attract many comments, I’m of the mind–the writer knows best, and as such I will leave Mr. Dickens in the authoritative position he occupies.

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  10. Hi Jacqui, as do most people which is exactly why Dickens made this change. He was writing to please readers not future literature critics. It’s quite funny how we go back to classics and pick them apart really. We forget that writers write books to be read by readers and do generally keep their readers needs in mind.

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  11. HI Wayne, that is my exact feeling. I liked Pip and though he should find himself a nicer woman than Estella. That is why I prefer the original ending. I can’t help putting my own sons into his shoes … PS I’ve also know women like this and I avoid them like the plague. They aren’t nice to their own gender either.

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  12. Yes, you are right about that. You get this with many people. I did feel sorry for Estella, she had a horrible childhood with Miss Havisham, but I still didn’t like her. Not all people would have moulded as she did.

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  13. HI Danny, it is lovely to see you. I think about you often. I am hoping your book set in southern Africa is progressing. I suppose you could say he know best with the original ending or you could say he knew enough to change the ending. I liked both and enjoy having both to consider.

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  14. I didn’t know that Dickens had written two ending of Great expectations, Roberta, and I have to admit that I do not like these to good to be true endings. I thank you very much for having me made aware of this fact, which provoked some thoughts!

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  15. Hi Martina, it is lovely to see you. I am glad you enjoyed this post and learned about the original ending. I prefer it for many reasons but I do understand that a writer wants to please his readership and sell his stories.

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  16. I’m late to this post as I have been attending the wedding of my niece for the past few days and have been in and out of Wi-Fi (we were at a ranch). Another excellent post, Robbie. I had been looking forward to hearing the backstory of the two endings. It seems that, even in Dickens time, readers wanted happy endings. Arguably, Dickens original ending was more in keeping with the story, but that is only my opinion.

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  17. Hi Rebecca, your opinion on the original ending is shared by many academics. Of course, none of us were trying to sell this book back in the day 😊. Admittedly, I would not have changed my ending in his shoes. I hope you had a lovely time at the wedding 🌷

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  18. I’ve been trying to gear up to read this book because although I have read some of Dickens, this wasn’t one of them. In the meantime, I’m still stuck in history. I think I might be going backwards to the Civil War, a period which in many ways mirrors the world of now.

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  19. Hi Marilyn, Great Expectations is a great read and I really enjoyed it. WRT reading about the American Civil War, I too see some strange parallels which are rather frightening. I don’t know that much about that period of history but I have read The Red Badge of Courage and, of course, Gone with the Wind.

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  20. Hi Robbie – this is very interesting. I have only read the abridged version and that was a long time ago. I should definitely go back and read the full version. I think you give a good reason for the original ending.

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