The three endings of “Great Expectations”

*** Please note: this post inevitably reveals some of the details of the plot of Great Expectations ***

Dickens wrote three endings to Great Expectations – the second and third endings identical except for the wording of the final sentence. The second version ends with “I could see the shadow of no parting from her”, which I think is confusing: if Pip feels that he and Estella will no more part, and describes the state of their never more parting as “a shadow”, then does that mean he regards their continuing to be be together as a bad thing? If so, why? If not, why does he use the word “shadow”, which signifies darkness? There is an ambiguity here, which, even if deliberate on Dickens’ part, does not seem to me to provide an adequate resolution to the novel, although I see that both the current Penguin Classics text and the Oxford World Classics text use this version of the ending.

In the third version, Dickens clarifies matters, and ends with “I saw no shadow of another parting from her”. This strikes me as a vast improvement: it removes the confusion, and is wonderfully poetic and moving. But this new ending is very different, both in content and in tone, from the ending of the first version, and, much though I love Dickens’ final thoughts on the matter, I’m not entirely sure that he was right in removing that first ending.

This first ending (which is printed as an appendix in both the Penguin and Oxford versions), like the other two, takes place many years after the main events narrated in the novel. Here, Pip is walking with his nephew, when Estella, passing by in a carriage, sees him, and stops to say hello. She is changed: after the failure of her first marriage, she has re-married, and appears to be leading a reasonably contented and uneventful life. She thinks Pip’s nephew is his son; Pip realises the error, but – and here is the touch of a master novelist – he doesn’t correct her: it no longer matters to him what Estella thinks of him. After a brief and polite exchange, they part, with neither of them saying anything of any consequence; and Pip is left reflecting that having herself suffered hurt, she now can imagine what he had been through.

This ending strikes me as Flaubertian. There is a great sadness to it: it somehow seems a terrible anti-climax that this, this, is all that it has come to in the end – a few inconsequential words exchanged in an inconsequential encounter – that, by the end, nothing has really been of much consequence. The later endings are more deeply lyrical and poetic, recalling the poetry of the novel’s opening chapters: in these later endings, once again, Pip meets Estella after many years, and once again, Estella is changed. But if the tragedy of the first ending is that the fire no longer burns, the tragedy of the later endings is that it hasn’t stopped burning: Pip may not see the shadow of another parting from her, but Estella, although softened from what she had been before, specifically says that they will continue to be friends, but “friends apart” (my italics). Once again, we feel, Pip is deluding himself; once again, he is doomed to be disappointed, to be hurt, to remain unfulfilled.

I am not sure whether I prefer the first or the last version of the final chapter. I find them equally moving in their different ways.  John Fowles’ novel The Magus was, we know, inspired by Great Expectations, and I can’t help wondering if his idea of providing alternative endings to The French Lieutenant’s Woman was inspired by the alternative endings of Dickens’ novel.

But I can’t help feeling that whatever Dickens’ own last thoughts on the matter, the first and the third endings (I remain unconvinced by the second) cast the events of the novel in different lights, and, rather like the alternative endings to Beethoven’s string quartet Op 130, both are equally valid. It perhaps demonstrates that there is really no such thing as inevitability, either in art or even, indeed, in life, and that the sense of inevitably we find in certain works is merely illusion, and nothing more.

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23 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting. Maybe it’s because I am a product of the IMDB generation where we know every iteration and ending of every single piece of media, but I would love to know more things like this about other great pieces of literature.

    Reply

    • Hello there, and welcome to the blog. I’m afraid that I am now in my 50s, and definitely not of the IMDB generation 🙂 – but, as you can see from this blog, I do love literature, and I do love talking about it – so please do have a look around, and feel free to comment!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  2. Posted by Maureen on May 8, 2011 at 8:45 am

    For my part, I find the first ending the most poignant … and realistic, in contrast to the undeniably steadfast Magwitch’s story. Despite enormous suffering and abject losses, this Dickens’ character was rewarded with his being allowed to live long enough to see that his feelings toward Pip were in fact based on more than illusions. His must be one of the saddest happy endings in literature.

    Reply

    • Hello Maureen,

      I suppose I should preface my comments here with a ***spoiler warning***, as it’s impossible to talk aboutthis novel without giving away details of the plot!

      I think that of all the novels I have read, I find Great Expectations the most moving. I am not a particularly lachrymose person by nature, but there’s something in this novel that resonates with me powerfully, and reduces me to tears at each re-reading. Magwitch’s death scene I find almost unbearably poignant, and I think there are several reasons for this. The first is that it is here we come to see the extent to which Pip has come to love Magwitch.

      When it was revealed that Magwitch was the source of Pip’s wealth, he had felt disgusted: indeed, the very physical presence of Magwitch had revolted him. The extreme revulsion Pip feels is psychologically coherent, and, I think, frighteningly believable: this is exactly how Pip would feel given the circumstances. We know it’s wrong, it’s very wrong: Magwitch’s money is not only legally earned, but it’s been honestly earned, with hard work. Why should Pip be revolted by this? After all, he been prepared to accept this money when he thought it had come from Miss Havisham (who, unlike Magwitch, certainly hadn’t worked for her wealth!) But, while recognising how morally in the wrong Pip is, we withhold our moral condemnation. Under the circumstances, how could Pip behave otherwise? That we can sympathise with Pip while recognising his culpability is an indication of the moral complexity and sophistication of this novel.

      The climax as far as the plot is concerned comes, I guess, with the eventual arrest and death of Magwitch, but the true climax had come earlier, and in a much more subtle manner. It had come when Pip had learned to love Magwitch – and it is in Magwitch’s death scene, where Pip comforts the dying man, that we can see clearly how far Pip has come in this direction – to what extent, in other words, he has grown morally. However, Dickens was sufficiently unsentimental to realise that moral redemption does not necessarily bring with it happiness, or even any sense of inner fulfilment. For Pip, morally redeemed or not, remains desperately unhappy and unfulfilled. He is perhaps doomed from the start to be so. But in his learning to love Magwitch, we come to the heart of this morally complex and troublesome work. The depiction of Pip’s development in this respect seems to me to be among the finest examples of the novelist’s art.

      When Pip tries to comfort the dying Magwitch, he tells him of his daughter he had lost, Estella: he tells of how she had found powerful friends, and is now wealthy, and beautiful. And he tells that he, Pip, loves her. But what makes that scene so heart-rending is what Pip cannot tell Magwitch, what he can barely tell even himself – that Estella has grown up an emotional cripple, and is as incapable as Pip himself is of ever finding fulfilment. If there is any scene in literature more poignant than this, I don’t know it.

      Reply

  3. Just dropped by to say that I started the new version of Great Expectations last night. I was particularly interested to see how Miss H was portrayed (well I thought).

    Reply

  4. Posted by patrick on May 14, 2012 at 9:18 am

    Himadri,
    Many thanks for your GE insights. I have been glad to pass them on to my (88 year old) father, who, indefatiguably, has just re-read GE following his disappointment at the ending of a recent tv adaptation. I was shocked when we disagreed on the phone about the shadow ending – I was worried that he had misremembered it and ‘another shadow’ was imprinted so firmly in my imagination – so it was a great relief to discover that there are two different shadow endings.
    Best of all is the Piccadilly ending: my wife and I were recently up in London, and made a point of walking everywhere, a la Dickens, so the scene is all the more vivid to me. It is very personal this ending: a boy with such vision, which he so desperately wanted to invest in an (idealized) woman, and then as a man, so cool and unforgiving, because of course, like all of us, his hurt matters more to him than the person in front of him. And the great thing is, Dickens knows this about himself (and of course about us.)
    Makes you wonder a bit about Wilkie Collins though, doesn’t it?
    Thanks, and all good wishes,
    Patrick

    Reply

  5. Hello Patrick,

    First of all, please accept my apologies for having taken so long to reply to you.

    Great Expectations does have an air about it of profound disillusion: everything that Dickens had previously believed in now appears suspect. In his earlier novels – and also, I think, in his very last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend – Dickens put his faith in the power of individual human goodness to overcome barriers; but here, although individual goodness still exists (Joe and Biddy, say, or Herbert Pocket) it is powerless. By the end, Pip redeems himself morally, but his moral redemption brings with it no joy, nor even any contentment. The barriers placed between humans are too much for humans to overcome, and they remain unfulfilled, and unhappy. (Presumably, Dickens must have thought he had gone too far here, for in his next novel, Our Mutual Friend, he essayed a return to his earlier optimism, but, touching though it is, I find the pathos of disillusion in Great Expectations more affecting.)

    I am always surprised when Dickens’ final version of the last chapter is seen as a “happy ending”. Surely, this ending leaves everything hanging in the air, with very strong hints that Pip is again mistaken, and that he will be hurt all over again?

    I find curious parallels between Great Expectations and Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale: I wrote a post about this here.

    All the best,
    Himadri

    PS Please pass on my regards to your father: he was perfectly correct in what he remembered!

    Reply

  6. Posted by jaz on December 3, 2012 at 8:57 pm

    I really like both endings, the first is sadly poetic and hints reality, but the third one is what you would want as a reader but yet sets nothing in stone. I really like both. It is perhaps not a happy ending but a happier ending

    Reply

    • Hello Jaz, I agree: I love both endings. The first ending is profoundly sad, I think, whereas the tone of the final ending is uncertain and melancholy. An upbeat ending simply wouldn’t have worked in this one of the saddest of all novels.

      Reply

  7. Posted by Mark on December 25, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    This has always been my favorite Dickens novels and Pip (along with Atticus Finch) has been my most inspiring literary character. Of the three endings, I was most familiar with the more common Satis House (“another parting”) ending.

    I’ve read that the manuscript to the Satis House (“no parting”) ending even added “but one” making it clear that Pip and Estella were to be reunited and bonded until death.

    When reading the Piccadilly ending, I feel that it is most consistent with the tone of the book. Having said that, it always leaves me vaguely unfulfilled. Perhaps, it is too final. I’m really not one for piling on saccharine at the end of a book or movie and particularly where it isn’t required. For example, I’ve always been of the opinion that “The Shawshank Redemption” should end with Morgan Freeman staring at the blue, blue Pacific Ocean without the need for an explicit reunion with his friend. Ah, but I digress.
    The Satis House ending as published is my favorite of the three for a number of reasons:
    It is more poetic than the terser Piccadilly ending.
    There is a certain satisfaction and symmetry that the events take place in the ruins of the old house.
    In many of his other novels , we do learn the happy conclusion that awaits the antagonists (e.g. David Copperfield) and, yet, in changing a single word “no” for “another”, Dickens denies Pip the same fate. It could be that the they will be reunited in a similar fashion to the “no parting” ending or that, having heard but not listened to Estella, Pip is still deluding himself into thinking they will be together. I tend to reject that particular notion.
    A further alternative is that Pip does understand Estella’s remarks when she says “friends apart” and that when he speaks of “another parting”, he means that he will never see her again and that the parting that they are about to undertake will be their final parting. They will both continue alone yet less broken than before. It can be seen to reflect the Piccadilly ending albeit in a less explicit and more lyrical manner.

    I think that, having invested so heavily in Pip, I could not bear to see him redeemed and so hopeless as in the original ending. The alternative ending leaves enough ambiguity that I can see-saw between Pip’s fates according to my mood whenever I reread the novel.

    Reply

    • Hello Mark, and welcome. I’m sorry I’ve been so late in replying, but I’ve been offline for some two weeks now.

      The interpretation you offer of the Satis House ending is certainly new to me, and I will need to think about it. This interpetetation does, however, add to rather than dispel the ambivalence of this particular ending. This ending is, I agree, the most poetic and lyrical.

      I think any reasonable ending to this saddest of all novels has to maintain that note of profound melancholy. I think, also, that any ending must leave behind it a sense of “being unfulfilled”, as you put it: there cannot possibly be fulfilment here. The very name of Miss Havishams house – Satis House – is painfully ironic.

      Reply

      • Posted by Mark on January 9, 2013 at 1:36 am

        I have read that the new UK film adaptation has its own (alternative) ending somewhere between the two book versions — assuming the “happy” ending at Satis House. I wonder if anyone has seen it and can comment?
        In all honesty, I don’t like to see major alterations to novels in film adaptations (and particularly not Dickens) although I can certainly see the need to remove some of the detail in order to make the movie a reasonable length. After seeing the last BBC version, I sent a note asking why they had not simply had a threesome between Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham if they wanted to make the story racier. I’m still waiting for a response.

      • Hello Mrk, I was thinking of writing a blog post on adaptations of literary works. I tend not to watch these: the modern style of film-making, either on the big or the small screen, is to have fast editing, and not allow any one scene to go on for more than a couple of minutes or so, and I really don’t think it’s possible to communicate anything too substantial with this approach.

        I didn’t watch the BBC Great Expectations last Christmas, although I gather it wasn’t too successful. I think the threesome you suggest would have been a splendid idea. I’d certainly have watched it! 🙂

  8. Posted by Tina on December 29, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    Well, I, with nothing else to do on a Sunday, watched the Public television mini series of GE. I immediately came up to my computer to look up the ending! I wanted to know what really happened! Yours is the resource I went to, and after reading the comments on GE, am still unfulfilled. Yes, they made a “happy ending ” on tv, It was very good! But to know that that is not what really happened makes me sad. Hmmm… I’ll have to be more careful on my “viewing”. Thanks for being there.
    Tina

    Reply

    • Hello Tina, and welcome.
      Is that mini-series you saw the recent BBC production? I didn’t see this one myself. But this is a novel I love so much that no adaptatin I have seen, not even the best ones, can match the experience of reading it.
      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  9. BBC Radio 3’s Sunday Feature just now discussed the endings. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/b06twqbl

    It came to the conclusion that in taking on board Bulwer-Lytton’s suggestion about happying up the ending was a rare example of Dickens misfiring, which isn’t everyone’s opinion. The programme explains it in the context of Dickens’s marriage breakdown and his ‘marriage’ to the public. In trying to please them he went against his instincts, those very instincts that make him so great.

    Reply

    • Hello, and thanks for the link: I’ll have a listen to it tonight.

      I know that many think that Dickens’ later ending was a “cop out”, but I have never gone along with that. For one thing, I don’t think it’s a “happy ending”: Dickens was too fine a novelist to be talked into that. What he gives us, I think, is an uncertain ending, with Pip and Estella’s futures still hanging in the air, aand I find it wonderfully sad and poetic.

      Incidentally, John Fowles has stated in public that the ending of The Magus was inspired by Dickens’ revised ending.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

      • Posted by Martin on September 12, 2016 at 3:17 pm

        Just a note to suggest that maybe the “second” ending–“I saw the shadow of no parting from her.”–is as good as any. I have the Penguin version which uses the second ending and which includes George Bernard Shaw’s criticism of GE. Interestingly GBS was extremely disappointed by the first and third endings “Dickens wrote two endings and made a mess of both.” GBS had the following to say about the third ending:

        “Unfortunately, what Bulwer wanted was what is called a happy ending…and Dickens, though he could not bring himself to be so explicit in sentimental falsehood, did, at the end of the very last line, allow himself to say that there was ‘no shadow of parting’ (3rd ending). If Pip had said ‘Since that parting I have been able to think of her without the old unhappiness; but I have never tried to see her again and I know I never shall’ he would have been left with at least the prospect of a bearable life. But the notion that he could ever be happy with Estella: indeed that anyone could ever have been happy with Estella, is positively unpleasant….Dickens put nearly all his thought into it (GE). It is too serious a book to be trivially happy one. Its beginning is unhappy; its middle is unhappy; and the conventional happy ending is an outrage on it.”

        Like some of the other commenters here, I think a melancholy ending is more plausible, especially in terms of any Pip-Estella relationship. “I saw the shadow of no parting from her” to me is a wonderful internal dialogue where Pip recognizes that even though he and Estella are both technically “free” that he could never make her happy, and she would surely return him to misery after Magwitch, Biddy, and Joe have done so much to liberate him.

      • Hello Martin,
        Thank you very much for your comment, and apologies for the late reply.

        I had not known on GBS’ criticism. Some of Shaw’s criticism really is very perceptive (e.g. his reviews of Ibsen, as collected in “Our Theatre of the 90s”); at other times, he could be almost wilfully obtuse (as in “The Quintessence of Ibsenism”, where, with characteristic egomania, he tries to present Ibsen as, effectively, a forerunner to himself). With Shaw, I am never quite certain when he is being serious, and when he is putting on a pose.

        In the criticism of GE that you quote, I do like the bit where GBS says: “[Dickens] could not bring himself to be so explicit in sentimental falsehood”. I also like Shaw’s observation that “it is too serious a book to be trivially happy one. Its beginning is unhappy; its middle is unhappy; and the conventional happy ending is an outrage on it.”

        But is there really, in the third ending, a “notion that [Pip] could ever be happy with Estella”? Coming so soon after Estella’s declaration that they will remain friends apart, it seems to me that Dickens is more than implying that Pip is deluding himself all over again. That Estella being who she is, and Pip being who he is, they are both fated to suffer.

        In the second ending, Pip seems aware that he will continue to suffer; in the third, he seems to be deluding himself again. I think I have come round more to the second ending since writing the post above (I wrote it a few years ago), but I can’t help feeling that GBS mischaracterises the third.

        My best wishes,
        Himadri

      • Posted by Martin on September 29, 2016 at 11:38 am

        Thanks for your response Himadri and thanks for setting up this blog. GE deserves a conversation like this.

  10. Posted by Heather Coover on October 28, 2016 at 11:33 pm

    I thought that when Pip said “I saw no shadow of another parting from her,” he meant that only his own shadow followed him when he left the site of Statis House and that he had only imagined seeing Estella and that perhaps Estella had passed away. Did anyone else interpret it that way?

    Reply

  11. GE has been one of my favorite books since I first read it in hs, so you can all imagine my surprise when I read somewhere that the book has a happy ending. I immediately had to look it up to see if I had maybe interpreted it wrong and found out about the 3 endings. But here’s the thing: I took the book off the shelf to make sure, and yes the version I’ve read is the third one. I always thought the ending was so sad but apparently it’s a happy one! lol It’s even weirder because I read the book due to my love of one of the movie adaptations, which has a happy ending, and I remember clearly reading the book and being shocked they changed that in the movie.
    Maybe I’ve interpreted it wrong all along, but for me it was clear that they had not ended up together, even more because of Estella saying they would remain “friends apart”, and that Pip saying he “saw no shadow of another parting from her” was just Pip being Pip.
    Also, for what’s worth, the first version (which I have yet to read) sounds much more like the book, even if it’s a little less poetic.
    Anyways, loved the post, and will for sure read more of this blog.

    Reply

    • Hello Carla, I agree fully that the 3rd (and last) ending is not, as is often claimed, a “happy ending”. It’s an ambiguous ending, and deliberately so: it is all left hanging in the air. And, as you rightly say, the indications are not promising for the future. Pip thinks they won’t part again, but Pip had misjudged everything: how can we trust his judgement here, especially when Estella insists that they will remain “friends apart”? Given the rest of the novel, a happy ending would be completely out of place.

      I always find the happy ending in David Lean’s film adaptation to be jarring. But that’s the sort of ending Dickens would have given us if had wanted a “happy ending”. Fortunately, Dickens doesn’t do that.

      Looking around the net, much that is written on literature seems to me simplistic and reductive. “Great Expectations” – a favourite of mine also – depicts complex and profound emotions. Describing that beautifully judged ambivalence of the final pages as a “happy ending” does indeed strike me as grossly reductive.

      Reply

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