*** 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.