Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theatre stages "Great Expectations," based on one of Dickens' "orphan novels" that says a great deal about Dickens himself — about youth, aspiration and one's longed-for and unmet expectations of life.

Share story

“Now, I return to this young fellow. And the communication I have got to make is, that he has great expectations.” — Charles Dickens, “Great Expectations”

In 1860, Charles Dickens sat down at his desk to write the 13th of his 14 novels.

It was about an orphan protagonist, one Pip (given name: Philip Pirrip), who, while making his way in the world, finds his moral compass and proper station in life via many colorful, trying and instructive adventures.

Victorian England could not get enough of such tales. And when woven with the narrative amplitude, rich detail, social awareness and pure entertainment value that Dickens uniquely supplied, neither can we.

Book-It Repertory Theatre is debuting a new dramatization of “Great Expectations” this week, a nine-actor abridgment adapted by Lucinda Stroud and staged by Book-It veteran Kevin McKeon. In honor of the Dickens Centenary, in 2012, Mike Newell (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”) is planning a new film based on the novel.

“Great Expectations” is no stranger to stage and screen. It’s the source of many plays and more than a dozen films — most famously, a 1946 classic nominated for a best-picture Academy Award. Pip has even turned up (by name at least) as a character on TV’s “South Park.”

So what about this bildungsroman makes it a critical favorite and distinguishes it from other Dickens orphan epics before it (“David Copperfield,” “Oliver Twist”)?

Some scholars claim that “Great Expectations” is perhaps Dickens’ most autobiographical yarn — not literally, but intrinsically. According to American writer and teacher Frazier Russell, the novel was “Dickens’ most psychologically acute self-portrait,” and Pip “can be viewed as a kind of excavation for its author, a cathartic attempt to come to terms with the painful facts of his childhood.”

His youth was indeed scarred and haunting. Dickens’ father, a clerk, was a poor provider. He fell so far in arrears that his large family wound up in Marshalsea, an English debtors’ prison (and the setting for Dickens’ “Little Dorritt”).

But the gifted 12-year-old Charles did not join them. To rustle up cash, his parents placed him in a menial job at the dismal Warren’s Shoe Blacking Factory. There he endured four months of miserable drudgery before a small inheritance allowed his family to pay their debt and leave prison.

Charles rejoined them, and attended school. But at 14, he again was forced into the role of breadwinner — this time as a lawyer’s office boy. Such experiences deeply affected Dickens’ character, his views as a social reformer and his writing.

In “Great Expectations,” young Pip is raised by an unloving older sister, bedeviled by an escaped convict, put to work early as a blacksmith’s apprentice and snubbed by Estella, the alluring young ward of a rich and mysterious recluse, Miss Havisham.

The novel mirrors Dickens’ concern for the suffering and exploitation of Victorian youth, and his anger over Britain’s unjust prison and legal systems. But as the adult Pip realizes his ambition to become a moneyed gentleman, the author also takes a critical view of upward mobility — exploring what it means to be a true gentleman, not merely an affluent poseur.

By dint of literary talent and relentless work, Dickens had himself risen from poverty to wealth and literary stardom. But he understood the limits of fame and fortune. His marriage was unfulfilling, and in 1859 he risked scandal to separate from wife Catherine (the mother of his 10 children).

“Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other, and there is no help for it,” he wrote a friend. “It is not only that she makes me uneasy and unhappy, but that I make her so too — and much more so.”

By then he’d fallen in love with, and anguished over, actress Ellen Ternan — who became his constant companion until his death in 1870.

Pip’s specific circumstances were different. But Dickens clearly shared some of his beloved character’s moral and emotional turmoil, and upended expectations of life. And in “Great Expectations,” at the height of his craft, he distilled them into a novel that stands among his best.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com