Great Expectations is a Romantic Comedy

Could Great Expectations by Charles Dickens be considered a romantic comedy? There are many people who have interpreted the novel as a romance novel, but it is never clearly defined to be one. If we were to follow some of the rules of a romantic comedy, Great Expectations could be considered one. When deciding the rules of a romantic comedy, I look to the seminal Nora Ephron classic When Harry Met Sally. The rules based off of that film are as follows; an invested interest in the two main characters’ romantic plot line, either a near break up or a complete separation when they are either still friends or in the relationship, and a grand gesture.

Readers are drawn into Pip’s story almost immediately. The first moment we meet our main character, he is in a graveyard describing how he has learned his family’s history through the gravestones of his deceased parents and siblings in stating that he learns his family’s “name on authority of [my father’s] tombstone…” (Dickens 3). This part of the novel does two things in favor of Great Expectations being a romantic comedy. First, it adds an air of mystery and intrigue surrounding Pip. Why does he spend so much time in a graveyard? What happened to the rest of his family? These are questions that we never get answered, but it is not necessary for them to be. Their only job is to draw the reader in. Second, it’s comedic. What child learns his family history from gravestones? It gives us as readers something to laugh at. As for Estella, she is more of a mystery. We have no clue who her family is and how she came to live with the eccentric Miss. Havisham until much later in the novel. We as readers are curious as to how the relationship with Pip and Estella will play out and are intrigued to learn more about Estella’s unknown past and Pip’s unknown benefactor. 

The separation is more of a natural separation compared to most romantic comedies. In When Harry Met Sally, the main characters end up sleeping together and get into a verbal argument that albeit gets physical when Harry receives the most deserved slap in human history, and their relationship splits apart. In Great Expectations, Pip receives a large sum of money from a mysterious benefactor and moves to London, away from Estella, thus creating their big separation. The break in time Pip and Estella spend together is a moment that is in most romantic comedies where romantic interest is fostered in either both of the love interests, or is beginning to be reciprocated by the second love interest. 

The last major rule of a classic romantic comedy is the big romantic gesture at the end of the film or novel. In When Harry Met Sally, the gesture involves Harry running across the city of New York on New Year’s Eve to tell Sally he loves her just in time for the new year. For Pip and Estella’s big romantic climax, it is a much more subtle gesture. Pip finds Estella near the now destroyed Satis House. As they talk, they catch each other up on their lives and leave with Pip seeing “no shadow of another parting from her” (483). This gesture is small but still a heartfelt one and provides us with a happy ending to the novel.

Great Expectations is a classic novel filled with love, heartbreak, passion, and Dickens’ wacky commentary — all characteristics of a rom com. With an ending that is left open to interpretation, people have classified the novel in multiple different ways. I thoroughly believe that it is a romantic comedy. The novel hits the three big marks of a romance novel; two main love interests that draw the readers in, a split or separation between those two characters, and a big romantic gesture. Add in Dickens’ comedy, the novel becomes an early version of a romantic comedy.

*Attached are the two aforementioned scenes for context*

The iconic slap/big breakup from When Harry Met Sally

The big gesture from When Harry Met Sally

4 thoughts on “Great Expectations is a Romantic Comedy”

  1. I really like your interpretation of our novel. I want to add that the reason people wouldn’t automatically peg this as a rom com (next to how old it is) is because of the inclusion of gothic elements. The graveyards, the eerie characters, etc can overshadow the comedy and the romance. I also think that the inheritance/gentleman plot takes precedence over any romance. If anything, the romance is only important because it is weaponized against Pip by Miss Havisham and provides a happy ending in the last chapter. Having said this, I do not necessarily disagree with your categorization of the book.

    1. Hi Milligan, I understand your point completely, but I do not necessarily agree that the gothic elements overshadow the comedy and the romance. Edward Scissorhands is a romance movie that is filled to the brim with gothic elements. While the romance is definitely more in the forefront in that film compared to Great Expectations, I think the gothic elements of both add to the romantic intrigue of the novel, though I do completely understand your point.

  2. I really like this interpretation of Pip and Estella’s relationship! I was also particularly interested in how their romantic relationship could be defined, and romantic comedy is not what I thought of initially, but your breakdown of the three main points of a romantic comedy made me think about it. I also think that Pip’s questioning of the rationality of his feelings for Estella contributes to the romantic comedy narrative. In the passages when Biddy and Pip go for a walk, Pip questions why he had been so enamored with Estella, who had treated him so rudely, when he could have been in love with Biddy, who treats him with far more kindness. This question of Pip’s is resolved, as you stated, by Estella and Pip’s final conversation at the end of the novel, where she apologizes to him.

  3. I love this fun interpretation of Great Expectations. In my Psych of Women and Gender class, we’re talking about how romantic comedies inform the typical romantic script which can be inaccurate and harmful in creating false perceptions. In the vein of your argument, I think Estella can be viewed as the archetypal “cool girl” character, the one without feelings or attachments (a man’s “dream”). This new interpretation I think adds to the modern understanding of why Pip is so attracted to Estella, despite her aloofness.

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