As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones…

Pip at gravestone, from David Lean’s 1946 film adaptation of Great Expectations

Dickens’ Great Expectations opens with a poignant consideration of the limits of a medium, then shows us how a keen imagination can vault over these bounds. Young Pip has already a sense that the images he’s produced are “unreasonably derived” from these letterforms, but his act of creative misinterpretation allows him, in his childish and charming way, to mitigate the absolute loss of his parents. The “engraved” names appear to him as imprints of his parent’s bodies upon the stone: Pip explains that the “shape of the letters on my father’s” stone “gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair.” From his mother’s inscription, he “drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly.”

Reading fiction is an incantatory act; words summon up and animate images. The striking difference in Pip’s vision, however, is the stubborn opacity of letters. Typically, literacy demands a kind of graphic blindness. It seems we have to peer through these forms to see what they denote.

Lucienne Roberts, co-founder of the London-based publishing house Graphic Design&, wonders to what extent the standardized graphic design of the novel is to blame for this blindness to form:

Many people read novels, but the influence of the typesetting and layout is arguably invisible to most. This is in part because the conventions of classical book typography, albeit often in rather diluted or bastardized form, have remained unchanged for so long.

GraphicDesign& has asked 70 international graphic designers to experiment with the type and layout of Great Expectations’ opening page. The results, collected in Page 1: Great Expectations, range from comical, to polemical, to nearly indecipherable:

Image Some designers have fleshed out the contexts of the text’s production and publication, one peeling back the print to reconstruct the page as a manuscript,


and another updating the text in tabloid style, with an eye towards the serialized publication of Great Expectations in Dickens’ periodical, All the Year Round: ImageOthers have filtered the text through the channels of 21st-century media, taking their cues from Pip’s own photographic fantasy. I just ordered a copy of the book yesterday, and am looking forward to having it in my hands. In the meantime, the publisher’s website has posted a number of pages that are well worth checking out.

Great Expectations’ inaugural scene serves as a fitting preface to Pip’s autobiography, as his maturation is essentially dependent on his literacy. To move beyond his story’s opening page, Pip has to learn to read properly, to figure out what writing can and cannot do. If Pip finds he must put away childish things and stop toying with words, I’m happy to see Graphic Design& has deferred that passage into literacy, lingering in the graveyard and hovering over the epitaph of Dickens’ novel. Never turning the page allows us to hold onto Pip’s childish intuition that nothing is ever really written in stone. Dickens’ narrator, reading in “the days of photographs,” finds writing transfigured, taking on pictorial and indexical qualities. What then might the novel look like if spliced with today’s, QR codes and info-graphics? 


3 thoughts on “Portrait of a Novel: Great Expectations, Page One

  1. Wow. This is a really fascinating post, Gregory — Thanks for drawing our attention to this book. I wonder why Graphic Design& chose Great Expectations, specifically, to use as their urtext.

  2. hi Jen. Even before GD&’s experiment, I’d read Great Expectations’ opening page as its own kind of prose-poem, and I was happy to see that the Broadview edition of GE frames the tombstone rumination so cleanly on its first page. This book seemed like such a natural choice to me, though apparently GD& considered a number of different 19thC texts before settling on Great Expectations. I’m trying to think of other Victorian novels that would benefit from this kind of treatment.

  3. Dracula would be an obvious choice, I suppose, though I wouldn’t be satisfied with stopping after the first page of that novel.

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