In Charles Dickens' Ironic masterpiece Great Expectations, it's not difficult to spot our protagonist. The opening of the novel labours the point that Pip has lost his parents and is living in desolate circumstances:
My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
There are signals here for anyone who has read the book How Stories Really Work: Dickens amplifies certain things about his chief character to completely glue our attention to Pip, who, while visiting the graves of his mother, father and siblings, encounters an escaped convict, Magwitch, in the village churchyard. The convict scares Pip into stealing food (and a file to grind away his shackles) from the home he shares with his abusive older sister and her kind husband Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. In this first section of the novel, Dickens works each paragraph to magnify the loss or threat of loss surrounding Pip using one mechanism after another, winding up with Pip in absolute terror of his life:
Since that time, which is far enough away now, I have often thought that few people know what secrecy there is in the young under terror. No matter how unreasonable the terror, so that it be terror. I was in mortal terror of the young man who wanted my heart and liver; I was in mortal terror of my interlocutor with the iron leg; I was in mortal terror of myself, from whom an awful promise had been extracted; I had no hope of deliverance through my all-powerful sister, who repulsed me at every turn; I am afraid to think of what I might have done on requirement, in the secrecy of my terror.
The next day, soldiers recapture the convict while he is engaged in a fight with another escaped convict; the two are returned to the prison ships and disappear from the reader's radar for the moment, but not before leaving the lingering impression of a mystery connection between them.
Then Dickens sets to work on further mechanisms to hold our attention, all of them explained in detail in How Stories Really Work. Miss Havisham, a wealthy spinster who wears an old wedding dress and lives in the time-frozen, dilapidated Satis House, asks Pip's Uncle Pumblechook to find a boy to visit. Pip visits Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella, falling in love with Estella on first sight, though both are quite young. Estella is a standard female companion figure, but, given that this is an Irony, she is a walking vacuum, hollowed out by her mentor and empty of any positive emotion:
Estella was always about, and always let me in and out, but never told me I might kiss her again. Sometimes, she would coldly tolerate me; sometimes, she would condescend to me; sometimes, she would be quite familiar with me; sometimes, she would tell me energetically that she hated me. Miss Havisham would often ask me in a whisper, or when we were alone, 'Does she grow prettier and prettier, Pip?' And when I said yes (for indeed she did), would seem to enjoy it greedily. Also, when we played at cards Miss Havisham would look on, with a miserly relish of Estella's moods, whatever they were. And sometimes, when her moods were so many and so contradictory of one another that I was puzzled what to say or do, Miss Havisham would embrace her with lavish fondness, murmuring something in her ear that sounded like 'Break their hearts my pride and hope, break their hearts and have no mercy!’
Instead of being a partner for Pip, Estella acts to increase his hollowness and his desire for her motivates his decisions throughout the story. Meanwhile, while both Pip and Joe are away from the house, Mrs. Joe is brutally attacked, by an unknown figure (creating another mystery) leaving her unable to speak or do her work. (This later turns out to be the work of the shadow protagonist, Orlick, whom Pip might have grown to resemble and whose motives are those of a ‘shadow Pip’.) Biddy - who we recognise would have been a more suitable partner for Pip - is ironically overlooked when she arrives to care for Mrs. Joe.
Four years into Pip's apprenticeship, Mr. Jaggers, a lawyer, fulfilling the Ironic version of the old man with a stick character, approaches him in the village with the news that he has ‘expectations’ from an anonymous benefactor, with immediate funds to train him in the gentlemanly arts. He will not know the benefactor's name until that person speaks up. Pip is to leave for London in the proper clothes:
'Now you are to understand, secondly, Mr. Pip, that the name of the person who is your liberal benefactor remains a profound secret, until the person chooses to reveal it. I am empowered to mention that it is the intention of the person to reveal it at first hand by word of mouth to yourself. When or where that intention may be carried out, I cannot say; no one can say. It may be years hence. Now, you are distinctly to understand that you are most positively prohibited from making any inquiry on this head, or any allusion or reference, however distant, to any individual whomsoever as the individual, in all the communications you may have with me. If you have a suspicion in your own breast, keep that suspicion in your own breast.’
Dickens thus creates the central mystery which will power the rest of the novel. Pip assumes that Miss Havisham is his benefactor, a typical Ironic error.
In London, Pip sets up house with Herbert Pocket, the comic companion for this story.
As the novel proceeds, a week after he turns 23 years old, Pip learns in true Ironic style that his benefactor is not Miss Havisham at all but the convict from so long ago, Abel Magwitch. Pip's entire purpose and motivation turns out to have been driven by a false conception, typical in an Irony.
As long as he is out of England, Magwitch can live, but, a wretched figure driven by his own vacuums and longing to see again the one person who showed him mercy, he returns to see Pip. Meeting Pip again was his motivation for all his success in New South Wales.
This is the resolution of the central mystery and the point of emotional commitment for the reader. This is followed by the heart of the matter, explained more fully in How Stories Really Work, the working out of the battle between Magwitch and Compeyson.
As Great Expectations is an Irony, everything goes wrong. Though Pip and Herbert devise a plan to get Magwitch out of England by boat, Pip tells Miss Havisham that he is as unhappy as she can ever have meant him to be, and Estella tells Pip she will marry Bentley Drummle. In a series of mounting crises, the plot works itself out; Joe's former journeyman Orlick seizes Pip, confessing past crimes as he means to kill him; Herbert Pocket and Startop save Pip and prepare for the escape. On the river, they are met by a police boat carrying Compeyson for identification of Magwitch. Compeyson was the other convict years earlier, and as well, the con artist who wooed and deserted Miss Havisham. Magwitch seizes Compeyson, and they fight in the river. Magwitch survives to be taken by police, seriously injured and dies soon after, sparing an execution.
The rest of the Irony is a sequence of intentionally ill-fitting ‘solutions’ and missed opportunities: after Herbert goes to Cairo, Pip falls ill in his rooms; he is confronted with arrest for debt; he returns to propose to Biddy, to find that she and Joe have just married. Dickens isn’t trying to produce a eucatastrophe, but its opposite.
As Magwitch's fortune in money and land is seized by the court, Pip no longer has income. Eleven years later, after working hard in the world, Pip visits the ruins of Satis House and meets Estella, widow to the abusive Bentley Drummle. The scene is set for the resolution of the major character element that has motivated Pip throughout the story. In a variation on Dickens' original bleaker ending, Estella asks Pip to forgive her, assuring him that misfortune has opened her heart and that she now empathises with Pip:
‘We are friends,' said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench.
'And will continue friends apart,' said Estella.
I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.
Finally, there is some promise of emptinesses being filled, though the sentence is still Pip's subjective hope rather than fictive truth: we don't know what happens next, and, in typically Ironic fashion, we are left hanging in an incomplete question.
In constructing an Irony, perhaps even moreso than when creating an Epic, then, the emphasis is on emptinesses, losses, gaps, mysteries, unknowns. But whereas Epics resolve when most or all of these created vacuums are filled, in Ironies they are left for the most part yawningly open and empty.
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