Saturday, November 12, 2016

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (74 down, 26 to go)

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. ~ Pip

This is the second time I’ve read Great Expectations, the first being nearly 30 years ago. I’ve also read several other works by Dickens: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and I’m currently reading The Pickwick Papers.

Great Expectations is a Victorian era novel and bildungsroman. It is the first person narrative of Philip Pirrip commonly known as Pip. Pip is an orphan in mid-nineteenth century England. From humble beginnings, Pip comes into the promise of great expectations by an anonymous and mysterious benefactor.

I am a fan of Dickens, but this was always my least favorite of his novels (of those I’ve read of course). However, my opinion improved quite a bit with this second reading. I am incredulous that it should be ranked ahead of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens greatest work in my opinion, but still, I found Great Expectations quite captivating.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



This novel satisfies item #11, a Classic you read in school, of The 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Pip is not your typical Dicken’s orphan. He is neither wretched nor forlorn, in fact, he is reasonably comfortable, living with his sister Georgianna and her husband Joe Gargery. Pip’s sister views him as a burden and herself a martyr. She is not tender or loving, but neither is she terribly harsh. Pip and Joe however, love each other tenderly and each, with the support of the other, abide tolerably well under the domineering Mrs. Joe. Joe is the village blacksmith, and Pip is destined to be apprenticed to him one day…until his fortune changes.

Before his fortune changes however, there are two significant events in Pip’s life. First, while wandering some marshes by his house, he chances upon an escaped convict, who compels Pip to help him, by stealing food and a file from home and bringing it to him. Pip complies, but manages to flee while the convict is filing at his shackles. A bit later, authorities arrive searching for two convicts. Pip and Joe witness the authorities capture the two convicts, and though the one recognizes Pip, he does not reveal that Pip assisted him.

The event seems to be behind and forgotten, but if you know anything of Dickens – you know it likely has some import which will eventually be revealed.

Sometime later, Pip is asked to visit an elderly woman of the village. The exact purpose of his visit is unclear, but it seems she wants a youthful presence or diversion in her unhappy home. Miss Havisham is wealthy and reclusive. Upon visiting, Pip discovers she is also eccentric and bitter over a jilted marriage. She spends all day, every day, in her wedding dress, never allows a ray of sunlight into the house, and has left everything in the house the way it was decades earlier on the day that was to have been her wedding day.

She’s sort of nuts.

She also has an adopted daughter Estella, who is pretty, about Pip’s age, and completely aloof to Pip or anyone else. Notwithstanding – well you already know – Pip is infatuated, hopelessly and miserably infatuated. Miss Havisham makes Pip a regular visitor and revels in watching Estella wound Pip. In fact, she encourages him.

Love her, love her, love her! If she favors you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces – and as it gets older and stronger it will tear deeper – love her, love her, love her!

She said the word often enough, and there could be no doubt that she meant to say it; but if the often repeated word had been hate instead of love – despair – revenge – dire death – it could not have sounded from her lips more like a curse. ~ Pip considering Miss Havisham’s words

But then, as I’ve mentioned, Pip’s fortunes change. He is contacted by a lawyer, Mr. Jangles, representing an anonymous client who confers upon Pip “great expectations”. The benefactor intends for Pip to be a gentleman, so besides fine clothes, Pip is wanting an education. Arrangements are made for him to move to London for such refinement.

Pip is on his way up in the world, and the reader would feel very happy for him, but Pip is forgetful and even embarrassed by his former life, and even of dear Joe. The reader is embarrassed for Pip and his unfaithfulness, and indeed Pip, who is narrating his story reminiscent, also admits more than embarrassment, but sincere shame for his conduct.

You might also guess, that as Pip becomes a gentleman, Estella becomes a lady and a peerless beauty pursued by Pip and every other single gentleman who meets her.

And there I will leave it. There are more changes of fortune, some dear friends, bitter enemies, intrigues, adventures, ironies, and surprise twists.


The ending quite surprised me. I remembered it ending entirely differently. It was much more satisfying this time.

Film Rendition: 2012 version starring Jeremy Irvine as Pip and Holliday Grainger as Estella is faithful to the book, well cast, well portrayed. I’m usually not a fan of film adaptations of Dickens, but this was quite good. Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch was especially good.
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15 comments:

  1. I wonder if I would like it better on a second reading. I was in my 30's at least when I read it, and it just didn't compare favorably to other Dickens I'd read. I managed to get all the way through school without reading any Dickens at all! Always got stuck with Steinbeck. However, there are so many things I want to read that I don't see myself going back to read something I was lukewarm about in the first place. It might be time for a reread of Talent of Two Cities, though.

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    1. I used to feel the same way about rereads...so much to read, I didn't want to spend time on rereads, but just about every book I've reread was better with a reread. Dickens in particular uses so much foreshadowing, and you don't always understand it all on the first read. But still...so much left unread. Anyway, thanks for the feedback. I definitely recommend A Tale of Two Cities.

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  2. Although Pip is incredibly selfish I could somewhat sympathize with his treatment of Joe. The pressure to conform and to act a certain way toward others can make you act badly toward those you love. Dickens describes societal pressure well.

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  3. I really sympathized with Pip the second time I read Great Expectations. Social pressure can make you act poorly toward those you formerly loved and respected.

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    1. Yeah, I definitely feel for poor ole Pip. In fact, I felt he was a bit too harsh on himself at times. Dickens is a master at that...at describing social pressure as you say. Thanks for the feedback.

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  4. I agree that Tale of Two Cities is (so far) his greatest (bc I've not read every Dickens, yet). But I also love, love, love A Christmas Carol, and I enjoyed Oliver Twist very much. I may also appreciate GE in a second read, but not right now. I took on too much with Pickwick, and I stopped reading it. : (

    But as for GE, and as with Dickens, he does a wonderful job presenting ideas for readers to think about. It is a breath of fresh air to read his novels.

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    1. Indeed...I am always happy for a return to Dickens, especially if I have been reading....hmmm....what? Anything dark or despairing.

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  5. What did you make of Miss Havisham? To my mind she's one of the eeriest, weirdest creatures in fiction!

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    1. Yep...she's pretty creepy. I did feel bad for her when she broke down with remorse though.

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  6. With both Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, I didn't fully appreciate the story until maybe months after reviewing and the story had time to soak into my brain. I can relate to Pip turning his back his childhood upbringing because I did the same when I was younger.

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    1. I haven't had quite that experience with Dickens, but definitely with some other books...taking a while to really sink in.

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  7. I've read a lot of Dickens but only listened to an abridged version of GE (on a roadtrip) so it is really due for a "real" read. I'm not quite sure why it rates so high in the charts as I like many other Dickens novels much more than this one, but perhaps another go at it will change my opinion as it did yours.

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    1. Hi Jane. I'm pretty sure my first read was Dickens' original ending, though less common in print. My reread was his revised ending (under pressure from editors, fans, I think). I think this is at least partially why I liked it more on my reread.

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  8. I love Dickens, but unfortunately I had to study this one at Uni, where it got analysed to death for me and I've never really been able to enjoy it properly since. It taught me that I much prefer to read casually than academically, and I'm so glad it was this one and not one of my real favourites... I agree about A Tale of Two Cities - always underrated, though my personal favourite is Bleak House.

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    1. Interesting. Sometimes I regret not taking more lit in college...perhaps there is an upside. Thanks for the feedback. I'm going to get to Bleak House one of these days.

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