Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, November 7, 2008

Book Review - The Classics - Great Expectations by Charles Dickens "Great Expectations Fulfilled"

Great Expectations, a bildungsroman that spans approximately thirty years, yet still has an imitate feel, is the story of Philip Pirrip, or Pip, as he prefers to be called. Actually, there are two Pips in Great Expectations – the first is Pip the protagonist and the second is Pip the narrator, two distinctly different voices, since Pip is narrating his story many years after its events have been concluded.

Orphaned soon after birth, Pip was adopted by his sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, and her husband, the local blacksmith, and “brought up by hand.” (Though Pip’s sister seems to take great pride in this fact, it’s not something I’d wish on any child.)

We first meet Pip in the marshy morning mists of a village churchyard, staring at the graves of his parents. In just a few moments, Pip will come face to face with the escaped convict, Abel Magwitch, the person who, more than any other, will define the course Pip’s life will take.

Another defining moment in Pip’s life occurs when he is whisked away to the manor home known as Satis House at the behest of its owner, Miss Havisham, ostensibly to entertain Miss Havisham’s ward, a beautiful and self-possessed girl named Estella. Little does Pip know that Miss Havisham has other, sinister motives in mind. It is after meeting Estella that Pip makes the firm decision to change his lot in life and develops his “great expectations.”

Although not a particularly long book, Great Expectations follows Pip into adulthood, to London, where he becomes the best friend of Herbert Pocket, joins the ranks of the idle rich, and finally learns the deepest, darkest secrets of Estella, Miss Havisham, and Magwitch, and how their lives are inseparably intertwined. It comes full circle when, in the mists of the village at evening, Pip meets with the one person who has tormented his days and nights for years, and finally lays to rest the ghosts of the great expectations Estella awakened so long ago.

Although I’ve read and loved many of Dickens’ other books, I’ve never loved one with the passion and intensity I feel for Great Expectations. I thought this was a beautiful book and one that was perfectly constructed. At the suggestion of his friend, the author, Edward Bulwar-Lytton, Dickens changed the original ending. Many critics, including George Bernard Shaw, as well as Dickens’ biographer, Edgar H. Johnson, believed the original ending to be more consistent with the theme and tone of the book. Others, including John Irving, who wrote the Introduction to the edition I have, believe the revised, second ending is the more perfect. When you get ready to borrow or buy an edition of this book, please make sure both endings are included since they are very different.

Although definitely not as autobiographical as David Copperfield (and definitely not as sunny), Great Expectations’ Pip can surely be seen to represent Dickens, himself. And perhaps the two endings can be seen to represent (1) actual events in Dickens’ life, and (2) events as he might have wished them to be.

As with most superlative books, Dickens’ doesn’t spell everything out for the reader. I wondered why Dickens gave Pip’s sister such abominable characteristics, why he made her so hard and unloving, not only towards Pip, but toward her own husband as well.

The character of Miss Havisham is, of course, totally unforgettable. A woman whose life “stopped” the day her lover left her at the altar, Miss Havisham never removed her frayed and yellowed wedding dress, and her large wedding cake still occupies its place of honor on the dining room table, despite the fact that it’s riddled with spiders, beetles, and even rats. Although many people can’t see beyond Miss Havisham’s manic, obsessive cruelty, she’s a truly complex character, and the sophisticated reader can both sympathize with and dislike her at the same time. We understand her and why she’s doing what she’s doing, but we certainly can’t like it.

The theme of Great Expectations is, of course, the futility of looking outside of oneself for happiness, and for this reason, the main characters undergo profound psychological changes, something that doesn’t happen in other novels written by Dickens.

There has been so much criticism of Dickens for both his sentimentality and his use of coincidence to drive the plot of his novels. Sentimentality is one of the reasons I read and love Dickens, and in particular, Great Expectations. Dickens was an emotional writer rather than an intellectual one. He appealed to the heart of his readers rather than to their head. Victorian emotionalism (and they were emotional) appeals to me far more than does postmodern intellectual architecture. I think so many authors today try so hard to keep sentimentality out of their novels that their books and characters are almost devoid of humanity.

The plot of Great Expectations does contain several huge coincidences, so if you simply can’t tolerate that, then best forget about this book, wonderful though it is. It probably wouldn’t be tolerated by today’s major publishing houses, though I certainly didn’t mind the use of some coincidence. I read fiction to be entertained, to be transported to another world, to get to know the characters and their world. As long as the coincidence adds to the story rather than detracts, I’m okay with it.

Great Expectations, though a story about mistakes, broken dreams, and painful personal growth, nevertheless contains much humor and wit. Personally, I found it a far more “human” book than A Tale of Two Cities, often seen as Dickens’ masterpiece.

I loved Great Expectations more than any other book I’ve read this year. Absolutely nothing about it annoys me, not even Herbert’s strange propensity for calling Pip “Handel.” For me, Great Expectations is the epitome of nineteenth century literature, and its characters, especially Pip, Estella, Miss Havisham, and Magwitch, are truly unforgettable.


Recommend: Definitely, one of Dickens' very best.

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