Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
My rating: 8/10
One Sentence Verdict: A thoughtful and detailed coming of age story, Great Expectations is the story of a young boy yearning for love and recognition, and his encounters with a number of people who teach him that sometimes, ambition and expectations can be enough to live on (although more often it takes more than that!)
Great Expectations has always been one of those “one day…” books for me. I believe I read an abridged version when I was younger, but whenever I’ve picked it up in the last few years, I found it terribly dry and difficult to engage with. This time, however, I liked it a lot more. Written in 1861, it’s easy to dismiss the works of Dickens as archaic and difficult to read, and whilst Great Expectations isn’t the easiest read, it is entertaining and beautifully written.
Pip, when we meet him, is a young boy living with his elder sister and her husband, Joe the blacksmith. The opening scene of the novel finds Pip in a graveyard, pondering over the graves of his parents and younger brothers and sisters. He is approached by an escaped convict who threatens him into stealing food from his house to give to the man, going by the name of Magwitch.
Pip later goes into apprenticeship to Joe, but is also summoned to the home of Miss Havisham, an older and extremely eccentric woman who lives in a state of suspended reality, having not walked outside since the day of her aborted wedding when her lover left her not an hour before the ceremony. She lives with her adopted daughter, Estella, whom she has raised to be cold and to break men’s hearts for her own amusement, as revenge for what a man did to Miss Havisham.
Pip falls for Estella quickly, despite the fact that she warns him off, but they are soon parted anyway because Pip is startled to find that an anonymous benefactor has provided for him to go and study, and to live in London as a man of means. Pip grows up under the watchful eye of the lawyer and his guardian, Mr Jaggers, who manages his affairs and the money left to him by his benefactor, who is revealed only at the very end of the novel in a set of rather peculiar circumstances. Estella’s apparent betrayal of Pip’s affections prompts a heartfelt revelation of his feelings in front of Miss Havisham, but the end of the novel when they meet again brings a more hopeful outlook.
Pip is not always an enormously sympathetic character; the moments where the reader most sympathises with him are probably the ones in which he laments his ill-treatment at the hands of Estella, and his unfortunate love for her. He seems young and naïve throughout the novel, but I personally loved his interactions with Herbert pocket, who was the “pale young man” with whom Pip once fought at Miss Havisham’s home, Satis House.
Each character is richly coloured, and the interactions between them make the book an entertaining read. Jaggers is a top criminal lawyer, and something of a bully at points in the novel. Wemmick, Jaggers’ clerk who eventually helps Pip find employment for Herbert, is fairly sly and his riddle-like conversation with Pip is quite amusing. Pip’s sister, “Mrs Joe”, who rules her home, husband and brother with an iron fist, whilst she lives, is domineering and larger-than-life in her caricatured portrayal by Dickens. The sinister Orlick, who causes her eventual demise, is not explored nearly as much as he could be, but just surfaces occasionally at moments when he is not expected.
My favourite characters in the book are probably Estella, Miss Havisham, and Abel Magwitch; the escaped convict and (SPOILER!) Pip’s anonymous benefactor, who escaped to Australia to work as s sheep farmer and continually sent money to Pip through Jaggers to repay him for his help. One feels sorry for Estella; her cold heart and unfeeling nature are a product of her twisted upbringing at the hands of Miss Havisham, and despite her great beauty, she is too proud to be able to make meaningful friendships or relationships, although Pip seems to be the only one for who she will not put on a show, and will not lie to him about her intentions. Whilst she is not redeemed, the end of the novel leaves the reader hopeful for her and Pip’s future, together or apart.
I really enjoyed Great Expectations; it was a great deal more diverting than I expected, and I think I’d approach Dickens with a bit more enthusiasm in the future! Don’t be put off by the length and slightly slow pace of the novel, but give it a try! You might be surprised.