Great Expectations by Charles Dickens was first published in serial form in All the Year Round from 1860-1861 and in book form in 1861.
The book chronicles Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip’s journey towards becoming a gentleman. The story is narrated in first person by him.
The narrative is classic Dickens. It is rich and vibrant. Pip’s childhood provides some fine insights on human nature. It is humorous at places but also strangely sombre. As Pip grows up the narrative becomes even darker and less humorous. But it doesn’t lose its spark save at a few places.
The character of Miss Havisham is the driving force of the story. Almost everything in the narrative revolves around her, stems from her actions or is somehow related to her. She is almost solely responsible for all of Pip’s heartache. After visiting her house Pip becomes contaminated by it, so to speak. Miss Havisham’s house becomes one of the focal points of Pip’s life. He is sort of obsessed with the eternal gloom and unbearable sorrow of that house.
Pip also meets Estella, the love of his life, at Miss Havisham’s house. Estella is perhaps one of the strangest literary heroines I’ve ever come across. She herself acknowledges that she is a cold (and admittedly a cruel) person,
Oh! I have a heart to be stabbed in or shot in, I have no doubt,” said Estella, “and of course if it ceased to beat I should cease to be. But you know what I mean. I have no softness there, no–sympathy–sentiment–nonsense.
In his heart Pip also knows how unhappy Estella makes him,
And still I stood looking at the house, thinking how happy I should be if I lived there with her, and knowing that I never was happy with her, but always miserable.
But he still cannot let go of his extremely unhealthy obsession with her. It consumes him. It forms the core of his life. He remains blinded by her as she slowly, cruelly breaks his heart.
Miss Havisham’s constant provocation, her strange house and her strange ward Estella turn Pip, the simple village boy, into a dissatisfied, ever ambitious and perpetually unhappy human being.
The character of Pip’s brother-in-law, Joe Gargery, is not very interesting. He is a gentle giant. That’s about it. The character of Biddy acts as a sort of an inner voice of reason for Pip. Mr. Pumblechook I found very irritating.
Matthew Pocket’s family provides some of the lighter moments of the novel. Pip also finds one of his closest friends in Mr. Pocket’s son Herbert. He is one of the few who stick with him through thick and thin.
Mr. Wopsle is one of the secondary characters of the book but he provided some good laughs for me. Descriptions of Mr. Wopsle’s theatrical ambitions are funny but descriptions of his great aunt’s school where Pip first learns to write really cracks me up,
Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt kept an evening school in the village; that is to say, she was a ridiculous old woman of limited means and unlimited infirmity, who used to go to sleep from six to seven every evening, in the society of youth who paid two pence per week each, for the improving opportunity of seeing her do it.
My favourite is a larger passage which further elaborately describes this so called school but it is too big to be quoted here.
Mr. Jaggers, the lawyer and his clerk, Mr. Wemmick are practical, shrewd men but turn out to be surprisingly kind friends to Pip. The way Mr. Wemmick divides himself between his work-self and his private-self is funny.
I do not understand the reason behind Dolge Orlick’s deep hatred of Pip. Pip’s final confrontation with him among the marshes I found to be unnecessary.
I didn’t enjoy the narrative after the identity of Pip’s benefactor was revealed. It felt a little odd and dull.
The novel’s ending was perfect. I feel the revised ending is better than the original ending and not because it is ‘allegedly’ a happy ending. I think its ambiguity gives Great Expectations the final touch that it so richly deserves. The original ending was much more prosaic and sentimental, in my opinion. The modified ending gives a much richer feel to the narrative.
Pip does everything wrong when he becomes a gentleman. He runs into debt, snubs his former friends and woos the unworthy Estella. All that seems natural enough. It is amazing that a book can have such an outrageously fantastic plot but can also seem so natural. Only Dickens can do such a thing.
Great Expectations is for the most part an enjoyable read. It has by far some of the most multi-dimensional characters ever created by Dickens. That is were I find the true uniqueness of this book. Recommended.
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