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Monday, February 4, 2008

Book Review: Great Expectations

Author: Charles Dickens
Rating: 4/5
Challenge: My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge, Chunkster Challenge

In the introduction to my edition of Great Expectations, it mentions that in its day, it was considered a compact novel. For me the idea of Great Expectations as compact is laughable. It’s a chunkster, a challenging read that requires more thought. So I’ve finished at last, not on time for My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge, but still finished none the less. I knew the main plots points already (thanks to a Junior Reader edition as a child), but I never understood the motivation behind Miss Havisham, why Pip fell in love with Estella, or what exactly the deal was with that convict.

But before we get to that, let’s start at the beginning. Pip, born into poverty and raised with a great deal of abuse by his older sister, is still content with life because of the beautiful friendship shown to him by his sister’s husband, Joe. Joe is a blacksmith, and not the most refined person, but he unfailingly shows kindness to Pip and always tries to balance out the abuse he suffers from his sister.

Pip’s life is shaped by a number of significant events, but the first one I’ll mention is his introduction to the eccentric but wealthy Miss Havisham. She is a bitter, vengeful old woman, who was spurned on the eve of her wedding and from that moment on, never took off the bridal gown or changed anything in the entire house (including the rotting cake-ew!). She invites Pip over as a playmate for her adopted daughter, Estella. Miss Havisham’s motives for inviting Pip over are not clear at first, but the effect on Pip is immediate. He and Estella are instructed to play together, and she begins teasing him almost immediately over his “coarse hands and thick boots.” Pip, never having spent time around wealth, has never noticed that he is poor. But after Estella’s comments to him, he reflects that:

“… my young mid was in that disturbed and unthankful state that I though long after I laid me down, how common Estella would consider Joe, a mere blacksmith: how thick his boots, and how coarse his hands. I thought how Joe and my sister were then sitting in the kitchen, and how Miss Havisham and Estella never sat in a kitchen, but were far above the level of such common doings.”

From that time on, Pip is bothered by the differences between himself and Estella. He falls in love with her immediately and longs to improve himself to the point where he will be worthy of her.

Pip also begins to see everyone around him differently. Pip tries teaching Joe how to read and write, but admits the reason is that “I wanted to make Joe less ignorant and common, that he might be worthier of my society and less open to Estella’s repproach.”

Though he does not see Estella again for a long time, she grows in his mind into a kind of obsession. He is no longer satisfied by being apprenticed to Joe as a blacksmith, and his modest home seems unworthy for his dream girl.

Just as he has resigned himself to the life of a blacksmith, his life is again affected by a stranger, the lawyer Mr. Jaggers, who brings news that he has come into some great expectations from a mysterious benefactor. Now that he is wealthy, he must leave his childhood home for London to be properly educated as a gentleman. It is hard to imagine in today’s world that a child should be taken from his parents simply because he has been given money, but in the more class conscious Victorian society, that must have been the only acceptable way. Pip reacts first with foreboding, then anticipation, as it occurs to him that Miss Havisham might be the founder of his fortune and even better, might intend for he and Estella to be together. Happy in that assumption, he soon begins to feel as if he deserved his rise in fortune, even as he enjoys the power that his new-found wealth brings.

Magnanimously, Pip promises to never forget Joe, but during his whirlwind time of wealth, he hardly visits Joe again. Upon his arrival in London, Pip befriends another young man his age named Herbert Pocket, and they both begin to put themselves into serious debt. Secure that he will inherit significant money someday, Pip hardly thinks of dropping money on fancy clothes, servants, jewelry, and food. He describes being one of the young rich in the city: “We spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us. We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintances were in that same condition. There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and skeleton truth that we never did.”

Pip’s grand fortune is proved to be a house of cards when his mysterious benefactor chooses to reveal himself as Magwitch, a convict who was exiled to New Zealand. As a boy, Pip once stole food from his house to give to Magwitch, and impressed by the small boy’s generosity, Magwitch dedicated his time in exile to building wealth in order to make Pip a gentleman. Pip is horrified by Magwitch. He first mourns that he was never intended for Estella, and then wishes “that he [Magwitch] had left me at the forge-far from contented, yet, by comparison, happy!”

Throughout Pip’s entire life, he has spent his time trying to improve his own station in life, and has managed to justify to himself the decisions he makes, especially his betrayal of Joe. But when he realizes where his fortune came from, he makes what he considers his only good deed, by assisting his friend Herbert in obtaining a good job.

When Pip first describes his encounter with Magwitch, he is completely repulsed by him and horrified that his fortune is due to a convict. I was happy to see that throughout the end of the book, Pip’s attitude gradually changes towards Magwitch. “For now, my repugnance toward him had all melted away, and in this hunted wounded shackled creature who held my hand in his, I saw only a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who had affectionately, gratefully, and generously toward me with a great constancy through a series of years. I saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe.”

At Pip’s very darkest hour, when he is arrested for his debt, Joe comes to help him and pay off his debt. He goes into business with his friend Herbert, taking the lowly position of clerk, but describes finding at last a snatch of happiness. “… I lived happily with Herbert and his wife, and lived frugally, and paid my debts, and maintained a constant correspondence with… Joe…. We were not in a grand way of business, but we had a good name, and worked for our profits, and did very well.”

Pip could have learned a lesson or two from the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son who demanded his inheritance, then squandered it in easy living, eventually caring for pigs and finally returning home expecting to be shamed only to find his father preparing a great feast for him. Pip goes through many of the same experiences in his rise to wealth and his squandering of his money, and finds a similar outcome to the Prodigal Son when Joe still welcomes him back despite Pip’s unfaithfulness. Pip doesn’t find true happiness until he has experienced the upper class life and come full circle back to working for a living.

I could write pages analyzing this book. But I have no doubt that others have already written long theses on this book so I will try to keep the rest of what I say about the book brief.

The most eccentric character from the book, of course, is Miss Havisham. The fact she was jilted as a bride seemed to cause such psychological trauma that she remained ruined through the rest of her life. It seems crazy to me that no one tried to help her or discourage her from her funk, but it seems that the wealthy of that era were allowed to go along in their eccentricities no matter what harm they brought to themselves. As a very old woman, she finally seems to realize how she had poisoned Estella, when Estella points out to her that she was raised to be proud and cold, and couldn’t be expected to suddenly be capable of love. Pip realizes that Miss Havisham’s only motive in having him play with Estella as a child was to teach Estella to be a proud heartbreaker. At last, Miss Havisham is beyond redemption seemingly, although she does at last realize and regret her harm to Estella.

Estella, for her part, knowingly marries a cruel man for her own reasons. After his death, she is finally reunited with Pip and seems at last able to work things out with him. Interestingly, when Dickens first wrote the novel, he did not intend for Pip to end up with Estella, but was persuaded to rewrite it at the last minute. Even in the new ending, it doesn’t tell us much information aside from Pip commenting that “I saw no shadow of parting with her.” No dramatic kiss, no loving platitudes.

Despite my earlier complaints about slogging through the book, I really did enjoy this read. I was so happy to see that Pip finally learns his lesson that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence, and that he protects Magwitch from knowing that his dreams of making Pip into a gentleman will soon be dashed. I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if not for My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge, so thank you to the gals at Estella’s Revenge.


Andi said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed it! Great review. :D

Kim L said...

andi-no prob!