Review: Rereading Great Expectations

Engraving titled “Pip waits on Miss Havisham” by Marcus Stone.

A month or so ago I reread Great Expectations in the hopes that it would provide me some nice juicy quotes to pair with chapters of the travel memoir I was writing. That ended up kind of working, but in general I just found myself loving the book, as it more than lived up to my fond memories of it. I actually did review the book on this blog awhile ago, in a What I’ve Been Reading post,  but I only spent a few paragraphs on it, and a lot of stuff struck me that I didn’t really notice the first time around, so here goes.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is narrated by Pip, an orphan living in a small town in southeast England, presumably near the Thames Estuary, as he multiple times describes “the marshes” and the sight of “hulks”—prison ships. Actually, the Pip who’s narrating things is an adult, looking back on his life, mainly focusing on his boyhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.

The book is broken into three volumes, and each one is really it’s own little universe, with its own specific goals and style.

The first volume mainly focuses on Pip’s boyhood. Pip is raised by his much older sister, the abrasive, violent Mrs. Gargery, and her husband Joe Gargery, a kind, gentle, infinitely likable blacksmith. Pip is given a taste of wealth and status when Ms. Havisham, an old, reclusive noblewoman, calls him to her house to attend on her, and play with her daughter, Estella. And with that little taste, and with his sudden love for Estella, Pip quickly grows distasteful of his low, common life.

That’s really what the first volume does beautifully—it paints a portrait of the steady development of self-loathing, even of disdain for Joe, in this commoner boy. It shows the growth of his unhealthy desire to be a “gentleman,” to escape the profession of blacksmith. One terrific quote comes as Estella and Pip are playing cards:

“He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!” said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. “And what coarse hands he has. And what thick boots!”
I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.

Towards the end of the volume though, Pip learns of a mysterious benefactor, who wishes him to go to London, and who has granted him great expectations—expectations meaning, by a now archaic definition, an inheritance. Although the benefactor works through an intermediary, not revealing their identity to Pip, all signs point to it being Ms. Havisham. These expectations only drive Pip further apart from Joe, and the volume ends with Pip setting off for London.

So in a way Volume I sets up the expectations, and Volume II is all about those expectations not coming true. As good as Volume I is, Volume II is easily my favorite, and it’s the one that is most marked up in my copy of the book. The quote which I used in my original review of this book, and which I made a comic out of, pretty well sums it up:

“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 acquaintance were in the same condition. There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did.”

Everything that Pip could hope for always seems just out of reach, which only makes him strive for it more. Marrying Estella, coming of age and receiving the rest of his expectations, being a gentleman (whatever that may mean), being content in any way. All these different threads of dashed hopes and unrealized expectations complement each other in a symphony of dissonance. The reason I enjoyed it so much is that it just rings so true to life. Anxieties over money, ceaseless striving for more, the inevitable let-down of any experience that you’ve put on a pedestal, that you’ve decided will be a panacea to all the discontent in your life.

For that reason I think this is a great book for anyone in college, or transitioning from college to the “““““real world”””””, or moving from a small town into a big city, or undergoing any process where the ideas you’ve desirously built up in your head, the thing you’ve always wanted, is suddenly real, and clashing with your idealized expectations. I get that Dickens can feel inaccessible to people, but once you get used to the complex sentence construction you see that what he’s talking about is not some strange arcane experience that died off in the 19th century, that has nothing to do with us now. I mean, for god’s sake, Pip’s friend Herbert is in an unpaid internship!!! I quote:

“I haven’t begun insuring yet,” he replied. “I am looking about me. … I am in a counting-house, and looking about me.”
“Is a counting-house profitable?” I asked.
“To—do you mean to the young fellow who’s in it?” he asked, in reply.
“Yes; to you.”
“Why, n-no; not to me.” He said this with the air of one carefully reckoning up and striking a balance. “Not directly profitable. That is, it doesn’t pay me anything, and I have to—keep myself.”
This certainly had not a profitable appearance, and I shook my head as if I would imply that it would be difficult to lay by much accumulative capital from such a source of income.
“But the thing is,” said Herbert Pocket, “that you look about you. That’s the grand thing. You are in a counting-house, you know, and you look about you.”

Another Marcus Stone engraving.

Later Herbert remarks that “the moment he began to realise Capital, it was his intention to marry [his betrothed]. He added as a self-evident proposition, engendering low spirits, “But you can’t marry, you know, while you’re looking about you.”

I mean, that’s real shit man! This guy’s got an unpaid internship, trying desperately to find some opening so he can have enough income to support the girl he’s in love with! And then you got Pip, this guy who knows the girl he’s in love with doesn’t care for him, knows it’s doomed, knows it’s unhealthy, wishes he didn’t love her, and yet falls on her every word anyway—a perfect metaphor for his restless pursuit of higher status, a pursuit that he knows will not bring him as much happiness as he would’ve had if he’d never learned of his expectations, and just stayed with Joe and become a blacksmith. It’s painfully real, which is what makes Pip sympathetic despite the way he sometimes mistreats people, or puts on airs—because it’s clear that he’s not any better off than anyone else, and that the narrator Pip is highly critical of his past actions, fully aware of their harmful and even self-destructive nature.

The third volume has some interesting thematic stuff going on, but it’s mostly a very classic, 19th-century-serial yarn, making good on plot points set-up in the first few volumes to send our protagonist down a twisting path, every chapter revealing some new, surprising piece of backstory, leading up to a climactic flight … the third volume is my least favorite, and the ending’s a bit weird, but also interestingly defies expectations … I dunno. It’s a good read, I just don’t have so much to say about it.

Lest you think this book is just this deep, serious portrayal of poverty and class and internal struggle, know also that the book is hilarious. The way the bufoonish adults in Pip’s hometown interact with him, both before and after he learns of his expectations, is hysterical, and Dickens’s dry, incisive way of describing certain things is spectacularly fresh and cutting. Like,  when describing his five brothers, Pip doesn’t say they died in their infancy, he says they “gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle.”

I guess the humor of this book can be divided into two categories. There’s all the terrible characters, whose terrible actions are hilarious in a very ha-ha belly-laugh kind of way (Vol. 2, chapter 12 is just a description of Mr. Wopsle performing the lead role in an awful production of Hamlet, and it’s not super relevant to thematic stuff or the plot but it is absolutely delicious); then there’s the stuff that strikes so true, and is phrased in such an inventive, fresh, making-the-familiar-strange kind of way that it just makes you grimace and bite back a mean laugh, cause you’re a little bit laughing at yourself.

I love this book. It’s great. It’s surprisingly unsentimental for a Dickens novel, and there’s also a distinct lack of truly evil characters (one jumps to mind, though he’s hardly even in the book.) Rather, the book describes a landscape of incompetent, insecure, self-destructive people, whose greatest antagonist is usually themselves. I highly recommend reading it, or listening to Peter John Keeble’s recording of it on librivox. It’s actually one of Dickens’s shorter novels, and well worth the time.

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