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.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, November 2015 (Dickens Edition!)

Here it is, another post about what I’ve been reading. Mostly Charles Dickens, because I have a lit class on him, and one other book that I mentioned awhile ago.

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens – This is the second book we read in my Charles Dickens class, and it’s another massive one. It follows the story of the Dorrits—William Dorrit, the father, has spent decades in a debtor’s prison. His youngest daughter (“Little Dorrit”) was born in prison, and his son is constantly in and out of debt and the prison as well. At the same time, the book follows a few families in the aristocracy, among them Arthur Clennam—a middle-aged man without any direction in life, who befriends Little Dorrit. By interweaving the two worlds, Dickens satirizes the aristocracy as well as the British bureaucracy, and notions of gentility and wealth. While I enjoyed the humor of this one as much as I do with any Dickens novel, I was a little bored by the lack of agency these characters had. More often things happen to them rather than any of them doing things, and most of their actions are reactions. It was still an excellent character study, though not a book where I was eager to get to the climax.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens- This book, on the other hand, develops the main character’s motivations very well. It’s clear that Pip, the poor, orphan protagonist, is striving to be a gentleman—and while this is a rather arbitrary, subjective goal, that’s the point, and it doesn’t make Pip any less compelling. He is by no means a purely good protagonist, and watching his corruption and challenges is fascinating. Really, almost all the characters are like this, and I loved seeing good characters make bad decisions, and bad characters reveal good intentions.

As usual, the book does a wonderful job satirizing gentility, but specifically life in the big city, London. This quote I particularly loved:

“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.”

I’d highly recommend the book. If you don’t have time to sit down and read it, this librivox version of it by Peter John Keeble is excellently performed, and I listened to it for some chapters.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – While this book doesn’t provide such a clear protagonist to latch onto as Great Expectations, the cast of characters and the development of setting is really engaging. The book is a grim look at the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, showing the madness and bloodlust of the revolutionaries, and thrusting a family into the midst of it—and, of course, paralleling this to mob aggression in London. The family we follow is that of Alexandre Manette, once wrongly imprisoned in the Bastille. Also his daughter Lucie, and her husband, the emigrated French marquis Charles Darnay. A hundred other characters are attached to them as well, each working toward their own motivations.

I was captivated by this book. The fuse is long, but once it’s burnt down, the story really explodes. It’s the way that relationships and characters change and mirror each other throughout the book that makes it so interesting, and so entertaining. Like I said, there isn’t as much of a main character, so I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Great Expectations, but it’s still an excellent read—and a particularly action-packed one for Dickens.

The Accidental Terrorist by William Shunn – The only non-Dickens book this time around. I mentioned this book earlier, when it was up for pre-order. Now, a few months later, I’ve read it, and it’s available in hardcover and paperback here. And I still recommend it.

The book is about sci-fi writer William Shunn’s experiences in Alberta, Canada, serving his mission for the Mormon Church. What I love is the combination of highly entertaining characters and stories with detailed information about the Mormon Church—its history as well as the its practices at the time Shunn was a missionary. I value any book that can give an up-close look at something most people only vaguely know about, and this book delivers for missionary work. Who knew some missionaries used golf balls to produce a crisper, louder knocking sound when proselytizing? I do, now.

And the other elements, the ones I’d look for in any fictional book, are there too. Shunn describes a wide range of missionaries—brown-nosers, slackers, sinners—showing a full picture of the Mormon church that isn’t just silly magic underwear or straight-laced morality. And, once the story really gets going, it’s incredibly compelling. Less so because I already knew it, but still entertaining, full of twists and tension.

So, that’s what I’ve been reading. I’ll probably talk about Don Quixote next, and the last couple Dickens books we’re reading. See you then.