Charles Dickens, Great Expectations


Nothing dusty or old about this classic… so many themes are quite relevant and it does say a lot about human nature. What I most loved about it where the complex quirky characters.

The main character, Pip, is a young orphan who was taken in by his older sister and her husband who is a blacksmith. The sister and her friends keep talking about how fortunate he is that she “brought him up by hand”. The expression is never explained and Pip keeps wondering what he should be grateful for, the sister being as unsisterly as you can think of. Some folks interpret this expression as a reference to corporeal punishment, others as taking personal responsibility for his upbringing. The way Dickens manages this expression, repeating in frequently and in sometimes incongruous situation does contribute to make the description of the household life quite humorous. The same goes for other descriptions of the sister’s violent temper (she goes on the Rampage, yes, with a capital R).

Through some twists of fortune, Pip is brought to London, gets a bit more of an education and has sufficient money to waster a lot of it, all the while trying to become somebody, and fulfilling his Great Expectations, but feeling at the same time unmoored. He is enamoured of a young woman met when he was very young who does not share the feeling, assumes that she was put on his path consciously by someone with the design they should get married, and also assumes that the unnamed benefactor is a strange woman from his hometown call Miss Havisham who is the young lady’s adoptive mother. We learn later in the story that nothing of the sort was engineered.

As for Miss Havisham, she is an older lady who was left at the altar by a runaway groom and never subsequently got out of her wedding dress. She is essentially hiding in her childhood home, with heavy drapes blocking windows so she never sees daylight. Her yellowing dress makes her a grotesque figure and the cobweb covered wedding cake that has been left on the table all these years is a quite revolting picture. Miss Havisham is surrounded by a lot of other people whose role or expectations of their relationship with her is never really explained although it looks to me an expectation of inheritance is involved, expect for her adoptive daughter Estella. When we first encounter Estella, I thought she was  a maid and it took me a long time to realize that she was a daughter. I don’t know if that was intentional on Dickens part or if I am just slow. A second, closer, reading might be called for.

Wemmick is a clerk to the lawyer who is the intermediary between Pip and his benefactor. He is a serious young man, very focused and disciplined at work. He befriends him and invites to visit his home. That home has two rather unusual features. First, it is surrounded by a moat. Second, there is a gun on the roof that is fired daily. Wemmick lives with his elderly father to whom he refers to as “Aged Parent” or “Aged P”. The father is quite deaf but he claims to hear the gun (most likely he feels the vibrations). Wemmick becomes a sort of confidant to Pip but insists that anything that might be shared when they are at home should not be discussed at his office, Dickens’ version of the Vegas rule. The extent of their friendship thus remains unknown to the lawyer.

There are many interesting plot twists as well. What was most appealing is how Pip kept making assumptions that turn out to be wrong and being both surprised and disappointed by what he eventually finds out.

This is the first Dickens novel I actually manage to read from cover to cover. In earlier attempts I had found the language too difficult, especially the dialogue. This will certainly encourage me to read more as I am greatly interested in Victorian England. In fact, I just bought a book by Judith Flanders, a social historian who writes about life in the Victorian era. That is bound to be a nice complement to Dickens.


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