Great Expectations is Charles Dickens’s 13th novel. I read it some 15 years ago in French and I’m in the process of finishing it; because I mixed up my date and prepared Little Women for this week and thought to finish Dickens next when my list was the other way around. So in all honesty, some of this critique is based on memory as I’m reaching chapter 48 of 59. Much like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens is a most beloved author: the proof is that he’s the writer with the most number of books on this list (Great Expectations, The Bleak House, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol).
Great Expectations follows Philip Pirrip – Pip – as he grows from a poor orphaned child living in Kent to an adult training in the gentlemanly arts in London. Building up debts and finding out his benefactor to be none other than a convict he helped when he was a kid (in the first chapter), Pip discovers that wealth doesn’t make a man happy or a good man. His great expectations seemed more of an illusion in the end, as life is made of more than money and situation.
Although it’s a book that doesn’t really have a happy ending, and arguably a lot of gruesome or dark deaths, I find Great Expectations to be more optimistic than David Copperfield or Oliver Twist. I’m guessing it might also have to do with the fact that I read them around 20 years ago when I was a teenager and I found them so sad. I find Pip’s journey to be a positive one in the end. Not necessarily because he gets his happy ending – we don’t really know that – but because he has come to a point where he accepts who and what he is. Who knows? I’ll be re-reading both books through the course of this challenge and my opinion might be swayed; until then I work from the memory of a 15-year-old girl 😉 .
I always found Dickens’ writing to be powerful (even its French translations since that’s what I read originally). Here the narration is in the first person with the artifice of an adult writing his memories of a child – a bit like Jane Eyre and To Kill a Mockingbird. I find Dickens the most compelling; the way the sentences are built, the way it seemed the character bleeds his emotions if I may say so. He brings you to the heart and soul of the protagonist in a way that never fails to amaze me. For example, the fight in Pip’s mind about having to steal, then hide that he stole something, his fears – childish though they may seem to the reader – everything feels raw and real.
We could discuss the different themes Dickens broaches in this book, but it’s not a surprise: poverty and wealth, love and rejection, the eventual triumph of good over evil and the difference between material wealth and emotional wealth so to speak. For as he earns enough money to make his way in the world, Pip loses his principles and he becomes poor by way of morals.
One of the most amazing things about Dickens for me always has been his characterization: protagonists, antagonists, secondary characters, they’re always fascinating in their quirks and habits. Their complexity (even if their place in the book seems to condemn them to a certain level of one-dimension) is a delight and – in my opinion – authors should take Dickens as an example when creating characters. From Joe the simple man with a kind heart to the brute Drummle. I really like that scene when Joe meets Miss Havisham: I find it endearing. One can feel Pip’s shame but also Joe’s awkwardness and simple ways. We don’t need to be told Estella is cold and arrogant we feel it in every word she speaks to Pip.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Great Expectations should be on that list: from the writing style to the storyline and the characters’ journey, it’s a fascinating book. I definitely will re-read it taking my time (five days to truly enjoy it is not nearly enough).
Have you read it?
What did you think about it?