Friday, July 18, 2014

Great Expectations: A Review, of sorts.

Title: Great Expectations

Author: Charles Dickens

My rating: 10/10 stars.

Synopsis: This coming-of-age story (or bildungsroman) follows Philip "Pip" Pirrip as he starts out in the country as a blacksmith's apprentice. The only problem is that young Pip has fallen in love with Estella, the wealthy ward of Miss Havisham, a woman who has mysteriously spent the last many years of her life locked away in her house, in her wedding dress. Estella causes Pip to raise his expectations from the humble station of an illiterate blacksmith to the seemingly unreachable station of "gentleman." Unexpectedly, a fortune is bequeathed on Pip from a mysterious benefactor and Pip leaves the country for London, to become a gentleman. There is also that mysterious convict that keeps popping unexpectedly into Pip's life.

Negatives: There is child abuse at the beginning, though nothing in great detail.
A few swears, as you are apt to find in any book from the 1800's.
Several of the oily characters do slimy things.

Positives/let the gushing begin! (Beware of minor spoilers beyond this part): Charles Dickens is a genius. Forever will I be comparing my own writing to his. The way he successfully weaves character development, plot, themes, and humor astounds and baffles me. Never before have I seen all four juggled so perfectly and with such a clear outcome.

First characters. The characters in Great Expectations are so human. They grow and change and learn from their mistakes.
I've only time to talk about Pip and my favorite character, Mr. Wemmick.

Pip is the main character and the story follows his life. It starts when he's about seven years, ending when he's about twenty-five. In the first chapter we find him visiting the graves of his parents, whom he doesn't remember. There, Pip meets an escaped convict who persuades Pip to steal food for him, which Pip does, and proceeds to feel extremely guilty about it. Dickens gives us a look into Pip's inner thoughts throughout the book (it is a first person narrative) and the way he describes Pip's guilt over his poor decisions and the way he describes Pip's fear of the convict are perfect. I can remember feeling that exact guilt and that exact fear in my life before. Dickens has a way of describing humanity as it is, no frills added.
Throughout the whole book, Pip struggles between what's logical and right, and what he wants. His intentions aren't bad: he wants to improve himself. However, he wants to improve himself to catch the attention of Estella, not for the sake of reaching his full potential. Through the novel, we see Pip's inner turmoil and through that, we see him grow as a person. We watch him make decisions and we watch him deal with the consequences - whether good or bad - of those decisions. In the end of the book, Pip is very different than in the beginning.

Mr. Wemmick is a law clerk clerk and, at first glance, that seems like that is all he is. But Wemmick has two sides to him. At the office, he is exactly as a law clerk should be. He doles out money to people like Pip, and turns away clients that Mr. Jaggers can't be bothered with. Seemingly, he has no heart, so coolly does he deal with clients.
But when he goes home, he is a totally different person. Mr. Wemmick has built himself a miniature castle in the middle of the city. He has put castle turrets on top of his house, has dug himself a moat (complete with drawbridge), and has mounted a gun on his roof which he fires every night. Just in case something were to happen, Wemmick is entirely self-contained in The Castle, with a garden and a pig out back.
Wemmick is a very practical man and his life's motto is to get "portable property" (but more on that in a moment).
He also has an Aged P.

"Very much," was Wemmick's reply, "for I have had my legs under the desk all day, and shall be glad to stretch them. Now, I'll tell you what I have got for supper, Mr. Pip. I have got a stewed steak - which is of home preparation - and a cold roast fowl - which is from the cook's-shop. I think it's tender, because the master of the shop was a Juryman in some cases of ours the other day, and we let him down easy. I reminded him of it when I bought the fowl, and I said, "Pick us out a good one, old Briton, because if we had chosen to keep you in the box another day or two, we could easily have done it." He said to that, "Let me make you a present of the best fowl in the shop." I let him, of course. As far as it goes, it's property and portable. You don't object to an aged parent, I hope?"
I really thought he was still speaking of the fowl, until he added, "Because I have got an aged parent at my place." I then said what politeness required.
Chapter 25

There are so many other characters I could talk about... Miss Havisham, Estella, Joe, Pumblechook, Mrs. Joe, Mr. Wopsle, Mr. Jaggers, Herbert, Magwitch... Perhaps someday I'll do a post centered on the characters of this great novel.

Plot. At first, Great Expectations just seems like another coming-of-age story. Pip grows up, learns a few things, yawn, boring. But the story is SO much more than that! There are several different plot lines and mini-mysteries weaving through the book and the way they are resolved is quite surprising! I had an inkling to what might happen later and, even when I found out that I had guessed rightly, I was still astonished! I couldn't believe the plot Dickens had conceived! I wonder, did he think it out beforehand, or did it just come to him while he was writing? After all, Great Expectations was a novel published through serialization in a magazine.

Themes. There are so many themes in this book. Pride and shame is something that Pip deals with in regards to his uncle Joe. Pip is so prideful after he becomes a gentleman, that he has no time for Joe - a simple country blacksmith - anymore. This makes Pip feel shameful, but he doesn't do anything about it until the end. This goes right along with the theme of social class, which is evident not only in the way Pip interacts with Joe and his other country friends, but in the way Pip interacts with Miss Havisham and Estella. Pip spends most of the novel trying to reach Estella's level of class.
A huge theme is self-improvement and having "expectations." Having "great expectations" refers to looking forward to greatness in the future. Pip's "great expectations" are to become a gentleman, which does come true. Throughout the whole book, Pip is trying to improve himself. Other characters like Biddy (Pip's first teacher), Joe, and Herbert are also trying to improve themselves in knowledge and in the working world.
One of the reasons that Pip wants to improve himself is that he is not satisfied with what he has at the smithy with Joe. Once he meets Miss Havisham and Estella, he longs for their lifestyle. Satisfaction and contentment when it comes to money and station is a huge theme. Take Wemmick, for example. He always urges Pip to get "portable property" which are small items that you can carry with you on your person and sell quickly if you need money. Things like jewelry. Even food. Practical Wemmick isn't looking for wealth and fame. He just wants enough to live relatively comfortably on. Pip, on the other hand, is discontent with everything he has in the book and wants more, or wants it differently. For example, when he finds out who his benefactor is, he isn't satisfied and refuses any more money (though Wemmick urges him to take the freely offered "portable property" of the benefactor).
Crime is another theme, though I won't go into that one at the present time since it is one that I haven't thought too much about, and also, it would probably spoil things. Love and what love makes people do is another one I won't go into right now. I might have to do a separate post on this sometime too...

Humor. You'd think that a book that aces character, plot, and themes wouldn't have first rate humor in it too, but it does. There are several "comic relief" characters. Pumblechook is Joe's uncle, and he spends the novel bragging to everyone that he was the man who provided Pip with his fortune, which is erroneous. There is also Mr. Wopsle who works in the church, but later abandons it to revive Shakespearean acting. He doesn't get all too warm a reception as Hamlet...
(Aside- Something kind of funny, though... When we were at the Globe Theater in London, they told us that in Shakespeare's time the audience was very involved in the play. They would shout out suggestions or answer the questions the characters posed to themselves. In Great Expectations, when Pip and his friend Herbert go to see Wopsle as Hamlet, the audience similarly takes part in the play!)
Wemmick and his Aged Parent can also be pretty funny, as well as Herbert.
And just the way Charles Dickens describes things can be very funny (or, rather, clever), in a dry sort of way.
Here is a rather humerous quote from chapter 20...

We Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable to doubt our having and being the best of everything: otherwise, while I was scared of the immensity of London, I think I might have had some faint doubts whether it was rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty. ...nevertheless, a hackney coachman, who seemed to have as many capes to his great greatcoat as he was years old...

(Aside no. 2- That's another thing worth mentioning: the descriptions. While some could be a little long-winded at times, they were so clever and painted such a good picture in the mind's eye, you sort of pass over the long-windedness. Take these for example...

It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief.
-Chapter 3

So unchanging was the dull old house, the yellow light in the darkened room, the faded spectre in the chair by the dressing-table glass, that I felt as if the stopping of the clocks had stopped time in that mysterious place, and, while I and everything else outside grew older, it stood still.
-Chapter 17

Dinner over, we produced a bundle of pens, a copious supply of ink, and a goodly show of writing and blotting paper. For there was something very comfortable in having plenty of stationary.
Chapter 34

The way Dickens described every day things - like the above quote from chapter 34 - has a ring of truth in it. Even the way he describes some of the characters, though they aren't real, just makes them feel real. Like the way Mr. Jaggers the lawyer has to literally "wash his hands of his clients" with scented soap.)

Would I recommend it? I really, really enjoyed this book. I think it is the epitome of a great novel. However, not everyone has the same taste, so people who only read modern books like The Fault in Our Stars probably wouldn't enjoy or find any meaning in Great Expectations.

Live long and prosper!


  1. This is one of my favorites by Dickens too. Have you seen the newest BBC version of it? Harry Lloyd plays a most adorable Herbert Pocket in it. :) They did add a few things, but it all kept with the feel of the story.

  2. I have read a ways into the book but then got stuck. I /will/ finish it though!