Sunday, January 27, 2008

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

After 13 years, I finally revisited one of my favorite books of all time. In fact, Great Expectations is the first classic novel I ever remember reading. It was the first book we read in my freshman English class in high school, and it really made me a fan of the classics. All these years I've romanticized Estella (obviously) and thought fondly of Miss Havisham. Oddly, it is the main character, Pip, that I haven't thought much about. Instead, the details of Dickens' warped women have kept me company all these years.
One thing I realize upon re-reading is just how abridged that first copy must've been. I know we read it out of a textbook, so I can only imagine how much I missed. Maybe that's why Estella and Miss Havisham stayed strong in my mind while Pip faded into the background.
For those who haven't read it, a short blurb from the back of my Penguin Classics edition:
A terrifying encounter with an escaped convict on the Kent marshes; a summons to meet the bitter, decaying Miss Havisham and her beautiful, cold-hearted ward Estella; the sudden generosity of a mysterious benefactor--these form a series of events that changes the orphaned Pip's life forever, and he eagerly abandons his humble origins to begin a new life as a gentleman. Dickens's haunting late novel depicts Pip's education and development through adversity as he discovers the true nature of his 'great expectations.'
There's a good discussion of the book brewing over at the Year of Reading Dangerously blog, but I'll go ahead and flesh out some thoughts here before I start posting over there.
Pip is a pipsqueak. While he starts out a loving child, he quickly forsakes his family and friends when he gains a fortune from his mysterious benefactor (not a spoiler). While many were annoyed to the point of dislike with Pip, I never really felt that way. Perhaps it's Dickens's way with detail, but I always found Pip pretty human and understandable given his circumstances. He came from nothing and was suddenly faced with everything. Sounds a bit like a child star. Anyway, I always found something redeeming in him despite his gawd-awful behavior.
As for Dickens's deplorable ladies...they couldn't have been any better. My juvenile brain (combined with the film version, I suspect) clearly latched onto Estella and kept her all these years. It was with this re-reading that I discovered just how absent she is for the majority of the novel. However, I think therein lies the mystery. Because Estella is painted as iconic and enigmatic through the lens of Pip's obsession, Estella becomes a "big" character even though she is quite often only hovering in the background.
Miss Havisham, on the other hand, sprang to life for me upon this re-reading in a way she did not before. I got a much better feel for her cruelty and downright creepiness. All rot and spite, she spends her days rattling around Satis House with her cane, in a moldering wedding gown, surrounded by the vestiges of her unfulfilled marriage. I think Dickens did a great job fleshing out the crazy lady. I can't get enough of her now. If it weren't so well established, I might rename the blog. OK, maybe not, but it's a thought.
Overall, this novel is a big fat winner. It's twisted, it's nicely fleshed out, and the characters--both "bad" and good--are highly memorable.
Now I need to re-read A Tale of Two other Dickens favorite.


  1. You know, this post reminds me how important it is to re-read our favorite, most meaningful books. As we grow older (and in my case, even older!) our perceptions change so much.

    I've read Great Expectations twice - once in high school, and then again in college (which for me was quite a bit later).

    The book for me to re-read, the novels whose characters really stuck in my adolsecent mind, would be Jane Eyre. I only wish I had kept the battered Dell paperback I had when I first read in back in 1968!

  2. You do make this one sound good, Andi! Eventually, I would like to read beyond my limited experience with Dickens, and that includes Great Expectations.

  3. Yay! The first one in the Dangerous challenge is down! I'm plowing through mine. I started a little late but determined to get it finished before Friday.

  4. RR, it is quite important! There's always a part of me that says, "But there are already so many books on the time for re-reading!" But I'm finding that if it's been a long while since I've read the book, it's almost a whole new reading experience and always worth the while. I read Jane Eyre as an adult, but I will certainly be re-reading it as an older adult. lol

    Thanks, LF! Have you read A Tale of Two Cities by chance? From what I'm hearing, it may be a better place to start than GE since most had trouble slogging through the slow middle sections.

    Nik, I'm cheering you on!

  5. As a slight coincidence, Jasper Fforde steals Miss Havisham for use in his hilarious book The Well of Lost Plots, which I've just finished reading. So if you've really developed an obsession for her, you either need to read it at once or avoid it like the plague, depending on your views on 'reused' characters.

  6. LOL, Stu! I've read the first two Fforde books and have the third waiting patiently for me on the stacks. I enjoyed what little of Miss Havisham popped up in Lost in a Good Book. Isn't that right? Suddenly I can't remember if I have the order just right.

  7. I have only managed to read Oliver Twist, I'm afraid. I've seen the Christmas Carol movie several times in multiple versions, but somehow I don't think that counts. :-)

  8. I love your review more than the book! You found lots of charm in the story. Made me think differently about the book!

  9. How I wish I had liked it as much as you! I liked parts of it, and I'm glad I read it, but it just doesn't get me like it does you. I think I *cringe* would have liked an abridgement more.


  10. LF, I don't care for A Christmas Carol, and I'm probably the only human on the face of the earth that hates it. lol I love the Muppet movie version, thoug! And I was supposed to read Oliver Twist in college, but of course I didn't. I enjoyed what I did read of it, though! I'll probably go back to it one day.

    LOL, Fem!

    Thanks, Kristen! I'm notorious for finding good spots in long boring books. ;)

    Heatheroo, I don't mean to make it sound all sundrops and daisies. I certainly thought it was a SLOW freakin' read. I would've done better getting through faster if I'd had more time to sit down with it, but as it was I struggled and had to make myself sit down and read it. It was one of those back/forth books that once it was done, I enjoyed. The process was pretty painful, though. I read it for Estella and Miss H. to be quite honest. hehe

  11. I'm still working on Great Expectations, but your post definitely gave me some motivation to plug along. I hope I can get it finished soon!

    Isn't it interesting to reread books you read long ago and see how your perspective has changed? Some books stand the test of time, others you learn just aren't as good now that you are older.

  12. Andi - this was a great choice for the Dangerous challenge. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I'm going to try and post my thoughts tonight and join in on the discussion!

  13. Kim, isn't that the truth? Some books I purposely avoid re-reading because I'm almost certain they won't stand up and remain as enjoyable to me. Maybe I'll come up with a list. Hmmm, maybe my next post. lol

    Iliana, I'm really glad you enjoyed it. I know it's gotten a mixed bag of reactions, but I hope everyone who endures gets *something* out of it whether they enjoy it or not. If nothing else, the satisfaction of saying they read it!

  14. I was introduced to the book in my freshman class in high school also. But I didn't remember much from it until I re-read it again in college.

    Pip's revelation is not very different from many of us: He learns startling truths that cast into doubt the values that he once embraced so eagerly, and finds that he cannot regain many of the important things that he had cast aside so carelessly.

    A Tale of Two Cities is my favorite Dickens, although it's been generally trampled by critics. I always come back to re-read it.

  15. I read this last year and really enjoyed it as well. I was expecting something dry and dull and was pleasently surprised at the humour in it. I loved the character who worked for the lawyer (sorry his name escapes me right now) who lives in the castle with The Aged One his father. A very nice touch.

  16. Matt, good points re: Pip's plight. I also loved A Tale of Two Cities and can't wait to re-read it now. Sidney Carton is waiting for me! :)

    Wemmick! I loved him, too, Rhinoa. I didn't remember him at all from my first reading but just fell in love with him and the Aged this time around. :)

  17. Very funny. Just a couple days ago I wrote about the same horrible textbook.

  18. This is a favorite of mine, too. But you know who I like best? Joe. The funniest scene in that book, for me, is when Joe thinks Pip has bolted his food. And he says something about such an uncommon bolt! And then I think Pip gets the castor oil from his sister.

  19. LOL, Dewey! I loooved that part. Joe was great all around.

  20. I read "A Tale of Two Cities" as a freshman and loved it. However, I didn't really care for "Great Expectations." It and "A Christmas Carol" quite turned me off Dickens. I've been planning on trying him again with "Pickwick Papers." Great discussion going on here.

  21. I love British literature, but I have found Dickens to be very hard to get through. Great Expectations is the only book of his that I have actually LOVED. Joe is also my favorite character.

    When I read that Anthony Trollope was the "anti-Dickens" of his era I gave him a try. I prefer his less sensational stories and his "flawed" characters that aren't so stereotypically wicked.


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