Skip to main content

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Cover image © Penguin Classics.
My previous attempt to read any Charles Dickens was an abortive one in the autumn of 2005 when I was given four days to read Our Mutual Friend. I’d actively avoided Victorian literature and as a result wasn’t too taken with the prospect of reading 800 pages of it.

With my renewed interest in the history of London, and following on from a rather good BBC adaptation of Great Expectations, I decided to try Dickens again.

First published, in serial form, between December 1860 and August 1861, Great Expectations tells the story of Pip, a young orphaned boy living in the care of his older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe Gargery out in rural Kent.

The story begins on Christmas Eve when Pip comes across a convict who has escaped from the aging hulks moored along the edges of the Kent marshes. In the eerie setting of the churchyard the convict scares Pip into stealing a file from Joe’s forge and some food from his sister's pantry. The prisoner, Magwitch, is recaptured whilst fighting with another escapee and returned to prison before being deported to New South Wales.

Shortly afterwards, a reclusive spinster, Miss Havisham, asks the buffoonish Uncle Pumblechook to find a male playmate for her adopted daughter Estella. Pip is invited to Miss Havisham’s mansion, Satis House, where everything is in a state of disrepair and the hostess still wears the wedding dress she had on when she discovered she was to be jilted at the altar. Pip’s fondness for Estella grows over time and Miss Havisham malevolently encourages this.

In the meantime, Miss Havisham pays for Pip to be apprenticed to Joe as a blacksmith. Here he remains until a lawyer, Jaggers, comes with news that a mystery benefactor wishes to pay for Pip to become a gentleman and that he must leave for London immediately.

These initial happenings set this, at times labyrinthine, story in motion. Pip’s curiosity about his benefactor, his enduring and at times desperate love for Estella, and his occasional pangs of guilt about leaving Joe behind at the forge all drive the story. That said, in truly Victorian style there is so much more to Great Expectations in by way of subplots and subtexts, all leading to a variety of sensational conclusions.

Perhaps most interestingly the storyline, as circuitous as it may at times seem, is tied together by the typically Dickensian themes of poverty, wealth and social class, virtue and corruption, and criminality and the law. Furthermore, to a modern reader, he provides a interesting critique of life in London during the early 19th Century - a place where your family's connections and wealth dictate whether you are destined to succeed or fail.

With this in mind, is the novel worth reading and is it in anyway relevant to modern day life? Yes and yes.

Great Expectations is thought of as a bildungsroman whereby we see Pip growing as a person and coming to the realisation that the money of his benefactor isn’t necessarily going to make him happy. From the outset of his restyling as a gentleman he seemingly has everything, but by the end of the novel he is heartbroken and struggling with debt. Ultimately his oldest and most loyal companion, one who he had as good as forgotten about, will come to his aid. 

All in all, in this age of instant celebrity and desire for instant gratification, Pip’s story could act as a cautionary tale to those who seek far too much and far too fast.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Atay Maghrebi: To Essaouira and the Atlantic

Leaving Marrakech, the landscape stays flat, except for a few distant outcrops of rock. The sensation of the inhospitality of the environment creeps up on you as the olive groves become fewer and further between and rough scrub runs away to the base of distant hills.
Eventually, the landscape starts to undulate as you pass through small towns like Sid L’Mokhtar, and, after two hours, Morocco simply runs out of land as the coach starts to plummet down to the Atlantic coastline and the peeling whitewash of Essaouira’s medina.

The morning started with the obligatory slices of sweet cake dipped into apricot jam, with a side of yoghurt and coffee. I had a chat with Merissa who was already awake and wearing sunglasses like she was nursing a hangover.
I packed up my bags and meandered my way out of the medina towards Bab Laksour to get a taxi.
Having learned the lesson last year that taxi metres are always mysteriously broken in Marrakech, I readied myself for a battle with the driver who…

Atay Maghrebi: Out of the Dark and into Jemaa El-Fnaa

The night time offers a wealth of opportunity and intrigue in almost any country, but when I'm somewhere where my understanding of the language extends to just a handful of phrases and disconnected words, I find it all the more enthralling. Marrakech genuinely quickens the pulse and widens the eyes by night, with the famous Jemaa El-Fnaa as its wildly arrhythmic beating heart.

After a day of perfectly idle wandering and preparing for my journey to Essaouira, I sat up on the roof terrace, ordered atay, read the ending of Alex Garland’s The Beach and waited for sunset.

During this time, a Dutch woman and a Belgian man sat near to me and started to talk about a range of subjects. Most of their discussion was centred around the regular banalities of two travellers who don’t know each other well and clearly don’t have a great deal in common.
Shortly before sunset, the Belgian man caught my attention as he started to regale his newfound friend with quotes from the Quran taken both ou…

From a Crooked Rib by Nuruddin Farah

I stumbled across Nuruddin Farah’s novels when searching for something written by a Somali author. Perhaps due to the conflict that has raged for years in Somalia, it is very difficult to find much from Somali writers published in English.
From a Crooked Rib was published in 1970 and tells the story of Ebla, a young, orphaned, illiterate nomadic girl, who runs away from her encampment. She takes the decision to leave upon learning of her Grandfather’s intention to marry her off to an older man within their Jes (a group of families living in an encampment together).
She firstly escapes to a town, Belet Amin, where she finds her cousin and his pregnant wife. She also finds a guide and confidante in a character known only as the widow. Things seem settled until, yet again, Ebla finds her freedom compromised by a male character – this time her cousin, whose wife and child Ebla has been nursing.
In her haste she leaves Belet Amin with the widow’s nephew, bound for Mogadishu – still called