Friday, January 04, 2013

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.

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