In what may be Dickens’s best novel, humble, orphaned Pip is apprenticed to the dirty work of the forge but dares to dream of becoming a gentleman — and one day, under sudden and enigmatic circumstances, he finds himself in possession of “great expectations.” In this gripping tale of crime and guilt, revenge and reward, the compelling characters include Magwitch, the fearful and fearsome convict; Estella, whose beauty is excelled only by her haughtiness; and the embittered Miss Havisham, an eccentric jilted bride.
Glancing about for my next read, I came across Great Expectations and I had to read it owing to the fact that there was a French teacher called Miss Havisham at school and that is as good a reason as any when the choice before me is so great.
The start is a brilliant set piece, a graveyard scene, an escaped convict and a boy alone on the foggy marshes. It’s one of those openings that doesn’t just grab you in and keep you hooked from the off but is one of those memorable set pieces that will stay fixed in your memory for years.
It’s not far into the book when the word farinaceous (consisting of or containing starch) pops up thus reinforcing how good this book is. Add in some trademark Dickens character names like Mr Wopsle and Pumblechook and a story that progresses smoothly to make this one of the higher echelon of British classics in my opinion.
Pip’s voice is wonderfully written, it feels accurate and full of regret. Most importantly it feels human and his thoughts, humbleness and understanding of key life events show a maturity of writing that comes through his natural growth of character throughout the book. As far as narrators go Pip is one of my favourites.
Dickens has a great eye for human affectations, traits and emotional states, he really is a master and brings his characters to life, their often tragic ways and flaws, their hopes and beliefs. What intrigued me is whilst plenty of characters have depths hidden which the reader is not aware of to begin with, others keep their singular attitudes and ways as anchors around the story, to perhaps ground the characters on their journeys towards redemption or otherwise.
Although there is plenty of emotional upheaval along the way and the occasional bleakness which Dickens does so well, there is also plenty of gentle humour as well, whether at a funeral or about a fight (possibly the best fight scene other than the one in John Carpenter’s They Live). This lightness keeps the plot from descending into a maudlin trudge through heartache and misery, it is that balance that makes the book one of Dickens’ best and allows the author to explore the whole gamut of emotions effectively.
For now the very breath of the beans and the clover whispered to my heart that the day must come when it would be well for my memory that others walking in the sunshine should be softened as they thought of me.
Peppering the book are another one of Dickens’ fortés, his memorable characters of which the chief is the aforementioned Miss Havisham – although this one doesn’t mention speaking French – her entry into the book and subsequent descriptions are wonderfully dark and full of mystery tinged with desolation. She is a wonderful creation, bitter, locked away in time, self and mind, to say any more would deprive the new reader of her intriguing atmosphere.
Although the middle third is a little slow at times true to the Dickens way, it’s not half as rambling as some of his other works, having said that it is by no means dull and it makes the final third all the more satisfying as all the loose ends come together and are tied up. There are enough twists running through the various storylines that it didn’t always go in the direction I expected which made it all the more compelling when things were resolved in a convincing fashion.
It ultimately leads the reader to question what the Great Expectations of the title allude to and what it is that makes a person happy, it throws in some life lessons along the way and is full of feeling. Having read seven Dickens books, other than A Christmas Carol this is the one that demands my attention again sooner rather than later and would make a great starting point for those looking to get in to Dickens; longer works.