Great Expectations succeeds beyond almost all novels of its time in exploring the roots of character and moral behavior. Charles Dickens makes the case for there being the potential for good in everyone. Evil and sin follow from a combination of being self-absorbed and selfish. What is remarkable about the way these themes are handled is that they are clearly based on an assessment of human psychology, long before that field was established.
The book is also remarkable for its many indelibly memorable and complex characters. Miss Havisham, Pip, Magwitch, Mr. Jaggers, and Estella are characters you will think about again and again in years to come.
The book also surrounds you with a powerful sense of place. Although the England described here is long gone, it becomes as immediate as a nightmare or a dream that you have just awakened from.
For a book about moral questions, Great Expectations also abounds in action. The scenes involving Pip and Magwitch are especially notable for way action expresses character and thought.
Great Expectations also reeks of irony, something that is seldom noticed in more modern novels. Overstatements are created to draw the irony out into the open, where it is unmistakable. Yet the overstatements attract, rather than repel. The overstatements are like the theatrical make up which makes actors and actresses look strange in the dressing room, but more real on the stage when seen from the audience.
At the same time, the plot is deliciously complex in establishing and solving mysteries before that genre had been born. As you read Great Expectations, raise your expectations to assume that you will receive answers to any dangling details. By reading the book this way, you will appreciate the craft that Mr. Dickens employed much more.
This is the third time that I have read Great Expectations over the last 40 years. I found the third reading to be by far the most rewarding. If you like the book, I encourage you to read it again in the future as well. You will find that the passage of time will change your perspective so that more nooks and crannies of the story will reveal themselves to you.
If this is to be your first reading of the book, do be patient with the book's middle third. It may seem to you that the book is drifting off into a sleep-inducing torpor. Yet, important foundations are being lain for your eventual delight.
Mr. Dickens wrote two endings for Great Expectations. Be sure to read both of them. Which one do you prefer? I find myself changing my mind.
Give love with an open heart, without expectations!
on 8 February 2004
Charles Dickens's acknowledged masterpiece, Great Expectations, is rightly considered one of the greatest novels of all-time. It depth and breadth are staggering, as it follows its protagonist, Pip, from his early childhood through his later life. During the course of his life, we encounter a vast catalog of raw human emotions: love, hate, jealousy, hope, sadness, despair, anger, pity, empathy, sympathy -- and on and on. The story is treasured and revered for many reasons. One of its main strengths is its plot: after a somewhat slow introductory section, Dickens puts his story in fifth gear and delivers a fast-paced and exciting story that gallops along without ever losing interest or clarity. The incredibly complex plotline, full of separate stories and incidents that seem totally unrelated to each other, but are then all harnessed together as the book heads straight toward its denouement, is also full of constant plot twists, which continue up until, literally, the last paragraph. But, of course, as with all of Dickens's major works, it is the characters that make the book. Like Shakespeare, Dickens preferred to have the story develop through the characters, rather than having the characters be mere set pieces inside of an overriding story. And what great characters they are: the perennially paradoxical but essentially human Pip; the bitter and mysterious Miss Havisham; the beautiful and haughty Estella; the simple and saint-like Joe; the kind and benevolent Herbert; the very human convict, Magwitch -- and all of the other wonderful characters. Dickens excelled in creating well-rounded, very human characters who harbored very real and very complex emotions -- that is, human emotions. We identify with Pip as he winds through his life, because we have been there, too -- the disappointments, the surprises, the loves, the anger, the sadness. In whatever way his story may differ from our own, it is still essentially human, as is ours. For all of his complex and paradoxical emotions and sentiments, Pip is a recognizably human character -- and that is why we love him and this book. A masterpiece for the ages, which will endure for years yet to come, Great Expectations is a great book that can be loved by one and all, for, at its heart, is that grain of simple truth that says so much about what is human in all of us -- whether we have great expectations or not.
on 20 January 2006
I spent most of my 45 years since leaving school doing my best to avoid anything by Charles Dickens, quite why, I'm not sure. A recent illness and enforced idleness had me rummaging around some books I had come by and there was Great Expectations. I thought I'd try just the first chapter, but was hooked from the first page. This is one helluva book! The pace, the characterisation, the plot, the atmosphere, the everything are masterly. But it isn't all misery as there are frequent moments of irony and typically English gallows humour. Outstanding, but it'll make you cry.
At it's heart Great Expectations is a very bleak novel, with Pip's mysterious inheritance leading to nothing but misery, and his hopeless unrequited love for Estella the cause of numerous woes, but Dickens simultaneously manages to turn this into a comic delight by the inclusion of a host of arch characters: the pompous local tradesman Pumblechook, who tries to claim credit for Pip's good fortune; lawyer Wemmick, who schizophrenically divides his entire personality between work and home, where he turns his house into a castle and comforts his 'Aged P'; Pips monstrous sister, who is so mean to him that it actually becomes amusing; the list goes on. Even the opening, with Pip being confronted by an escaped prisoner on the moors seems to be played for laughs, but as the narrative goes on and Pip's struggling to attain the status worthy of Estella backfires, the book becomes far more sombre, ending up with a moving and ambiguous downbeat ending.
The plotting is tight, hinging around a misconception by Pip regarding the nature of his mysterious benefactor, and though it stretches credulity with it's reliance on unlikely coincidences, and the constant back and forth between London and Pips rural home village become rather tiresome towards the end, the strength of the characters keep this novel alive. Every character of importance is vivid and compelling, from Pip's simple-minded but good-hearted father-figure Joe; the mean-spirited Miss Haversham, who sits amongst the rotted remains of her aborted wedding-day and plots against love itself; her cold and mysterious ward Estella, who has been nurtured into a loveless creature that Pip is sure he can save - it is through the characters that this book shines.
A dark and compelling plot, larger-than-life characters and brilliant prose makes this an essential read.
(NB _ This Wordsworth edition also includes a helpful introduction, the original (inferior) ending, and notes on more obscure references within the text).
on 27 February 2003
Having just read G E for the first time, what strikes me is its infinite sadness and sense of melancholia. While there is much of Dickens`s customary wit and punning humour in the writing, the
impression is of a man in the grip of an atypical desire to express some deep pain, a sadness inconsolable, exemplified in the self-torturing central figure of Pip, growing up in a household dominated by a much elder sister/mother who is forever `on the Rampage` and a long-suffering, seemingly ineffectual uncle/father, Joe, who is nevertheless virtually the one constant source of hope in the novel - a thoroughly good, unlettered yet deeply human man (an almost Hardyesque figure; and it is in G E that Dickens perhaps foreshadows such works as Tess and The Mayor of Casterbridge) who is nevertheless far more dignified and, in his way, proud than he at first appears. He, Joe, refuses to outstay his welcome both times he visits Pip in London, not only from a sense of incongruity, but also a strong feeling of self-preservation,a gentle pride in his own realness - something Pip himself nearly loses.
Dickens`s final, tentatively hopeful chapter, Pip and Estella in the ruins of Miss Havisham`s garden, is suitably downbeat, refusing to allow the saddened reader too much sunlight, even as we are gladdened by the catharsis of self-knowledge so hard-won by Pip over the course of the previous 500 pages.
This is, like Wuthering Heights, The Mayor of Casterbridge or Jane Eyre, one of the timeless, lightning-struck landmarks of 19th century literature, if anything the most regretfully sombre of all of them.
A mature, autumnally beautiful book.
on 1 January 2012
The only Dicken's book I've read before is Christmas Carol, such a long time ago I had forgotten how good he was at writing a picture. To me reading this book has been like watching a film it's so descriptive, all the smoky corners, misty marshes and the living, breathing City of London of the 19th century are right there on the page. All the characters, apart from their names, could be real people and they play their parts well - from a young Pip caught in a churchyard by an escaped villian from the hulks to Miss Havisham caught in her own wedding day nightmare. Beautifully written, a must for all Dicken's fans.
on 21 November 2011
I chose this for a long car journey with the family. Hugh Laurie reads very well, with great voices for the different characters, but he reads fast. Although I knew this version was abridged, I had no idea how much would be cut out - to the point where it was sometimes hard to follow the story. The fast pace and the abridged text made this a more breathless and pacy experience than I anticipated. However, we all enjoyed the story immensely. Next time I will take care to choose a longer version. This felt like a mere taster for someone who intends reading the book, or a reminder for those who know the book already.
on 12 October 2011
It took me a very long time to get around to reading Dickens, but then - about a year ago, in a moment of sheer folly I guess - I undertook to read (or reread in some cases) all major English novels since the beginning of the genre. And that, inevitably, brought me to Dickens before long. I have now virtually read every novel he has written (apart from A Tale of Two Cities (Oxford World's Classics) and Our Mutual Friend (Oxford World's Classics)). Some I have liked better than others, all have their merits, but none affected me as strongly as 'Great Expectations'.
Strangely enough, just why this should be so is somehow hard for me to pinpoint. Is it Pip? Perhaps so, to a degree. He is by no means a flawless character (compared to Little Dorrit for instance, or Florence Dombey) and clearly has his faults, but perhaps it's precisely that which makes him so eminently human and likeable. Who among us would not, at the very least, be tempted to ignore poor friends from the past if riches suddenly came our way? But I sympathized as readily with Joe, who with his simple and straightforward principles becomes the very emblem of steadfastness and compassion. And I identified completely with Magwitch: he may be a criminal, but above all he is a father, and being one myself I could immediately relate to his feelings and actions, sacrificing everything for the sake of his beloved child. He may not be acquitted by a court of law, but he fully redeems his sins of the past in the eyes of Pip. And I've not even mentioned Estella and Miss Havisham, surely they too are amongst the most unforgettable characters Dickens created.
'Great Expectations' is of a timeless relevance and beauty. I will definitely reread it myself in years to come, I'm sure it only gets better each time around.
on 13 August 2003
There are many things to dislike about Dickens. He has a tendency to go for novels of overblown length (one review on this website of his shortest novel ‘Hard Times’ seems to think that bigger means better, which I am inclined to disagree with). His characters (especially the women) are either innocent virtue or wholly malevolent. And then of course there’s the lachrymose sentimentality…
With ‘Great Expectations’ all this gets reined in. It tells the story of Pip, apprenticed to kindly blacksmith Joe Gargery, who is provided with an unexpected opportunity to become a gentleman. He shuns his working class roots and goes off to fulfil his ambitions in London, the primary motivation presumably being his desire to impress the beautiful but cold-hearted Estella.
From this premise, Dickens weaves a simple but hugely effective yarn that contains an important moral lesson. In true Dickens style it is exercised in a preachy manner; but considering the time Dickens wrote it in, it was the only way to get across his radical social criticism. ‘Great Expectations’ has all the positive aspects of the ‘later’ Dickens novels, whilst managing to dispense with the usual criticisms applied to his writings. It is tightly and deftly plotted, but doesn’t take time to flourish into something gripping (hello ‘Bleak House’). There are complex characters too – such as Pip, who is subject to a voyage of self-discovery, and Jaggers, who isn’t as sinister as he seems. Even some of the female characters are interesting, like Biddy, who is sweet-tempered and pious, but not afraid to stand up for herself either. And when Dickens goes for the emotional jugular he genuinely moves you – the chapter in which Joe (the novel’s true gentleman) visits Pip for the first time in London, and behaves awkwardly but manages to emerge with dignity, is absolutely heartbreaking.
‘Great Expectations’ is a novel with acute social commentary, populated with a cast of unforgettable characters and featuring a plot that gets all the more exciting as it reaches its denouement. It is a typical Dickens novel, but one that neutralises the factors that so often blight his writing, thus elevating it above the rest of his (mostly excellent) works.
on 9 April 2007
I have a handful of books I can read over and again and this is top of the list, it may even be my desert island choice. The descriptive passages are wonderful and the characters are so richly painted. Pip and Joe is the best relationship - some funny moments, sad moments and some really heartbreaking moments. Every time I get to the part where Pip thinks he is too good for Joe and Joe irritates him it makes my skin crawl. Estella is a wonderful character, cruel, cold and twisted but not her fault and she ends up in a sad situation. Miss Havisham - a truly creepy lady, what an excellent creation. The story is fabulous with such a great ending - who would have thought? This book is absolutely fantastic. Brilliant characters, described so well that the most unimaginative reader will have vivid mental images of them all and you won't forgot them or this book. Ever.