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The Sources of Goodness
on 7 May 2004
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!