As we finally enter the downhill run for 2020, it seemed fitting to pick up Great Expectations. After all, we all had such great expectations for this year, didn’t we? Nothing went to plan, for us or for one of Dickens’ most-beloved protagonists, Pip. I really loved David Copperfield, so I figured I was all set for another five-star read from the master of English literature. Unfortunately, 2020 struck again…
Great Expectations was Dickens’ thirteenth novel, but only the second (after the aforementioned David Copperfield) to be fully narrated in the first-person. He must’ve known he was on to something, because this one, too, traces the psychological and moral development of a young man, his transition from country to city life, and an eventual homecoming. But beyond that, they actually have very little in common; apparently, Dickens re-read David Copperfield before starting Great Expectations, to make sure he didn’t accidentally repeat himself.
Dickens structured Great Expectations as three “stages” (volumes), but it was initially published as a serial (as most stories were back then) in Dickens’ own weekly magazine, All The Year Round. Installments appeared from December 1860 to August 1861, and Great Expectations was published in full in a three-volume set later that year. Fun fact: Dickens only put pen to paper and started publishing because the previous serial – A Day’s Ride by Charles Lever – was tanking and circulation numbers were way down. Just goes to show, if you want something done right…
The story begins on Christmas Eve 1812, with our boy Pip an orphan at 7 years old. While visiting the grave of his parents, he encounters an escaped prisoner who bullies him into stealing food and tools from home. For Pip, “home” is a (very) modest dwelling shared with his hot-tempered much-older sister and her amiable husband, the town blacksmith Joe Gargery. They took Pip in after his parents died, and no one ever lets him forget how lucky he is that they did so. (Why does every adult in a Dickens novel get off on psychologically torturing children? Seriously!)
So, Pip pinches some food and a file for the prisoner (so he can gather his strength and cut off his shackles). The poor kid is freaking out that he’s going to get busted, all through Christmas dinner. There’s a knock on the door, and it’s a unit of soldiers asking Joe the Blacksmith to mend some shackles so that they might re-capture two escaped prisoners. Once the prisoners are re-captured and shackled, one of them falsely confesses to having stolen the food and the file himself, clearing Pip of any suspicion.
Sorry for the absurd level of detail here, but it’s all important later, I promise – a clarification that applies to this review and to Great Expectations itself in equal measure. That said, even though Dickens has a reputation for long-windedness and bloated sentences, he can be extremely evocative and succinct when he wants to be. Plus, the wry humour I loved in David Copperfield definitely carries over…
“My sister having so much to do was going to Church vicariously, that is to say, Joe and I were going.”Great Expectations (Page 23) – Lol!
A few years after the convict incident, Pip is summoned by local pain-in-the-arse Mr Pumblechook to go and visit Miss Havisham. She’s a wealthy and notoriously reclusive spinster, so she needs a young gun around the place to liven her up a bit. Upon arriving at her decrepit mansion, Pip promptly falls in love with Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter, Estella. Now, this bitch is cold as ice, the Queen of Treat-‘Em-Mean-Keep-‘Em-Keen. The rest of Great Expectations could almost be summed up as “Pip remains butt-hurt that Estella was mean to him for the rest of his life, while desperately trying to win her approval,”.
The visits to Miss Havisham continue until Pip is old enough to begin his apprenticeship under Joe (which Miss Havisham pays for). Joe’s assistant, Orlick, is jealous as hell about the up-start brother-in-law getting the plum gig. Instead of wallowing in his misery, like a normal person, he bonks Mrs Joe over the head with something heavy. She doesn’t die, but she does suffer severe brain damage, and Orlick figures justice has been served.
Four years into Pip’s apprenticeship, he receives a visit from a lawyer, Mr Jaggers, with the most intriguing offer. Apparently, an anonymous patron has set aside a large sum of money to finance Pip’s dream of Becoming A Gentleman. Obviously, Pip assumes it’s Miss Havisham, his previous financier, but Mr Jaggers refuses to confirm or deny. Off Pip goes to London, to learn how to Act Proper…
Thus begins the second stage of Great Expectations. Pip sets himself up with a tutor, and finds a best friend in the tutor’s son, Herbert (who bizarrely calls Pip ‘Handel’ throughout the novel – it was annoying and confusing as heck for a while). The swankier Pip gets, the more embarrassed he becomes about his upbringing, and he starts to look down his nose at Joe and the family who raised him.
Word comes from home that Orlick (of head-bonking fame) has come into the employ of Miss Havisham – uh oh! – but Pip, being a dick-swinging gent now, has a quiet word in Mr Jaggers’ ear and sees to it that Orlick gets the sack. Now, here’s the weird part: you’d think that this would be a huge CLANG moment with reverberations, given that this is a book about moral development and all, but Dickens kinda glosses over it. Instead, he skips straight ahead to the next Big Twist: that Pip’s sister finally succumbs to her injuries and topples off the mortal coil. Joe is, understandably, quite bummed.
Pip’s still getting five hundred quid a year from his anonymous benefactor, which is more than he knows what to do with, so he decides to do a little anonymous benefact-ing of his own. He sets his mate Herbert up in a plum job that will last him the rest of his life. He figures this good deed will get the karma train running back his way, but alas, Estella still won’t have a bar of him. She decides she’s going to marry some other dickhead instead; Pip tries to talk her out of it, and she (quite rightly) tells him to get fucked and mind his own business.
So, we’re about halfway through Great Expecations at this point (it feels longer than 2020, doesn’t it?), and FINALLY Pip’s benefactor is unmasked! Obviously, it’s not Miss Havisham. It’s actually the convict he encountered that first night in the cemetery (see? told you it was important later!). Mr Abel Magwitch was transported to Australia after he was re-captured, but he never forgot the kindness of the little boy who got him a feed and helped him in his bid for freedom. Magwitch worked hard, yanked on some bootstraps, and eventually got enough money together to make Pip a gentleman. Unfortunately, he violated the terms of his sentence to return to England to see that it was done, so now he’s put everyone in a real fucking pickle. Nice going, Magwitch.
Third stage: Pip needs to figure out how to get Magwitch out of the country, pronto, and he enlists Herbert’s help to get it done. Now, I must say, the plot of Great Expectations really starts to fall apart at this point. It’s a lot of Pip running back and forth between Mr Jaggers and Miss Havisham, getting money and figuring out who Estella’s birth parents are (??? who cared until now? honestly?).
Dickens officially loses me when Miss Havisham spontaneously combusts – no, I’m not kidding! Pip gets badly burned trying to put out the flames. It’s painful and all, but he cops on with it, and he and Herbert are just about ready to smuggle Magwitch out of the country… when Pip is foolishly lured to the remote(!) marshes(!!) at night(!!!) and Head-Bonker-In-Chief Orlick tries to murder him.
I’m just going to rush through the rest of it, because really, if you’re not Done(TM) with Great Expectations by now, you need to work on your priorities. Herbert saves the day, and Pip is rescued from certain death. They almost manage to get Magwitch out of England, but they get busted at the last minute and it all goes to hell. Magwitch dies in prison. Pip gets real crook and Joe has to nurse him back to health. Joe also ends up paying all of Pip’s debts (no idea where he got the dough, but I was so bored and confused by this point I didn’t really give it much thought). Joe marries the nurse who cared for his first wife (good for him). Pip moves with Herbert and his wife to Egypt (cool, cool). He comes back after eleven years, and has his final encounter with Estella.
She falls into his arms, and they finally live happily ever after, right? WRONG. After all that, there is absolutely no pay-off. Great Expectations ends with the famously ambiguous line that Pip saw “no shadow of another parting from her” after that. The end.
So, yes, Great Expectations was a bit of a let-down. My fault, really, for reading it during this stinking-bad-very-no-good year.
Clearly, Great Expectations didn’t draw me in the way that David Copperfield did. I’m still struggling to figure out why, exactly. I remember David Copperfield being brilliantly paced, and it kept me hooked, all the way through to a satisfying resolution. Great Expectations started off okay, with poor orphan Pip and his crisis of conscience, but after that it just kind of tanked.
I think maybe this book’s downfall is that, though Dickens tried to write an interesting plot and character (as he did so successfully with David Copperfield), he was too preoccupied this time around with inserting his Ideas into the story. He ended up with 600+ pages about the (contradictory) concepts of morality and status, being a good person and being a gentleman, etc. Those ideas all made their way into David Copperfield of course – as they do many other Edwardian and Victorian books – but that was a book about characters with problems, not problems personified in characters. Great Expectations is an interesting philosophical and class commentary – about the origins of wealth, personal values versus social ladder climbing, and so on – but that alone doesn’t make for a good read.
The one real upside to reading Great Expectations (aside from the fact that now I can say I have and I never have to do it again) is that I can officially say the rumour that Dickens “couldn’t write women” is absolute bullshit. By far, the most interesting characters in Great Expectations were Mrs Joe (who was basically the original Petunia Dursley), Miss Havisham (the bitter old broad who hates all men, very relatable) and Estella (who has no time for being “nice” to boring boys unworthy of her). Apparently, Estella was based on Dickens’ real-life mistress, Ellen Ternan – I hope she gave him hell.
So, that’s it. I found Great Expectations a real slog, and struggled to get through to the end – which makes it the perfect metaphor for this slog of a year. I loved David Copperfield enough that I’m not dissuaded from ever trying Dickens again, but Great Expectations and I are done. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a first-timer! Here’s hoping my next Dickens – and the next year! – is a return to form.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Great Expectations:
- “I know this is true Dickens style, but the detail wasted on nothing for pages and pages was just too much. Pip is a twit.” – Victoria Reader
- “I had low expectations… they were met.” – Jon M. Wilson
- “I guess the author had lower expectations than the audience did” – t
- “i would recomend this book to friends who have insomnia or those who i absolutely despise.” – Amazon Customer
- “I was forced to read this book in my English class this year, and I almost died. For a more thrilling read, try a dictionary or a phone book.” – Brandon Rohrig
- “Reading GREAT EXPECTATIONS as a 14 year old high school student in 1967 helped me acquire a clearer understanding of the concept of infinity. Eternity could never be as long as this book, which I endured to its soporific, boring end. I recommend it to hold up the end of a busted sofa!” – Author in the Attic
- “Amazon. Sort your reviews section out on this. Reviews in this section seem to be for everything from a book to a mug to a tea towel to an audiobook to Anne of Green Bloody Gables. Atrocious.” – Def Jef