Ooh, it’s been a while since I last posted. I feel a bit guilty about that. I won’t bore you with long excuses for my absence. I’ll just share the highs and lows. Probably the best part of 2020 (so far), is that we adopted a kitten (an adorable tuxedo cat we named Rigby). He is a wonderful addition to the family, despite a tendency to chase his humans and attack their toes. 2020 has been pretty fun, other than typical cold and flu season frustrations. This weekend my daughter came down with norovirus, so in between bleach cleaning every surface of the house in an effort to contain the contagion, I wrote this review.
Back in December, I was inspired to reread Great Expectations when I heard my nephew was studying it in his high school Lit class. The first time I read this book, I think I was in high school myself. Truthfully, I didn’t like it very much (even though I’m a big fan of Dickens’ other novels). So I was curious if I’d enjoy it more as an adult.
Great Expectations is a classic coming-of-age tale. At the start of the novel readers meet protagonist, Pip, visiting his parents’ graves, where he encounters an escaped convict. The hungry criminal bullies Pip into stealing some food to aid his escape. Pip procures the victuals, and then proceeds to agonize over whether he should tell someone about the encounter. Ultimately, Pip decides to keep it a secret. His initial crisis of conscience over this incident sets the standard for the rest of the book, as Pip wrestles with his values, morals, and ambitions throughout his youth and well into adulthood.
Initially, Pip lives with his sister and her kindly husband, Joe, the town blacksmith. Pip’s prospects in life are to apprentice under Joe and join the trade. However, his future takes an abrupt turn when he visits Satis House – the home of an aging, wealthy, recluse named Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham introduces Pip to her adopted daughter, Estella, and demands he return to Satis House intermittently to entertain her. Pip is delighted by this turn of events, as he’s very taken with Estella. Shortly after Pip begins his periodic visits to Satis House, he learns that a mysterious benefactor has invested in Pip’s improvement and social climbing. Pip is gifted all the necessary funds to attain an education, cover living expenses, and assume the life of a gentleman. Though the benefactor wishes to remain anonymous, Pip concludes it must be Miss Havisham. He speculates that it’s Miss Havisham’s secret wish to turn Pip into a gentleman so that he may one day marry Estella.
Rich characterizations abound across Dickens’ body of work. Miss Havisham is one of the most unique, extravagantly written characters in all of his novels, and in my opinion, in all of literature. She sits in a once opulent house, wearing a dirty wedding dress, with a wedding cake rotting upon the dining table, and mice residing within the spoiled confection. Miss Havisham and her depressed house are fascinatingly Gothic:
“…I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could”.
In this first introduction to young Pip, Miss Havisham is positively creepy:
“‘I sometimes have sick fancies; she went on, ‘and I have a sick fancy that I want to see some play. There, there!’ with an impatient movement of the fingers of her right hand; “play, play, play!'”
Pip is understandably frightened by Miss Havisham. He is also insatiably curious about her adopted daughter, Estella, who is teasingly aloof and cold. As the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly apparent that Miss Havisham has purposely raised Estella to be hard-hearted, and she gives little indication that her interest in Pip is anything other than cruel amusement. Miss Havisham and Estella are complex and intriguing. They are two of the most memorable of all Dickens’ characters. However, they are not particularly likeable.
In contrast to these, there are characters in the book who are almost absurdly benevolent and kind-hearted; Pip’s brother-in-law, Joe, being the most important and lovable character among them. Throughout the book Pip reflects upon Joe reverentially:
“It was not because I was faithful, but because Joe was faithful, that I never ran away and went for a soldier or a sailor. It was not because I had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, but because Joe had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, that I worked with tolerable zeal against the grain. It is not possible to know how far the influence of any amiable honest-hearted duty-doing man flies out into the world; but it is very possible to know how it has touched one’s self in going by, and I know right well that any good that intermixed itself with my apprenticeship came of plain contented Joe, and not of restless aspiring, discontented me”.
Joe’s virtuousness acts as a moral compass, and a plague to Pip’s conscience as he pursues his ambitions and grows more and more distant from his familial ties:
“I lived in a state of chronic uneasiness respecting my behavior to Joe… When I woke up in the night – like Camilla – I used to think, with a weariness of spirits, that I should have been happier and better if I had never seen Miss Havisham’s face, and had risen to manhood content to be partners with Joe in the honest old forge. Many a time of an evening, when I sat alone looking at the fire, I thought, after all, there was no fire like the forge fire and the kitchen fire at home”.
Pip thinks of Joe with some frequency, but he spends much of the story separated from Joe. The reader doesn’t spend much time with Joe outside of Pip’s conscience-stricken thoughts. As such, the warmest and most lovable character is absent from much of the story.
The secondary characters, whether good like Joe or complicated like Miss Havisham and Estella, exemplify the dualities in Pip: humble upbringing vs. social ambition, virtuousness vs. self-involvement, happiness vs. desire, etc.. Using the secondary characters to highlight the protagonist’s journey is a clever device. From an academic or intellectual perspective, therefore, it’s easy to understand why this is one of Dickens most celebrated works.
However, from the point of view of someone reading purely for enjoyment this novel may disappoint. As an adult I had more appreciation for it than I did as a teenager. Yet even now, Great Expectations isn’t my favorite Dickens novel by a long shot. I found it fascinating, but not particularly enjoyable. Maybe I expected too much? (Ouch. Dad joke. Sorry; couldn’t resist.)
P.S. Here’s a little picture of Rigby, for all the kitten fans out there…