Confession time! Sue over at Whispering Gums rightly took me to task a few months back after she perused my ‘Favourite Reads’ only to find no Dickens. The reason? Even more shocking than not having him on my list was the fact that, as I quipped to Sue, the closest I’d come to reading Dickens was the thoroughly enjoyable Jack Maggs by Peter Carey(!) (Jack Maggs is Carey’s Dickensian homage based around Magwitch—the convict who spooks Pip in the opening pages of Great Expectations.) Now, my single brush with Dickens is not completely true, for in primary school did put on a musical production of Oliver one year, in which, thankfully, I had only a bit part.
I’m not really sure how my lack of Dickens came to pass, though I had for some years been operating under the (very false) perception that I did not need classic realist tales, so engrossed was I in my favourite magic realist genre. I am a dilettante after all. But, as Sue will be glad to hear, I am very fond of Jane Austen! So it is a little strange that I hadn’t got round to Dickens. In any case, what can I possibly add to what has already been written on such a great book?
Famous for his characters (and caricatures?), I think one goes in expecting over-the-top characterisations, yet I was very glad to find myself enjoying all the characters that Dickens establishes and defines so well and with such flourish. It is no wonder his characters are some of the most memorable in literature. Yet for all of the sense of character, for me Great Expectations is a wonderful illustration of plot and structure. It is here that Dickens so excels, with an intricate—and yet completely controlled—plot. Yes, there are some happy co-incidences here and there, but they are easily forgotten. The three-part ‘stages’ of Pip’s expectations are equal in length and perfectly balanced. Straight from the off we are introduced to a character who might seem a bit player in the form of the convict Magwitch, to whom Pip offers some food and drink, and yet it is these characters, so expertly stage-managed within the structure of the story, who go onto play very important roles in Pip’s life.
WARNING: SPOILER ALERT – FOR ALL THOSE WHO HAVEN”T READ IT (WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING WITH YOUR TIME?!):
In each stage we see a very different Pip, from the boy ‘raised by the (Rampaging!) hand’ of his very much older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe Gargery, who comes into his ‘great expectation’ of inheritance at the end of the first stage, to the snobbish, ungrateful, devil-may-care Pip, carelessly living beyond his much increased means in London in the middle stage, to the final stage in which he realises the errors of his ways, and begins to redeem himself by admirably assisting his good friend Herbert Pocket. Along the way he also finds the truth behind his benefactor and his wealth vanishes before he finally comes to rest in a comfortable position.
Great Expectations is a bildungsroman story—i.e., the tracing of a youth growing into adulthood, gathering wisdom along the way, but it has very definite thrills and action sequences. Set against the highly stratified and rigid class hierarchy of Victorian England, we follow Pip’s internal struggle with his guilt over jumping up the social ladder and the ill-treatment of those he left behind. The story pretty much has a bit of everything, with the rise and fall of Pip’s wealth, his attaining of wisdom, his finding and losing and finding again of love, whilst all around him the lives of very rich cast of characters evolve, including the slighted (and simply wonderful) Biddy who finds love, the rise of Magwitch (as a convict done well in our very own Australia, we should be so proud!), the memorable Mr Jaggers, who seems to act as lawyer to just about everyone—and why not?, for he’s seems unbeatable in any argument!—to the deceitful and cloistered Miss Havisham and her adopted and seemingly heartless Estella. The list goes on. And in each of them is traced out an arc of growth or retardation. The book even has two different endings offered(!), with the original and discarded ending offered after the revised, refined, far more enjoyable and, dare I say it, more ‘Hollywood’ ending.
Last, but by no means least, there is the language. The prose’s exuberance and vitality is so overwhelming it almost threatens at times to be a little too much, but it never is. Instead, we are totally entranced by Pip’s (very erudite!) narrative of this wondrous and eventful story. Humour abounds, with wry observations such as ‘one always feels better when one has a lot of stationery’ (how true!), to the more overt: take Trabb’s Boy’s mimicking of the pompous Pip when he returns a gentleman to the village he grew up in, as well as the delightful Mr Pocket lifting himself up by his pulling his own hair.
The evocation of place is another highlight – particularly when that place is either a very old house(!) or anything to do with London. Early on (p14), we get a taste of Pip’s abilities to describe a scene:
Now I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; … On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy, and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village—a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there—was invisible to me until I was quite close under it. Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped, it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks.
It is also quite moving at times too, none more so than Magwitch’s death (p436):
‘Dear Magwitch, I must tell you, now at last. You understand what I say?’
A gentle pressure on my hand.
‘You had a child once, whom you loved and lost.’
A stronger pressure on my hand.
‘She lived and found powerful friends. She is living now. She is a lady and very beautiful. And I love her!’
With a faint effort, which would have been powerless but for my yielding to it, and assisting it, he raised my hand to his lips. Then he gently let it sink upon his breast again, with his own hands lying on it. The placid look at the white ceiling came back, and passed away, and his head dropped quietly on his breast.
Wonderful, and what great use of ‘passing away’ to refer to his gaze and, of course, his life. I am so very glad I finally got around to reading it. With thanks to Sue for her rightful prompting, it is left only for me to say: a classic.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).