Great Expectations charts the progress of Pip from childhood through often painful experiences to adulthood, as he moves from the Kent marshes to busy, commercial London, encountering a variety of extraordinary characters ranging from Magwitch, the escaped convict, to Miss Havisham, locked up with her unhappy past and living with her ward, the arrogant, beautiful Estella. Pip must discover his true self, and his own set of values and priorities. Whether such values allow one to prosper in the complex world of early Victorian England is the major question posed by Great Expectations, one of Dickens's most fascinating, and disturbing, novels.
For much of my life, the words "Charles Dickens" were enough to make me keel over, frothing at the mouth, screaming "No, sir, no sir, I do not want some more!" It wasn't that I didn't respect his work, it was simply the fact that I found the prose indigestible. It may be a result of the fact that a lot of his work was designed to be serialised in newspapers, but I found ploughing through pages and pages of descrptive language, which was all set out in suck a blockish, grey, uniformed manner, was just too much for me.
I also have my suspicions that having to near memorise the thoroughly lacklustre short story The Signalman for GCSE didn't help much either.
And thus, when I picked up Great Expectations as part of the reading for my Extended Essay on idealised characters, I had braced myself up for the worst. I was expecting horrors - it's a big book, split into three parts, and the premise of a plucky young man going out into the big city to make a name for himself put me so much in mind of Oliver Twist (which I have read, detested, and buried somewhere in the Corner of Shame underneath my dressing gown and a large pile of old magazines) that I nearly ran for the door then and there.
You'll be pleased to know I was so horribly wrong that I almost find it laughable.
Unlike the other Dickensian works that I have perused in the past, Great Expectations is written in first person, in a very conversational, almost companionable, tone of voice. Thus, we become much closer to the narrator and central character, Philip Pirrip - or, as we know him, Pip. Pip himself is a lovely character; engaging, honest, and at times highly amusing. Long transgressions of descriptive prose are rare, and the few that remain were dusted with such a delightful tone of gentle mockery that I actually found them rather enjoyable.
Because of this sleeker, more personalised narrative, Dickens' famous social caricatures really shine. Not only are the characters' names enough to induce several giggles - how could you not laugh at a name like Pumblechook or Wopsle? - but Dickens' snarky social observances are perfect. From the high-born lady who is so obsessed with her own history, and so utterly useless because of her closeted upbringing, that it's a wonder she doesn't kill her own baby; the small-town "thespian" who single-handedly turns Hamlet into a one-man circus act, to the thoroughly detestable young snotbag known as Bently Drummle, all of them, as well as being sources of great amusement and ridicule, make wonderful walking examples of Dickens' life view and - at times - vents for his own political beliefs.
What's more, the plot itself is an active little beastie. Rather than simply having Pip roam between rowing regattas, the blacksmith's forge and the home of his very creepy guardian Mr Jaggers, Dickens throws in convicts, love triangles, attempted murder and a very messy incident involving a boat engine ... though not, actually, in that order. There are some very poignant moments too, and sometimes you really do not expect some of the plot twists - I know I, for one, nearly fell out of my chair when the source of Pip's "inheritance" came to light! The blend of action and Pip philosophising is not always equal, but for the most part there is plenty to keep the reader interested.
On the other hand, even Dickens can't get everything right. Victorian literature is infamous for its sentimentality, and Great Expectations is no exception. Yes, Charles, we know Joe is a lovely, honest, bashful blacksmith. Yes, we know he deserves God's blessing. Yes, you can stop eulogising now.
In places, the realistic aspect of the dialogue has been sacrificed for the sake of making the conversation a means to expressing a point of view. Reading through the somewhat overcomplicated and deliberately mispronounced, garbled speech of Joe and the other more rustic characters is also very difficult until one gets the hang of it - though, admittedly, it's never easy. Some of the plot elements - sure such as the motive and backstory of Magwitch, and the sudden change-of-heart and serendipitious circumstances involving Estella at the end of the tale - are never made fully credible either, which is a pity, because the setting itself is beautifully accurate (which is hardly surprising, given that Dickens lived there his entire life).
Overall, I would say Great Expectations is a wonderful book - and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is looking to get a good introduction to Victorian literature. In fact, I'd recommend it to anyone looking for an engaging protagonist, a strong setting, a cast of colourful characters and a feeling of cultured smugness as you sit down reading it on the train to London. One word of advice: make sure your edition has a glossary. Working out what in the name of sanity some of the colloquial slang means is a little tricky - and more than a little misleading - without it!
You can find this book at any local bookstore, and most web-based booksellers.
~ Charley R