Tuesday, 12 June 2012

What the Dickens! - Charley R Reviews "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens

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

21 comments:

  1. And I'd suggest not watching the Masterpiece Theater version. The book was better, since most of the humor was found in the descriptions.
    I agree that Dickens is better when writing in the first person. He's rather more formal-- though still funny-- in Oliver Twist.

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    1. Hehe, I have no intention of sniffing the TV adaptions - I've heard far too many horror stories about those to go near them, haha!

      Eh, I just found the prose too blocky and overdone in Oliver Twist. Plus, Oliver was a bit wet and weedy as a protagonist for my taste, though Dodger was wonderful.

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    2. Dodger is awesome. I do feel that Dickens did a better job of getting inside the characters' heads when he was in first person. I'm going to be trying that in my next novel, so I'll see if it works better than third person omniscient. Personally, I like third person because you can show so many peoples' different personalities, but first person has its merits. What do you like?

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    3. Ugh, I hate third person omniscient - I just can't do it. Personally, I'm a third person limited one, though I intend ot start using first person for a new project soon. Both are great for getting inside characters' heads while still allowing the plot to flow more naturally, and keep twists more secret.

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    4. I don't give plot twists away while in third person omniscient-- I just have fun with it. Of course, I lump third person omniscient together with third person limited, but if I had to say which I use more often, it would be third-person-limited. I like the humor available in first person, though, which is why I'm planning on it for my next project.

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    5. Indeed - I find omniscient incredibly hard to write properly, so I just avoid it so I don't make a mess :P

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    6. Just wrote a post on the different styles yesterday, and my thoughts on each. It isn't up on my blog yet and probably won't be for another... *checks* week or so. It should go up on Monday if I stick with my current schedule. (I've got two completed posts ready to be posted before this one.)

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    7. Sweetness! I shall see it then :)

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    8. It'll be posted soon... I think.

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  2. Aah, but you are WRONG! The TV adaptation of Great Expectations that was on over Christmas was brilliant! Miss Havisham was not casted particularly well, but the others were excellent! Although it was kind of ruined by my grandma, who at the end of the first episode helpfully blurted out the benefactor.
    Sigh.

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    1. Neh, I didn't like that TV adaption - Estella was really whiny and annoying and, although I hadn't read the book by that stage , I just didn't enjoy it.. And, to be honest, I just prefer books over most TV / film adaptations. Call me picky, but it's the truth :P

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  3. *giggles* Now I REALLY wish I still had that sweatshrit with all the relationships outlined on it... *sigh* That was most definately a complex novel and we read it in about year 10 or 11... I want to say 11 - I remember our teacher and the classroom, including exactly where it was in the building, very distinctly... She was such a good teacher that I did well and was put in Honors the next year (one step up from College Prep), where I didn't do as well.

    Anyway. I have not read Oliver Twist, but I do read A Christmas Carol now and again whent eh season strikes me. It's a much shorter book, and I have a very nice hard cover edition with plates of water color paintings in the middle. :}

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    1. Hehe, I rather enjoyed it - didn't feel it was all that complex, but after reading William Faulkner nothing seems complex any more, haha!

      I haven't read A Christmas Carol - shame on me! I think I ought to, before it gets too weird saying I haven't xP

      I don't recommend Oliver Twist either. It's not as good as others :P

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  4. I think I read the first chapter of Great Expectations once and didn't like it. Mind, maybe it's a family thing. Neither of my parents have ever liked Dickens though they've read plenty of other 'Classics' (we seem to be a Hardy household. Hardy and Aldous Huxley dominate the 'Classics' bookshelf).

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    1. Haha, Hardy and I have never been friends - not on the novel front, at least. I like his poetry, even if it is a bit mopey and depressed at times. Huxley is just awesome xD

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  5. I've read a few Dickens novels before - A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist - and I have to say I rather enjoyed them! Honestly, I think most classics from older time periods can be difficult to immerse yourself in (for instance, the language in Shakespeare - I love Shakespeare, but man, does it take some getting used to!)...however, if you think Dickens is bad, you may not want to try Jane Austen. Her style and description REALLY takes some getting used to, haha! (Overall, though, I do like her work. Of course, I'm not sure it's your kind of thing, hehe...)

    Anyway, good review! I read a little bit of Great Expectations once but never finished it; however, I've been wanting to try it again, and this may push me to do so. :)

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    1. SHAKESPEARE FTW! I love older classics too - Chaucer, Mallory, all that lot.

      Gah, Austen and I hate each other with something of a vengeance. I have tried her, and hated every second of the books i battled through. Bleaugh. Mr Darcy can go hug himself indeed!

      Give it a go - I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I hope you will be too!

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  6. I remember listening to Mum read it aloud. I was only... eight or nine. I don't remember that much of it. I thought it was funny. And Miss Havisham was pretty creepy. But I didn't like Estella.

    I have heard far too much about Darles Chickens (forgive me, I could not resist) to attempt him myself. I didn't like the Lord of the Rings, or the second in the Little Women set. Classics and me... not clicking. Unless someone else reads them to me. I like that. :)

    Good review. I had to laugh. :) Like always.

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    1. Estella is a stuck-up prat (excuse mon franglais). I forgive you on all classics bar LotR (Tolkein is my authorly god!). They're hard work on your own. But having them read to you, I concur, is awesome :)

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  7. Yep, clearly remember where mum read it. I think that part that got me most was Pip "being raised by hand". And the children who weren't brought up, they "tumbled up". We STILL say "tumbled up". Awesome review!! I do have fond memories of that book, but I'm not a huge fan of Dickens other work (everyone ended up related in Oliver!! What's with that?!)

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    1. You mean "brought on by hand" . . . sorry, they said that so much in the book I nearly stabbed myself on the phrase about six times, haha!

      I hate most Dickens too, must confess. Oliver is terrible for it's sheer twee ending, as you said, they would NEVER end up so inter-related in real life. Though at least it's not borderline-incest like in Wuthering Heights, which I've just finished and REALLY want to write a shredding review of xD

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