Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

Well, what a book to end 2013 on, as I have to admit that I have been reading Charles Dickens celebrated ‘Great Expectations’ right up to the deadline of today which AJ and myself set for this, the third, instalment of Classically Challenged, and I think having completed it I might have a bit of time off from reading for a while. This I have to admit has been the book I have been looking forward to the most and the least all at once. For years and years, much to the dismay of my mother and grandmother and several followers and a few critics of the blog, I have gone on and on about how I didn’t, and wouldn’t, like Charles Dickens and that he was simply paid per word and so wrote too many of them, without having read a word. Well, now I have and I have to hold my hands up and say that I was wrong. That said, I don’t want any ‘I told you so’s’ because whilst it truly was very much a book I enjoyed, and will most probably read Charlie-Boy again because of, I still have the odd reservation.

Oxford University Press, paperback, 1861 (2008 edition), fiction, 442 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Oxford University Press, paperback, 1861 (2008 edition), fiction, 442 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

It seems a little silly to sum up the story of Charles Dickens thirteenth, unlucky for some but not for him, novel because I am pretty sure most of the world knows it, however here it is. ‘Great Expectations’ is really the story of Pip, Pirrip Philip, and his young and formative years. As we meet him, well as we learn after he is accosted and scared to death by convict Abel Magwitch in a cemetery, he is living with his sister and her husband, the local blacksmith, on the breadline in the marshes of Kent. Soon after, at the request of his uncle-in-law Uncle Pumblechook, he finds himself at Satis House and hired in a way as the playmate of the adopted daughter, the rather cold Estella, of a wealthy spinster, Miss Havisham. He falls in love with Estella and his meeting with her and Miss Havisham seems to be the start of a change in his life as whilst training to be a blacksmith with his uncle Joe he receives a large income from an anonymous benefactor and can instead become a gentleman, only as we go on with Pip’s journey we discover great fortune might not bring him happiness or the love he so wants.

Of course this is not the whole story, merely a teaser if you have yet to read the book, as following these events Dickens weaves twists and turns into the narrative which I wasn’t expecting (no pun intended) along with random off shooting stories for some of the lesser characters which create one of these wonderful Dickensian worlds I have always heard so much about.

Did I enjoy the story? Yes. Was it what I expected (pun not intended)? No. In many ways ‘Great Expectations’ was much more than I could have wished for. I became completely immersed in the world that Dickens’s created for Pip and followed his life with great interest. I loved the gloomy and dark opening of the misty marshes at the start, and was completely hooked by Miss Havisham from the first scene in which we met her. In fact I did at several points wonder why on earth Charles Dickens had not just written an entire book about her. I mean in hindsight the tale of Miss Havisham and the forever jilted bride has become the most famous part of this tale hasn’t it?

“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, wax-work and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.”

When Miss Havisham appeared, a lot like when Magwitch appears in the cemetery, the book really came alive for me. The gothic elements of it all, and indeed the pre-Victorian London did spring to life when Pip’s journey takes him there. I will say though that if the story was merely just about Pip without these extra characters, or just about him and Estella (why he fell for her I simply couldn’t understand), I don’t think I would have fared so well. He is a bizarre character in many ways, not likeable really but not dislikeable, and one I couldn’t decide if Dickens liked or not as sometimes he seemed to be the butt of Dickens jokes. Here was a shocker for me; Dickens is really quite funny when he wants to be. Pip seemed to like being a bit of a victim, which sounds awful but there are people out there like this, and rather a drama queen and I would find myself laughing out loud at things when they happened to him, was Dickens wanting us all to do this I wondered?

“I was in mortal terror of the young man who wanted my heart and liver; I was in mortal terror of my interlocutor with the ironed leg; I was in mortal terror of myself, from whom an awful promise had been extracted; I had no hope of deliverance through my all-powerful sister, who repulsed me at every turn; I am afraid to think of what I might have done, on requirement, in the secrecy of my terror.”

These wonderful quotes do bring me to a very important topic – Dickens’ prose. Overall I really liked it; I was at its heart proper storytelling. It is this storytelling nature that makes me think it is so interesting that prose that was written for the masses and serialised has become seen as some of the greatest around. He creates atmospheres and characters brilliantly, sometimes merely in a name we learn everything about a characters traits, whilst also introducing lots of strands of stories weaving off to the left and right of the main narrative. He is a little over wordy though on occasion, being paid per word I am sure I would be too, but occasionally this can become repetitive and on occasion I found myself thinking ‘blooming heck Mr Dickens, why use a word when you can use six paragraphs?’ Part of this might have been my impatience of wanting to know what happened and part of it might simply be that I was reading it straight, not in serial, and with a deadline – either way I noticed it, it wasn’t a major problem it just made me wonder if the sense of atmosphere and wonderful characters could sustain me through a monster like ‘Bleak House’ for example? Also, how on earth did Dickens want to make this story even longer, as was the original plan?

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This all makes me sound rather grumpy and as if I didn’t like it and I did. I think what frustrated me though was that I think Wilkie Collins does it better (which I fancy having made on a t-shirt) especially the twists and the suspense in his books and yet doesn’t get half the credit Dickens does, it seems unfair. That small point made, I got a lot more than I expected (pun now intended) from ‘Great Expectations’. It was far, far, far more enjoyable than I expected it to be. I loved the atmosphere of the novel, especially when it was at its darkest, and some of the characters – mainly Miss Havisham – will stay with me for years to come. I was also impressed by how funny it could be in parts. Oh and, as this seems to be a big point of discussion with this book, I much preferred the original ending that Dickens came up with to the revised, but we can discuss that in the comments not to give anything away for those who you who haven’t read it, or Dickens, yet – and I would recommend everyone give this book a whirl.

So who else has read ‘Great Expectations’, though really I know probably most of you who visit here have and I am very late to this Dickensian party, and what did you think? Who is still a bit dubious? Now I have given this a whirl, and you have seen what in his books/prose do and don’t work for me, would you suggest I try next? Oh and don’t forget to check AJ’s thoughts when they go up, he is poorly so they may be late.

30 Comments

Filed under Charles Dickens, Classically Challenged, Oxford University Press, Review

30 responses to “Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

  1. I’d never read Dickens before either, apart from A Christmas Carol. I’m just over halfway through Great Expectations and have to say am enjoying it far more than I expected to. I particularly like his atmosphere, like you, and also his character names are fantastic. Just perfect and lovely to say out loud. Obviously I knew the story beforehand and I do wonder whether maybe it would be more gripping if I didn’t know the twist before I read the book.

    • I didn’t know the story before hand so it was nice for me to follow the twists and turns and I got the benefactor wrong initially. I think the characters outside the protagonist (and Estella, who I never really liked) were oddly the ones that came alive the most, and I think that was great but also a slight flaw in all honesty.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it. I love Great Expectations, and although I have read all of Dickens and plan on re-reading Bleak House one fine day – he is not a favourite of mine – I too prefer Wilkie Collins and would love one of those t-shirts.

    • I would like to read Bleak House one day too… though that one day might be after I retire and have more time on my hands.

      I think that Wilkie is a genius and this book actually made me annoyed because of that very fact!

  3. MIss Havisham’s tale would have made a brilliant prequel.

  4. No ‘I told you so’. Instead just a Hooray! I’m
    so glad that you enjoyed it. I first read it as a teenager and had an enormous crush on Joe Gargery of all people! (looking back I realise what a strange girl I was…) I think one of my favourite scenes in all literature is when the Gargerys and their neighbours are sat down to dinner, poor Pip with the corner of the table digging in his chest and everyone berating him for being ungrateful while dear Joe pours more and more gravy on to Pips dinner in recompense.🙂

    You’re right though, Great Expectations escapes the worst excesses of Dickens because of its tight focus. Of the others I’ve read only Bleak House can sustain the charm completely over 850 pages. But the humour is always there and so is the lovely prose description. No improvement in the female characters tho – Dickens does rubbish nice female characters. They have to be old, nasty and twisted in order to be interesting. His good female characters are shockingly sentimental.

    • Do you think that I would enjoy the longer Dickens then Victoria? That is what slightly bothers me. Wilkie can hold me for as many pages as needed, something with Dickens makes me think either he wouldn’t or I am not yet ready for him too. That might not make any sense at all to anyone outside my head hahaha.

  5. I just finished Great Expectations today. I think Wemmick is possibly my favourite Dickens character of all. I love that little house of his, and the Aged.

  6. cbjamess

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the book and that you’ll give more of his stuff a go. He really started out as a humorist. Pickwick Papers, his first novel, is very funny. More than a few critics still consider it one of his best.

    Miss Havisham is the most memorable character in Great Expectations I agree, but I think this is in part because she is on so few pages. Had she been around much more, we would begin to notice just how ridiculous she really is, even for a character in a Dickens novel. Keep the audience wanting more, as they say.

    I do have to point out that the notion that Dickens wrote lots of words because he was paid by the word is not true. Dickens did make some of his novels early longer than planned becuase they were selling well in serial form. If they had not been selling, they would have been stopped. He was self-published for much of his career since he owned the magazines his work was featured in. So he would have been paying himself by the word had he been paid by the word. End of lecture.

    Most of his young heros are like Pip by the way. David Copperfield, Nick Nickleby, even Oliver Twist to a degree. The fun in Dickens is always in the supporting cast and his villians do tend to be the most fun.

    • Hahaha, I have heard the other lecture side too though, from some literary buffs also – puzzling! Odd that he makes his hero’s a bit non descript and the like too.

      I might just have to give the Pickwick papers a try next, I liked his humour.

  7. I just read it few years ago and loved it. I’ve gone on to read Oliver Twist, Tale of Two Cities, and Hard Times. I’m trying to build up the stamina for Bleak House – I will get to it someday. Of those I’ve read, I think Great Expectations is still my favorite.

    • Have you enjoyed the others as much as this as you have carried on with Dickens?

      • I think Hard Times was my least favorite, but I still liked even that one, especially because of this one particular villainous character (Rush Limbaugh recently said something idiotic about poor people that could have come from that character’s mouth – I almost died laughing.) His characters and his hilarious writing style are just so wonderful, I will read anything and everything of his!

  8. Is there any image so haunting as Miss Havisham in literature?

    I adore Dickens for his sense of humour. I introduced my daughters (14 and 10) to Hard Times on audiobook this year and we howled with laughter as we drove to dance class and French lessons. It was like a modern equivalent of the family huddled around the radio for the weekly drama. He’s just so darned funny!

    • Miss Havisham is amazing, though I think Ms Danvers gives her a run for her money in many ways.

      Maybe audio book would be good to try some of the bigger of his books? What do you think?

  9. Laura Caldwell

    Before reading “Great Expectations” this month the only Dickens that I had ever read was “David Copperfield” which I had to read at age 12 in school and did NOT like one little bit (WAY TOO YOUNG!) Like Simon, I was too scared to try again. Although I cannot say that I loved this book, I enjoyed it very much! I also would like to know what to read next of Dickens.’ It won’t be for a while, but it will be sometime in the near future. Note to middle school teachers: Don’t push adult books on kids too young–you frequently ruin those authors for people for life.

  10. I’ve read 5 novels by Dickens and I’ve enjoyed a lot. I love most of all his “A Tale of Two Cities”. I guess you’d love it.
    and Happy New Year to you.

  11. KateG

    Sorry I am late to the comment party, but I was gld you enjoyed Great Expectations. I read it for the first time 2 years ago while recuperating and then went on to read A Tale of Two Cities. They were my first Dickens and I was so pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed them! I liked the characters both good and evil (and totally agree that Mrs Danvers is creepier than Miss Havisham!). The Dickens that scares me is Bleak House which I abandoned in college…. I have a copy of Wilkie Collins The Woman in White on my K*&#%@^ (sorry Simon) and I always feel the need to read a big book during this part of the year after the holidays. After reading all the previous comments, I think that will be my selection.
    Happy New Yearto you !

    • Never too late to the comment party, one of the joys of a blog… it is always there and anyone can join in whenever!

      No need to apologise on the mention of the Kindle, I was actually playing with a Kindle Fire yesterday, don’t tell anyone, and if it means you read the wonder that is Wilkie I am more than happy😉

  12. Joe Gargery has to be one of my favourite literary characters of all time. Who else can say things like ‘unacceptabobble’ and make it sound so cool?! Incidentally, have you seen the latest movie adaptation? Helena Bonham Carter was pretty much born to play Miss Havisham. I am, however, very much Team Wilkie and The Woman in White is unlikely to ever shift from my top 5 books.

    • Hahahaha hoorah for team Wilkie I say, actually I might have to dust Wilkie off and give him a read as I haven’t in ages.

      I haven’t seen the new Great Expectations, it seemed to vanish from cinemas as quickly as it appeared.

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  16. Suzanne Katz

    Martin Chuzzlewit deserves a look-see. Bleak House is one of my books on the island should I get stranded. Tale of Two Cities is one everyone interested in the French Revolution will read if they haven’t already. I discovered books very young and they became my haven, Dickens helped make it so.

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