It’s been over six months since I last read a novel by Charles Dickens (I’m not counting A Christmas Carol, that was only a short story!) because as much as I enjoyed it, Hard Times was actually pretty difficult to wade through. It was perfectly content to rely so heavily on its satire of Utilitarian ideas and the treatment of the working classes during the industrial revolution that, by the novel’s end, 200 pages felt like 500. The opposite, I think, can be said of Great Expectations. Its 500 pages simply flew by in a whirlwind of memorable characters, slightly contrived but thoroughly enjoyable plotting, and themes treated so lightly that teasing them out was actually a great deal of fun.
One thing that sets Great Expectations apart is how delightful (yet flawed) our central protagonist is. From the iconic opening scene in the graveyard (which I’ll come back to in a bit, don’t worry), Pip wins over the reader with a sweet blend of empathic treatment of others and a child’s innocence and sincerity, and though his innocence doesn’t last long once he’s met Magwitch, these qualities sustain his relationship with the reader throughout the story. Pip is one of two characters who epitomise disillusionment, which to me is the central theme of the novel. These days, many of my contemporaries are disillusioned by the economy or disenfranchised from the current political landscape, and these are feelings with which I often identify. Dickens, however, captures in the opening chapters a trait of Pip’s which is, to my mind, even more powerful: the ennui of a youth becoming aware of his low station in a much bigger world. Though I was never dissatisfied by my class or lifestyle as a child, I still found myself identifying with Pip’s yearning to exceed the estimations of life he was born into, to break the mould he was predestined to fill from birth. His perennial disappointment with the dissonance he finds between his “great expectations” and the realities he encounters were made endearing by his optimism and drive, which is a marvel of literary skill on Dickens’ part considering how easily these traits may have grated with me in the hands of another writer.
Estella, on the other hand, is fascinating because she has been overtly moulded into treating men a certain way, due to Miss Havisham’s guardianship – and unlike Pip, she grows to completely embody every trait that Miss Havisham (either intentionally or accidentally) instilled in her. In a way, I wonder if Estella is Dickens’ attempt to sass his contemporary critics who denounced many of his characters as “flat” or single-faceted (which is a criticism I often find my self agreeing with when I think even a little deeply about a lot of Dickens’ characters), as she’s effectively been brainwashed since early childhood to embody only the scorn and resentment of a broken-hearted woman – Estella, essentially, is written only to spurn and rebuff.
This brings me to Miss Havisham, who is quite simply the most enthralling yet depressing (in the best possible way!) character I can recall as I write this. The way that she schemes and turns Pip and Estella into mere playthings to act out her twisted desires is wonderful to read, and it was great when her backstory, revealed midway through the book, manages not to disappoint even with the weight of expectation (pun!) building up to it. The fate of her character is also a fascinating one, especially regarding her relationship with Estella – though regular readers of my blog will know how much I love a good exploration of a relationship between creator and created.
To say much more about what makes Miss Havisham so great means moving on to what I believe to be the novel’s greatest strength, which is the way Dickens uses setting to develop plot and character. Satis House, in which Miss Havisham lives, is an incredibly evocative setting because it informs the reader of Miss Havisham’s character by demonstrating the effects of her choices and dressing it up as overt symbolism. From the uniformly stopped clocks throughout the house to the rotting wedding cake stealing focus in her room, her character and her motivations are nicely filled out well before we learn of her backstory, without being too in-your-face or out of place.
Dickens uses setting to influence and demonstrate the mood of the characters, too. The novel’s opening takes place in an extremely creepy and threatening graveyard, with misty and empty marshland beyond. Death is quickly coloured into Pip’s family background, leaving him an orphan, while the tombstones around him emanate an encroaching atmosphere of threat which is soon realised as Magwitch enters the story. The Thames, too, features as a prominent setting and almost a character in its own right in the final third of the novel, establishing itself almost as a living breathing backdrop to the events that transpire in its tempestuous waters.
Of course, there are a couple of contrivances that it would be remiss of me to let slide. As previously mentioned, Dickens has tends to write characters which serve a purpose, but don’t really feel like fleshed out people. Joe Gargery is the most telling example; though defenders of the novel might argue that his simple nature allows for small deficiencies of character development, I would argue that his slavish devotion to Pip is an example of lazy writing – though I’d be the first to admit that the fate of his character is a nice touch. The story also suffers from a clear case of “Star Wars syndrome”, in that every character seems to be conveniently related to other characters that move in different spheres, and these relationships are often revealed in the form of cliffhangers or shocking revelations.
And yet, novel contains some absolutely brilliant touches to lighten the mood and distract the reader. Pip’s spats with Bentley Drummle are certainly a good example of this, given their petty yet self-serious nature, Jaggers’ pernickety nature was frustratingly funny, and the moments alone with Pip and Wemmick are lovely bursts of relaxed contentment. But for me, the most notable examples are the two occasions where Pip visits the theatre. When recounting the plays to the reader, he treats them with a gravity and sincerity that makes the fantastical events on stage feel real, if only for a little while – in short, replicating the experience of going to the theatre. Furthermore, this approach heightens the comedy within each of these episodes, and, as it would for the characters themselves, these interludes create a respite from the main plot, with all of the emotional and narrative stakes that comprise it.
The ending, too, is worth a mention. The novel has actually been widely published with a revised ending, which is significantly more optimistic than it was originally written to be. I shall say no more here to keep this spoiler free, especially because it’s been widely discussed elsewhere. For now, I shall say that I think I prefer Dickens’ original ending to the novel, as it’s a little more in keeping with the tone of the piece as a whole – though the ending as it stands is a beautiful piece of writing that, although a little contrived, is very reader-friendly.
I haven’t had this much fun reading a Dickens story since I read A Tale of Two Cities several years ago, so it’s nice to have fallen back in love with his writing style again. If you have any Dickensian recommendations for me to read in the near future, feel free to leave a comment below, as I’m struggling to whittle down my choices for the next of his books to read.