Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great ExpectationsGreat Expectations: “My fathers’ family name being Pirrup, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.”

In the mid-19th century, in a marshy area of Kent, Philip Pirrup, or Pip as he was called, lived with his crotchety, abusive sister and her husband, a loveable, yet rather simple blacksmith named Joe.  While Pip attempts to avoid his sister’s wrath, a wrath that she appears to happily cultivate, he also forms a deep attachment and friendship with Joe, who equally enjoys Pip’s company.

Then one dark Christmas eve night of 1812, while visiting the graves of his parents and siblings, Pip stumbles upon a convict newly escaped.  The frightening wretch threatens to murder Pip if he doesn’t return with food to sooth his aching stomach and tools with which to free himself from the manacles that bind him.  Shaking, Pip returns home, takes a number of items with an alacrity even the fear of his sister cannot dispel, and returns to give them to the convict.  The next evening soldiers show up at the door looking for an escaped criminal and Joe and Pip go with them to help with the search.  The convict is discovered struggling with another convict and upon his re-arrest, confesses to taking the food and tools without a mention of Pip.

Pip ashamed of Joe at Satis House

Pip ashamed of Joe at Satis House (the house of Miss Haversham) ~ source Wikipedia

Life returns to normal and Pip is content in his lot until Miss Haversham, a wealthy old spinster, decides she needs a boy to keep her company.  Pip visits her regularly, accepting her rather idiosyncratic appearance and behaviour, and he also meets Estella, a girl of his age, who does nothing but verbally abuse and torment him.  Very quickly, Pip falls deeply in love with her and begins to be ashamed of his heritage and upbringing.

Then, Lo!  We are introduced to Pip’s “GREAT EXPECTATIONS”!  An unknown benefactor promises Pip an excellent education and a life of wealth and privilege.  All he must do is accept and, of course, Pip, now thoroughly ashamed of his family and circumstances, readily complies.

As the story progresses, we learn more about Pip, his dear friend Herbert, Mr. Jaggers the lawyer for his benefactor, Wemmick his clerk, Biddy a respectable sweet girl and former schoolmate of Pip’s who moves into the house after Pip’s sister is attacked, and many other curious and fascinating characters which serve to bring the novel to its climactic close.

Great Expectations

Great Expectations; Robert McGregor National Galleries of Scotland

I’d been looking forward to reading this novel for the first time. The whole premise was wonderful, most of the characters were engaging but unfortunately I found the pacing uneven and often the behaviour of the characters were unbelievable, diminishing my enjoyment of it.  Why did Pip love Estella so much?  There was no development.  Why was his benefactor so fixated on his mission and latch on to Pip with such an unwavering obsession?  Pip was so consumed with bettering himself and becoming a gentleman, so much so that he treated Joe abominably, yet when he could have had his benefactor locked away to protect his goal, he doesn’t even think of it.  And the ending was just awful, as if everything was suddenly just wrapped up in a way that was very unartistic and rushed.  So I was a little disappointed overall.

At Fordwich, Kent

At Fordwich, Kent ~ Frederick George Cotman ~ source Wikiart

My struggle with Dickens’ writing often lies in his portrayal of characters and their development.  Some characters are so overdone that they become caricatures and the behaviour of others simply isn’t that believable (often women) and aren’t formed by the text to make them believable.  Nicholas Nickleby is the novel I’ve enjoyed most in my Dickens foray so far: a cast of developed and real characters, an engaging story without too much pomp and goofiness.

Cliffe Creek Fleet

Cliffe Creek Fleet ~ source Wikipedia

I do have to remember when I’m reading Dickens that he was writing a serialized story.  Writing for a newspaper that would have been read by many, he would want to capture as many imaginations as he could; whereas someone who is writing a novel that the audience has particularly purchased, he would already have that person’s attention.  So if his characterizations and plot devices aren’t always precise, it was in the aim of readership and not necessarily high literature.

Other Dickens Reviews:

A Christmas Carol

David Copperfield

Doctor Marigold

The Pickwick Papers

11 thoughts on “Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

    • I read both endings. I preferred first one which wasn’t so uplifing but honestly I was so irritated with Pip’s infatuation with Estella who was virtually devoid of human goodness that I didn’t really process either as like or dislike. I expect you’ve read this so I’m going over to your blog to see if I can find your review.

      • Yep, as a bona fida Dickens’ fan, I’ve read it, hahahaaha.
        I prefer the ending Dicken’s originally wrote, but I can see why the publisher’s wanted a happier one.

  1. I’m sorry it didn’t work for you that well–it’s one of my favorite Dickens actually. (That or Bleak House.) But I’m generally OK with Dickens’ melodrama.

    It sounds like the answer to Bookstooge’s question above is that you read the happy ending, which I do think is inferior. My edition has both endings–does yours? [Possibly unnecessary explanation… 😉 ] His original instinct was to have Pip’s existence end unhappily, having lost both Joe and Estella. But somebody (John Forster? Maybe, but I didn’t look it up) told him, no you can’t do that, you write funny, happy novels, and Dickens decided he’d better rewrite the ending to put Estella & Joe together. But I sort of felt the logic of the novel didn’t go that way and I think whoever told him that was wrong.

    And that was your spin, right? Congratulations on that!

    • I did enjoy it and for the most part thought it was well done. I had issues with Pip’s infatuation with Estella: Dickens made her so unhuman and didn’t develop their interactions enough to make me buy his obsession. I also had some issues with Magwitch’s development ….. a rough, awful convict who is completely changed simply because a boy brings him food and a tool under threat? And I thought the pacing at the end was off …. rushed and quickly tying everything up. But otherwise a pleasure.

      Yes, I thought the first ending better although, as I mentioned, too quickly done. I will read the novel again at some point and perhaps it will come together a little better.

      My absolute favourite so far is Nicholas Nickleby. Good, believable characters who aren’t overdone, a good plot and good pacing. A Tale of Two Cities is good too but I think he missed it with his female characters and of course, A Christmas Carol …. what could top that. I also remember reading Martin Chuzzlewit and quite enjoying it but I’d have to read it again to say for sure. Bleak House was good as well.

      I don’t think this was my spin …. I think it was 1984 by Orwell. I did have Bleak House though a couple of spins back and I finished it. Yay!

      • I’ve thought about rereading Nicholas Nickleby–I remember liking it, but it’s been so long.

        It’s also been a long time since I read Martin Chuzzlewit, but I didn’t especially like that one as I recall. The Pecksniffs were fun, but all the stuff in the US seemed dull.

        Like Janakay below with Great Expectations, I read Tale of Two Cities in high school. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I haven’t read it since. I wonder if I’d like it better now.

        • Yes, I don’t know why I liked Martin Chuzzlewit so much but something in it really resonated with me.

          I read The Great Gatsby in high-school and wondered if I’d like it better as an adult. I’ve read it twice since. Nope!

  2. Dickens has always been a struggle for me; I’ve often found him too melodramatic and sentimental for my taste. But, as you point out in the comments, what could top A Christmas Carol? I also liked Bleak House very much. Great Expectations was particularly difficult for me to enjoy as it was a required text in my high school years and what self-respecting teenager could do anything other than hate a required text? Many, many years later I re-read it (I was auditing a class on the 19th century English novel) and, surprise, actually rather liked it! A key for me was realizing it was o.k. to really dislike Pip, at least until he reaches a certain level of maturity. Expectations is still not one of my favorites but I do think it’s a great coming of age novel. I agree with you that Pip’s passion for Estella is a bit hard to understand (or sympathize with); I got around it by (perhaps wrongly) seeing her as a symbol for all that Pip aspired to in his journey away from his humble origins (doesn’t the name Stella mean “star” or something?); his passion for her was essentially his passion to re-make himself as something other than a penniless orphan.

    • Oh Janakay! It’s so nice to “see” you again!

      Yes, I struggle with Dickens as well. It’s not even his wordiness, which I kind of enjoy, but it’s the melodrama in some parts and some of his characters who can be so exaggerated that they become caricatures. And his pacing is sometimes off.

      I love your analysis of Estella. Thank you, that really helps and makes total sense. As a character, she just popped in and out of the book but as a symbol, she’s very effective!

  3. Oh, it’s too bad this one wasn’t a win for you! I read it soooooo long ago that I don’t really remember it outside the general outline of the plot. I think I liked it well enough at the time, but I was only a freshman in high school, so definitely wasn’t paying attention to character development or pacing ! I’m half tempted to put this back on the TBR list just to see what I would think of it now.

    • I did like it but I just found there were some gaping holes in it. You should read it again; I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

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