Sunday 24 March 2013

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

“My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.” 

Oh Mr Dickens, what a rollercoaster of a ride you took me on! I had no idea it would be a loop-the-loop ride with so many twists and turns. (In fact, if there were a Dickens theme park, Great Expectations would be a superb name for the most thrilling ride). 

I promised to read a Dickens' novel as part of the Classics Challenge (see challenge list here), having put off reading his works practically all my life. I'm sure I'm not alone hereI think I was put off by the numerous Dickens associated musicals sung in dubious Cockney accents. I can't abide musicals and when Oliver is aired on TV I have to switch it off (gotta pick a pocket or two, bois, weee gotta pick a pocket or twooo-wa!). Another thing that put me off is the idea of the Dickensian character. In my ignorance, I assumed all characters were stereotypical child beaters, pompous capitalists, poor orphaned children etc. with Harry Potter type names (Mr Bumble, Tiny Tim that hinted at their character/station in life etc.). I also assumed his writing style would be dull and archaic. 

How wrong could I be? 

Dickens' characters are much more complex and real than I imagined they would be. His world is gritty, but not the cheesy palatable gritty I'd anticipated and he cleverly hints at unsavoury goings on. What bowled me over more than anything was how modern Dickens' voice was at times. And witty (Pip's referring to Wemmick's mouth as a post office throughout the novel I thought was a stroke of genius). I can't quite explain, but I often forgot Pip is a Victorian character. I read quite a few classic novels and the characters have always felt of their temporal setting, but not Pip. There is something special about him that is so comfortably modern, to the point where it threw me when he jumped into a horse drawn carriage and not a car. 

I loved the characterisation and the range of emotions I felt throughout the course of the novel. Clever Mr Dickens, you got me in places. I forget how many times I came away from a passage with a heavy heart and a sigh of 'Oh Pip!' or 'Oh Joe and Pip!'. Those two got to me; the father and son bond they shared and how Joe did what he could to protect Pip from the woe-is-me Mrs Gargery and 'tickler'. Boy did she wear the trousers in that household. Then Pip is requested to pay weekly visits to the formidable Miss Havisham at Satis House. I feared for Pip. You don't just hand over your little brother, Mrs Joe, to a wealthy lady who is clearly cuckoo, but of course we're talking hard up, few morals/ethics, no Child-Line Victorian times where poor children were made to work from a young age so what of it if a wealthy lady wants a kid for her amusement? Hey, she might pay you for the privilege so you can be 'raised up'. Hmm, think I get your thinking Mrs Joe Gargery.

It is when Pip meets Estella, Miss Havisham's young adopted daughter, that he begins to want more from life. She treats him with disdain, as she has been trained to do, and as time passes he desperately wants her approval.

“Her contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.” ~ Pip

He loves her and wants to better himself so he can marry her. Miss Havisham, more disturbed than eccentric I think, makes him feel he has been picked out by her for a special reason. Hmmm. I wonder what that reason is...

“Love her, love her, love her! If she favours you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces – and as it gets older and stronger, it will tear deeper – love her, love her, love her!” ~ Miss Havisham

...Then one day, a few years later, a message arrives for Pip, announcing he has a secret benefactor and is to repair to London where he will live as a gentleman and never want for anything. 

Wowzers, who is it? Why has Pip been chosen? Is it so he can become a suitor for Estella?

Mr Jaggers, prominent London lawyer, is to manage Pip's affairs. Pip isn't allowed to ask the identity of his mysterious benefactor. He or she will contact Pip when they see fit. The suspense nearly killed me; I couldn't wait to find out who it was and when I did, whoa, was it a bombshell and a half!! 

Great Expectations was a real eye-opener for me. The things that had the biggest impact on me were:
  • Dickens' oftentimes witty, sensitive and modern voice.
  • The complexity of the characters and how one minute I loathed them, the next I realised I cared deeply for them. All subtly achieved by Mr Dickens. 
  • When Pip cried after his first visit to Satis House. Oh Pip:

“I was so humiliated, hurt, spurned, offended, angry, sorry--I cannot hit upon the right name for the smart--God knows what its name was--that tears started to my eyes.” ~ Pip

  • Miss Havisham's wedding table complete with bug-infested rotting wedding cake. Ghastly but magnificent.
  • The death masks in Jaggers' office. 
  • When Pip leaves for London and turns his back on Joe and his former life. Heartbreak!
  • When the identity of Pip's benefactor is made known and the whirligig of events that ensue. I had to stop reading; I was completely shocked. In a good or bad way, I shan't say! Let's just say the pace picks up and I wondered what would become of Pip.
  • The ending and the moral message of the story - love, love, love it!

“There was a long hard time when I kept far from me the remembrance of what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth.” ~ Estella

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape.” ~ Estella

There are more but I can't go into them without giving the game away. All I can say is I loved how the characters are linked to one another in often unforeseen ways. Pip's voice too as he narrates his story. How his older self describes his child self, poking fun at himself at times, and how he is able to describe his younger self's emotions as if in the present tense - a clever device. 

You'll fall in love with Pip and Joe. And also Herbert Pocket and Wemmick's Walworth residence, where Dickens comes into his own. Wemmick's dad, the 'Aged Parent', the bond he and Wemmick share, the manner in which Miss Skiffins' arrival is announced - brilliant, unique, warm touches.

“Out of my thoughts! You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since – on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to displace with your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation I associate you only with the good, and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!” ~ Pip

But, watch out for Orlick. And I haven't even mentioned the convicts.

“The broken heart. You think you will die, but you just keep living, day after day after terrible day.” ~ Miss Havisham

Mr Dickens, you can be likened to Joe Gargery: always there in the background, patiently waiting, never judging, whilst my back has been turned on you all these years. 

PS If like me you've ever wondered what people of 'olden times' would make of our fast cars, how frightening they'd be sure to find them, I think we'd be more alarmed at having to navigate a boat on the chock-a-block River Thames of Pip's day. You'll know what I mean if you've read Great Expectations. How detailed was the description of this dangerous journey? Wow, I felt I was there with my stomach churning for their safety. Give me a car any day.

1 comment:

  1. I really need to read this!!! I'm also trying to work my way through some classics and this is on my list. I watched the BBC adaption of this which I thought was amazing and I've read Bleak House by Dickens which, although enormous, was pretty good so I'm really excited for Great Expectations! Amazing review :)

    Laura @ What's Hot?