Novel Review: Great Expectations

If you’ve never read a Dicken’s novel then Great Expectations is an excellent introduction to his world.  The novel is written with great wit highlighting Dicken’s hallmark skill of describing people and events with a wonderfully humorous turn of phrase.  As with all Dicken’s novels there is a cornucopia of characters exhibiting a wide range of human frailties.  In addition, there is a great story, unrequited love and a hero at its centre who is flawed yet nevertheless endearing; and in the character of Joe Gargery you find one of the most loveable characters ever created in the English language.

Great Expectations was the first novel by Dickens that I’d read in over a decade having been put off reading any more of his novels after leafing through A Tale of Two Cities.  I found the portrayal of Mlle Manet in that novel so idealistic, it was stomach-churning.  I swore I’d never read another novel of his again.  Fortunately for me, I had to read Great Expectations as part of my drama course at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama – probably the only good thing to come out of that course where I ended up spending one of the most miserable years of my life.

Great Expectations is a fantastic work of literature.  Dickens conjures up great characters and vivid scenes with seeming ease and a great deal of humour so that you end up reading numerous passages with a wry smile on your face.  He has a keen eye for human foibles and his main character in the novel, Pip, is no stranger to them.  Great Expectations tells Pip’s story.  Orphaned as a young child, he is looked after by his abusive sister and her husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery.  From these humble beginnings Pip comes into a great fortune and in so doing forsakes all those who truly care for him out of snobbery and ingratitude.

For an example of Dicken’s ability to sum up a whole character in a sentence or two, his description of Pip’s first schoolteacher and by extension Dicken’s assessment of the state of teaching in Britain at the time is a fine example of his craft.  “Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt kept an evening school in the village; that is to say, she was a ridiculous old woman of limited means and unlimited infirmity, who used to go to sleep from six to seven every evening, in the society of youth who paid twopence per week each, for the improving opportunity of seeing her do it.”

Then there is Pip’s description of watching the play Hamlet which vividly brings to life the horror of sitting through a bad theatrical production.  “Several curious little circumstances transpired as the action proceeded. The late king of the country not only appeared to have been troubled with a cough at the time of his decease, but to have taken it with him to the tomb, and to have brought it back. The royal phantom also carried a ghostly manuscript round its truncheon, to which it had the appearance of occasionally referring and that, too, with an air of anxiety and a tendency to lose the place of reference which were suggestive of a state of mortality. It was this, I conceive, which led to the Shade’s being advised by the gallery to `turn over!’ — a recommendation which it took extremely ill. It was likewise to be noted of this majestic spirit that whereas it always appeared with an air of having been out a long time and walked an immense distance, it perceptibly came from a closely contiguous wall.

One of the most lovable characters in the novel is that of Joe Gargery who does his best to protect the young Pip from the violent outbursts of his wife (Pip’s sister) and who loves Pip with a touching simplicity of soul.  Joe’s attitude to Pip throughout the novel is summed up simply in two of his favourite phrases: “Ever the best of friends” and “What Larks“.  This of course makes Pip’s disavowal of Joe during the course of the novel all the more objectionable.  Joe’s love of his step-son is boundless.  He puts up with the tyranny of Pip’s sister, as a response to the brutal way he saw his own mother being treated by his father.  His innate humanity and goodness are in sharp contrast to the self-serving attitude of the other townsfolk who surround him.  This is seen right at the start of the novel when the hunt for two escaped convicts (Magwitch and Compeyson) is underway.  Unlike the other townsfolk, who seem to regard the hunt as some form of entertainment specifically put on for their pleasure, both Pip and Joe secretly hope that the convicts manage to escape. When Magwitch later apologises to Joe for eating his pie, Joe simply tells him he’s welcome to it.

One of the major themes in the book is hate and how that ultimately eats away at you if you succumb to it.  Miss Havisham epitomises this but hatred is also eating away at the convict, Magwitch.  Magwitch would rather be rearrested then allow fellow convict and former partner-in-crime Compeyson to escape.  As for Miss Havisham, she has been eaten up by hatred since Compeyson – then in league with Arthur, her jealous half-brother – jilted her at the altar.  If ever you need a reminder that it’s much healthier to move on once a relationship is over, then read Great Expectations!  Miss Havisham has mentally and physically refused to do so.  Despite the passing of numerous years, for her, time has stood still ever since she received the note on the morning of her wedding that her fiancé was jilting her.  Still dressed in her once resplendent but now tattered and greying wedding-dress, she has locked herself away in Satis House bringing up an adopted daughter, Estelle.  At first she intends to save Estelle from the misery she has endured but as Estelle grows into a beautiful woman and spurned on by her own anger and disillusionment she then “stole her [Estelle’s] heart and put ice in its place” in order to wreak revenge on the opposite sex for all the hurt she herself has suffered.  In order to accomplish this she has taught Estelle to be heartless and emotionless and to use her beauty and charm as a weapon to cause pain among the opposite sex. “she [Miss Havisham] had done a grievous thing in taking an impressionable child to mould into the form that her wild resentment, spurned affection, and wounded pride, found vengeance in”. Estelle’s first victim is Pip who visits Satis House ostensibly to offer Miss Havisham company but in reality for him to be Estelle’s first victim.  In the end however Miss Havisham realises with horror what she has done and bitterly regrets her actions.

Miss Havisham’s character provides the reader with a cautionary tale as to the dangers of festering away on the disappointments that life may have in store for you and the corrosive effects of giving in to self-pity.  “in shutting out the light of day, she had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences; that, her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker; I knew equally well. And could I look upon her without compassion, seeing her punishment in the ruin she was, in her profound unfitness for this earth on which she was placed, in the vanity of sorrow which had become a master mania, like the vanity of penitence, the vanity of remorse, the vanity of unworthiness, and other monstrous vanities that have been curses in this world?”

It is during Pip’s first encounter with Estelle at Satis House that he is made aware of his humble background and for the first time he begins to feel ashamed of his station in life.  When Joe and Pip visit Satis House to hand over Pip’s indentures and Pip sees Estelle watching them both with a mischievous look in her eyes, he immediately feels ashamed of Joe thereby disregarding in one fell swoop all the kindness and love the latter has bestowed upon him.  Falling in love with Estelle has turned his life upside down.  After this event, Pip notes: “I was truly wretched, and had a strong conviction on me that I should never like Joe’s trade.  I had liked it once, but once was not now.”  Pip admits the effect meeting his “betters” has had on him.  “I had believed in the kitchen as a chaste though not magnificent apartment; I had believed in the forge as the glowing road to manhood and independence.  Within a single year, all this was changed.  Now, it was all coarse and common, and I would not have had Miss Havisham and Estella see it on any account.”

As the novel progresses and Pip’s fortunes take a turn for the better, the more of a snob Pip becomes.  Victorian England being far more socially rigid than today, clearly one’s position in society and all the accoutrements that accompanied it were of more importance back then.  Dickens, from humble stock himself, is clearly taking a well-aimed swipe at the corrosive effects such snobbery has on individuals and their subsequent relationships with their fellow man.  Gargery may be at the bottom of the social ladder but he is one of the more admirable characters in the novel.  If Pip spends most of the novel trying to be considered a “gentleman”, he could have saved himself a lot of time and effort by following Joe Gargery’s example who throughout the novel is a “true gent”.

The impetus for Pip’s snobbery is that he wants to look good in Estelle’s eyes and in doing so he starts to look down on those he grew up with.  “Truly it was impossible to dissociate her presence from all those wretched hankerings after money and gentility that had disturbed my boyhood,–from all those ill-regulated aspirations that had first made me ashamed of home and Joe.”

Pip makes no bones about this and his frankness about his own shortcomings is what ensures that we still like the novel’s protagonist despite these rather unlovable failings.  “Whatever [learning] I acquired, I tried to impart to Joe.  This statement sounds so well, that I cannot in my conscience let it pass unexplained.  I wanted to make Joe less ignorant and common, that he might be worthier of my society and less open to Estelle’s reproach.”  As Pip gets older, the more dissatisfied with his background and his trade he becomes.  “under its influence, I continued to hate my trade and to be ashamed of my home.”  Ironically Miss Havisham’s house is called Satis House – Enough House, a place which only seems to serve to emphasise what those, who come into contact with it, do not have enough of.  For Miss Havisham, it’s love, Estelle, a heart and Pip, great expectations.

As soon as he hears though of his unexpected great expectations, Pip’s snobbery becomes even more exacerbated.  He even takes Biddy aside and asks her to help Joe in his learning and manners.  This is primarily so Joe will be less embarrassing for him when he moves Joe up to a higher social sphere.  When he leaves for his new life in London, Pip is now even too embarrassed to be seen walking with Joe to the stagecoach and refuses to allow Joe to come and waive him off.

Pip is totally frank about what a snob he became but because it’s done with a great deal of wit, so you really do forgive him for it.  At the same time you are made only too aware how absurd such snobbery is.  A fine example of this is during  dinner with the London lawyer Jaggers, Pip’s friend Herbert Pocket and his arch-rival, Drummle, Pip recalls:  “For myself, I found that I was expressing my tendency to lavish expenditure, and to patronize Herbert, and to boast of my great prospects, before I quite knew that I had opened my lips.”

And in Dicken’s description of Pip’s snobbery, these foibles come across as very recognisable and very human.  Dickens pinpoints with great keenness the workings of the human mind.  Who hasn’t found themselves boasting about something that they’ve sworn they wouldn’t mention in front of someone they regard with complete disdain; compelled by some unknown force which is clearly stronger than their self-will?  A few pages later, Dicken’s keen eye for human frailty and its causes are laid bare again when Pip receives a letter from Biddy informing him that Joe is visiting him the next day, Pip is mortified.  “Not with pleasure, though I was bound to him by so many ties; no; with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity. If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money. My greatest reassurance was, that he was coming to Barnard’s Inn, not to Hammersmith, and consequently would not fall in Bentley Drummle’s way. I had little objection to his being seen by Herbert or his father, for both of whom I had a respect; but I had the sharpest sensitiveness as to his being seen by Drummle, whom I held in contempt. So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise”.

That last sentence is surely a feeling most of us can relate to.  And I think that’s why the reader goes along with Pip despite the fact that his behaviour is so appalling. When reading the novel, you don’t feel alienated by Pip’s behaviour though in the hands of a lesser author you would.  Though Pip is honest about his failings, he (i.e. Dickens) acutely analyses the reasons why he behaves as he does.  Importantly, Pip never justifies his behaviour, he avows the falsity of his reasoning but it is very likely similar to reasoning that most of us have used at some point to assuage our own conscience.  Another case in point is when Pip returns to his hometown having learnt from Joe that Estelle has returned to Satis House and wishes to see him.

It was clear that I must repair to our town next day, and in the first flow of my repentance it was equally clear that I must stay at Joe’s. But, when I had secured my box-place by tomorrow’s coach and had been down to Mr Pocket’s and back, I was not by any means convinced on the last point, and began to invent reasons and make excuses for putting up at the Blue Boar. I should be an inconvenience at Joe’s; I was not expected, and my bed would not be ready; I should be too far from Miss Havisham’s, and she was exacting and mightn’t like it. All other swindlers upon earth are nothing to the self-swindlers, and with such pretences did I cheat myself. Surely a curious thing. That I should innocently take a bad half-crown of somebody else’s manufacture, is reasonable enough; but that I should knowingly reckon the spurious coin of my own make, as good money! An obliging stranger, under pretence of compactly folding up my bank-notes for security’s sake, abstracts the notes and gives me nutshells; but what is his sleight of hand to mine, when I fold up my own nutshells and pass them on myself as notes!”

Pip’s snobbery leads him to be ungrateful to the one man who has loved him all his life, Joe.  Joe is aware of the change in Pip’s attitude to him and is made to feel uncomfortable when he goes to visit Pip in London as a result.  Nevertheless as soon as Pip falls on hard times, his great expectations having turned to dust, injured and in such serious debt that he’s about to be carted off to debtors’ prison, Joe is there for him unquestioningly.  Joe not only nurses Pip back to health but keeps him out of prison by paying off his debts.  By the end of the novel, Pip acknowledges his debt to Joe.  “And Joe and Biddy both … receive my humble thanks for all you have done for me, and all I have so ill repaid! And when I say that I am going away within the hour, for I am soon going abroad, and that I shall never rest until I have worked for the money with which you have kept me out of prison, and have sent it to you, don’t think, dear Joe and Biddy, that if I could repay it a thousand times over, I suppose I could cancel a farthing of the debt I owe you, or that I would do so if I could!”  In a way Pip’s resolution to toil away for Joe and Biddy to make up what they have done for him replicates the gratitude felt by Magwitch for Pip.  It is questionable though if such a master mania of gratitude isn’t just as unhealthy as Miss Havisham’s master mania of sorrow.

Another major theme of the novel is moral cowardice.  This is something which seems to plague the novel’s hero for most of the narrative; and consequently Pip is racked throughout with the guilt that arises from knowing that you have not acted as you should have done.  However, rather than condemn Pip, we understand why it’s so difficult for him (and by extension us) to always opt for the right (and usually harder) choice of doing the right thing.  Again, the fact that Pip, as the narrator of the novel, makes no attempt to excuse his former behaviour also ensures that such behaviour does not alienate him as a character.

From the very start of the novel Pip is faced with a moral dilemma when he steals food from Joe and his sister on the orders of Magwitch, the escaped convict who Pip meets by chance on the marshes.  Pip is understandably terrified of Magwitch.  Faced with the fearsome figure of Magwitch, it’s no wonder that a small child like Pip feels he has no choice but to do as he had been ordered and steal.  But having added tar water to the brandy to cover up his tracks, throughout his childhood Pip feels fresh pangs of guilt whenever he hears Joe mention his beer is flat or thick: “In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong.  I had no intercourse with the world at that time, and I intimated none of its many inhabitants who act in this manner. Quite an untaught genius, I made the discovery of the line of action for myself.”

Moral cowardice engenders guilt in Pip and plagues Pip throughout.  When his sister is attacked and left for dead, he fears that the weapon used to attack her is the leg-iron belonging to the convict, Magwitch, who he had helped years previously.  He therefore feels he is somewhat to blame for his sister’s attack.  Wracked with guilt, he is unsure as to whether he should admit all to Joe.  Pip’s reasoning on whether to tell all to Joe or not is again a tactic that most of us have no doubt used in the past when trying to convince ourselves that the easy way out is in fact the best option for everybody despite all proof to the contrary.  “I suffered unspeakable trouble while I considered and reconsidered whether I should at last dissolve that spell of my childhood and tell Joe all the story. For months afterwards, I every day settled the question finally in the negative, and reopened and reargued it next morning. The contention came, after all, to this; —the secret was such an old one now, had so grown into me and become a part of myself, that I could not tear it away. … However, I temporized with myself, of course —for, was I not wavering between right and wrong, when the thing is always done? —and resolved to make a full disclosure if I should see any such new occasion as a new chance of helping in the discovery of the assailant.”

Pip’s life is first turned upside down by the arrival of Jaggers, a brilliant London lawyer, who, acting in the capacity as a “confidential agent of another”, informs Pip “that he will come into a handsome property. Further, that it is the desire of the present possessor of the property that he be immediately removed from his present sphere of life and from this place, and be brought up a gentleman — in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations.”  Pip’s longed-for wish to become a gentleman has come true.  In the mistaken belief that Miss Havisham is his secret benefactor and that Estelle is destined to be his, he sets off to London.

From early on Pip is aware that Estelle won’t make him happy but continues to love her. “I never had one hour’s happiness in her society, and yet my mind all round the four-and-twenty hours was harping on the happiness of having her with me unto death.”And still I stood looking at the house, thinking how happy I should be if I lived there with her, and knowing that I never was happy with her, but always miserable.” When I first read the novel, I assumed he would finally see sense and marry Biddy.  (I was wrong of course).  As for misplaced love, most of us have been there – loving someone who clearly will never make you happy and persisting in doing so much to the annoyance of all your mates who have to listen to you harp on about them week in week out.  Why do people give their heart to someone who doesn’t want it and wouldn’t make them happy even if they did? The novel doesn’t explain but that kind of love is part and parcel of the human condition.  “Why I hoarded up this last wretched little rag of the robe of hope that was rent and given to the winds, how do I know! Why did you who read this, commit that not dissimilar inconsistency of your own, last year, last month, last week?” Like Miss Havisham, Pip’s refusal to move on from Estelle imprisons him, if not physically, then emotionally from the prospect of a real relationship with another woman.  Although he flirts with the idea of making a life with Biddy, his heart always belongs to Estelle.

The other thread of unrequited love woven throughout the novel is that of Magwitch for Pip.  Grateful for the kindness that he feels Pip showed him while an escapee, Magwitch has devoted his life to making a fortune so he can make Pip a gentleman, and has even risked his life by coming back to England to see him.  Sentenced to transportation for life, if Magwitch is discovered to be in England, he will be hanged by the authorities.  When Pip realises that Magwitch and not Miss Havisham is his secret benefactor, he is horrified.“The abhorrence in which I held the man, the dread I had of him, the repugnance with which I shrank from him, could not have been exceeded if he had been some terrible beast.”

The destructive nature of such all-consuming love is interwoven throughout the narrative.  True, Joe and Biddy, Wemmick and Miss Skiffins, Herbert and Miss Barley find happiness but many of the other characters do not seem to fare very well.  Though he finally finds happiness with Biddy, Joe’s life is at first made miserable by his marriage to Pip’s sister.  Matthew Pocket may have originally married for love but his wife is clearly a feckless snob and disinterested mother who Matthew now has little in common with apart from their numerous children.  Magwitch and Molly’s relationship would have been prime fodder for a Victorian Jeremy Kyle. Estelle ends up in an abusive and loveless marriage. Pip is made unhappy throughout by Estelle’s coldness and the spurned Miss Havisham wastes her life in anger, self-pity and hatred, isolated from the world and reality.  Magwitch’s love for Pip ultimately leads him to return to England and to his untimely death.

According to Miss Havisham real love is ”blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter – as I did”.  But can something so inherently destructive ever be love?  Is it really love that leads Miss Havisham to live a wasted life ending up a bitter old hag and is it love which leads Pip into become a terrible snob and acting appallingly to those around him?

In Great Expectations Dickens also gives a pretty concise description of misspent youth, again only too recognisable I’m sure to most of us. “We spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us. We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintance were in the same condition. There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did. To the best of my belief, our case was in the last aspect a rather common one.”

Dickens also reflects on the talent that most of us have to procrastinate.  Dicken’s description of how Pip and Herbert adeptly avoid sorting out their finances surely strikes a chord with all of the many self-employed when the January tax deadline is looming. “We ordered something rather special for dinner, with a bottle of something similarly out of the common way, in order that our minds might be fortified for the occasion, and we might come well up to the mark. Dinner over, we produced a bundle of pens, a copious supply of ink, and a goodly show of writing and blotting paper. For, there was something very comfortable in having plenty of stationery…. Each of us would then refer to a confused heap of papers at his side, which had been thrown into drawers, worn into holes in pockets, half-burnt in lighting candles, stuck for weeks into the looking-glass, and otherwise damaged. The sound of our pens going, refreshed us exceedingly, insomuch that I sometimes found it difficult to distinguish between this edifying business proceeding and actually paying the money. In point of meritorious character, the two things seemed about equal.”  In the end of course, nothing is actually sorted out and they are precisely in the same position as they were before.

Dickens also takes a swipe at the legal system and the vicious circle of acute poverty leading to a life of crime and imprisonment followed by even more crime; as well as the then common belief of phrenology which insisted you could identify a criminal from the shape of his head.  “they measured my head, some on ‘em — they had better a measured my stomach — and others on ‘em giv me tracts what I couldn’t read, and made me speeches what I couldn’t unnerstand. They always went on agen me about the Devil. But what the Devil was I to do? I must put something into my stomach, mustn’t I?”

With the arrival of Magwitch to his London apartments the world that Pip has imagined for himself falls apart.  He now realises that Miss Havisham was not his secret benefactor. Estelle was not destined for him and that he was just a patsy that Miss Havisham used for Estelle to practice her charms on and in the process upset her mercenary relatives with.  It also puts into sharp relief his behaviour towards Joe.  “But, sharpest and deepest pain of all — it was for the convict, guilty of I knew not what crimes, and liable to be taken out of those rooms where I sat thinking, and hanged at the Old Bailey door, that I had deserted Joe.”

Not only is Pip ungrateful to Joe but he is now ungrateful to the one man who has spent years striving away to enable him to become what he has always wanted to be – a gentleman.  Pip is horrified that his benefactor is the lowly ex-convict and that he could be hanged on his account. “I, pursued by the creature who had made me, and recoiling from him with a stronger repulsion, the more he admired me and the fonder he was of me.”

However, despite all of Pip’s failings, he is inherently a moral character.  As soon as his true benefactor is revealed to him, he refuses to profit any more from Magwitch’s generosity and doesn’t touch the ready money that Magwitch hands over to him despite facing increasing financial difficulties as a consequence.  When Miss Havisham tries to make amends to him for her behaviour, the only money that he asks from her is that she provides sufficient funds to enable his friend Herbert Pocket to set up in business and asks nothing for himself.  He also bears no grudge against Miss Havisham for what she has done to him as he is only too aware of his own shortcomings.

At the end of the novel Pip also finds some redemption in his behaviour towards Magwitch who was fatally wounded during his unsuccessful attempt to flee from England and the long arms of the law.  Pip visits the now imprisoned and dying Magwitch in prison and is there for him throughout his trial and is also there in his cell when he finally dies.  “For now, my repugnance to him had all melted away, and in the hunted wounded shackled creature who held my hand in his, I only saw a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who had felt affectionately, gratefully, and generously, towards me with great constancy through a series of years. I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe.”

In short, Great Expectations is a great novel.  It’s hugely enjoyable to read and its main character is so beautifully drawn that you have no trouble identifying with him.  Pip’s foibles after all may – without too much stretch of the imagination – not be too dissimilar to our own.  Like us, Pip is definitely no superhero.  And like us, he may not always do the right thing.  However it’s never from a sense of malice but simply down to ordinary, very recognisable, human failings.   And like all great stories, the novel is well constructed with a great twist you don’t see coming, as, like Pip, you are originally taken in by the idea that Miss Havisham is his secret benefactor.  Great Expectations also deals with great themes such as love, hate, ingratitude, class, redemption and the danger of master manias or idée fixes.  In Victorian England the master manias Dickens referred to were sorrow, penitence, remorse and unworthiness.  Little could he suspect that such manias would be dwarfed by the master mania of the 21st century that is social networking!  So if you fancy a break from Facebook/Twitter and want to find out why 200 years on from his birth we are still celebrating Dickens and his works, then you can do no better than pick up a copy of Great Expectations. The novel will live up to all your expectations.

© Maureen Younger and, [2013-2014]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Maureen Younger and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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    • Thanks for the comment. I’m afraid ot planning to blog anymore about Great Expectations at the moment as have loads of other books I keep meaning to get round to rereading and blogging about.

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