Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Great Expectations

Great Expectations. Charles Dickens. 1860. 640 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: 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.

Premise/plot: Can any Charles Dickens' novel easily--painlessly--be condensed into a couple of sentences that summarizes the plot and introduces the characters in an enticing, compelling way? I say NO. But I'll try. (Because I'm stubborn like that!)

Pip is a young man being raised by his older sister and his brother-in-law--the Gargerys. Mrs. Joe isn't all that nice to him, but, Joe--a blacksmith--is a godsend. The novel opens with some excitement. Pip has been approached--in a cemetery--by a shady character, a grown man, a man readers learn to be an escaped convict. He wants a file--to rid him of his chains--and some food. He's depending on Pip for both. Does Pip have a choice in helping him? Not really. (Though Pip is used to threats since he lives with his sister.) Some time later, Pip is given another opportunity. This time an eccentric old lady, Miss Havisham, wants Pip to be a companion for her and her adopted daughter, Estella. Does Pip have a choice? Again I'll say not really. The meeting is memorable and life-changing. Both his meeting of Miss Havisham and of Estella will change him for better or worse. It is this meeting that brings about his angst--his discontent. After meeting these two, he's no longer content in his home being raised by Joe and Mrs. Joe. He's no longer content being barely literate. He's no longer content with the idea of apprenticing to Joe and following in his footsteps. He wants what seems to be impossible: to be a gentleman--to walk, talk, act, live as a gentleman. But never say never, right? One day--in the middle of his apprenticeship to Joe--his life takes another turn. A lawyer approaches him with glad tidings: he's now a man with expectations. The catch: his benefactor wants to remain anonymous. His life from that moment on will change dramatically. He's being given the opportunity to become a new man. But does new always mean better? And what about those he leaves behind? Joe and Biddy, in particular. (Biddy is a young woman who has come to live with the family after Mrs. Joe is seriously injured. Biddy is of their class but has some education.) He's thrust into a whole new world, and, his manners and morals can sometimes lag behind. Joe goes to live with the Pockets; he becomes best-best friends with Herbert Pocket. Herbert christens him "Handel." The two go through much together; their friendship is deep and sincere. Life seems to be going swell, going according to Pip's grand plan, when Pip learns an unsettling truth. He learns the identity of his benefactor. Pip is shaken, confused, and ANGSTy once again. What is he to do now?! The foundation of his hopes and dreams has collapses. His big plan of marrying Estella seems to be truly impossible now. But not just that plan but all his plans seem to be off-track now. Who can he depend on in this crisis? From this point on, in my opinion, the novel shifts from being a coming-of-age story to a dramatic MYSTERY. So much ACTION and DRAMA are packed into the last hundred or so pages.

My thoughts: I recommend reading Great Expectations at a steady pace. It is not one to rush through in one or two days. If you do, chances are you won't remember what you read, and the novel won't stir up your emotions. It is not one to read slowly hit-or-miss style. If you don't read in it every day or every other day, you might not remember much either. The greatest danger may be that you won't connect with the characters or care about them. And unless you become attached to a character or two, the book won't stay with you. This was my third time to read the novel. In high school, I waited until the day before it was due to open it. It was a NIGHTMARE reading experience. I hated every minute of it. In college, I don't think I made the same mistake twice. I don't think I procrastinated. I think my sin in that instance was holding a grudge and reading it with a closed mind and heart. Since graduating college, I've read Dickens voluntarily. And this year I decided to read Great Expectations--as if for the first time. The goal: to read it with fresh eyes, open heart, open mind, looking for what made Great Expectations GREAT.

What was great about Great Expectations? I really enjoyed the characters, the themes, and the contrasts. What kind of contrasts? Love and hate, foolishness and wisdom, bitterness and forgiveness, friends and enemies, pride and humility. For example, we have two characters that live for revenge and thrive on bitterness to a certain degree. Abel Magwitch and Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham may be the more memorable of the two. She is living in a her worst moment, perpetuating the agony of it. She was jilted at the altar, and from that moment on her life stopped. Instead of moving on with her life, instead of finding a reason to keep living, she became filled with hate, pain, anger, bitterness. Not far behind her is Abel Magwitch. He has an enemy and there is this constant need to get him, to get revenge, to come out on top, to win no matter what. And this enemy haunts him--taunts him. Abel has his good side, as does Miss Havisham. But their worldview is tainted more by hate than love, more by this need to hurt others than to love.

What unites this novel is Pip. And a large part of Pip's identity is his undying, never changing love for Estella. It's unrequited love at that. Pip loves Estella. Estella does not love Pip. Estella loves Estella. I'm not sure if Dickens was trying to enter into the debate of nature versus nurture or not. But Estella has been raised to hate, raised to hurt. Miss Havisham thinks she's protecting Estella from having her heart broken by showing her day in and day out what happens from trusting a man. But in reality, Estella doesn't have a heart to hurt. She doesn't even have a heart to love the woman who raised her. Pip has trouble seeing the real Estella. His Estella is an idealized version, perhaps a version of who she could be if she'd been raised differently, if she'd allow herself to be human, if she'd allow herself to be vulnerable.
"You must know," said Estella, condescending to me as a brilliant and beautiful woman might, "that I have no heart,—if that has anything to do with my memory." I got through some jargon to the effect that I took the liberty of doubting that. That I knew better. That there could be no such beauty without it. "Oh! I have a heart to be stabbed in or shot in, I have no doubt," said Estella, "and of course if it ceased to beat I should cease to be. But you know what I mean. I have no softness there, no—sympathy—sentiment—nonsense."
Then, Estella being gone and we two left alone, she turned to me, and said in a whisper,— "Is she beautiful, graceful, well-grown? Do you admire her?" "Everybody must who sees her, Miss Havisham." She drew an arm round my neck, and drew my head close down to hers as she sat in the chair. "Love her, love her, love her! How does she use you?" Before I could answer (if I could have answered so difficult a question at all) she repeated, "Love her, love her, love her! If she favors 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!" Never had I seen such passionate eagerness as was joined to her utterance of these words. I could feel the muscles of the thin arm round my neck swell with the vehemence that possessed her.
"Hear me, Pip! I adopted her, to be loved. I bred her and educated her, to be loved. I developed her into what she is, that she might be loved. Love her!" She said the word often enough, and there could be no doubt that she meant to say it; but if the often repeated word had been hate instead of love—despair—revenge—dire death—it could not have sounded from her lips more like a curse. "I'll tell you," said she, in the same hurried passionate whisper, "what real love is. It 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!" When she came to that, and to a wild cry that followed that, I caught her round the waist. For she rose up in the chair, in her shroud of a dress, and struck at the air as if she would as soon have struck herself against the wall and fallen dead.
"Herbert," said I, laying my hand upon his knee, "I love—I adore—Estella." Instead of being transfixed, Herbert replied in an easy matter-of-course way, "Exactly. Well?" "Well, Herbert? Is that all you say? Well?" "What next, I mean?" said Herbert. "Of course I know that." "How do you know it?" said I. "How do I know it, Handel? Why, from you." "I never told you." "Told me! You have never told me when you have got your hair cut, but I have had senses to perceive it. You have always adored her, ever since I have known you. You brought your adoration and your portmanteau here together. Told me! Why, you have always told me all day long. When you told me your own story, you told me plainly that you began adoring her the first time you saw her, when you were very young indeed." "Very well, then," said I, to whom this was a new and not unwelcome light, "I have never left off adoring her. And she has come back, a most beautiful and most elegant creature. And I saw her yesterday. And if I adored her before, I now doubly adore her."
"O Estella!" I answered, as my bitter tears fell fast on her hand, do what I would to restrain them; "even if I remained in England and could hold my head up with the rest, how could I see you Drummle's wife?" "Nonsense," she returned,—"nonsense. This will pass in no time." "Never, Estella!" "You will get me out of your thoughts in a week." "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 be displaced by 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!"
Favorite character: I think my favorite character was definitely Joe Gargery. Joe loved Pip unconditionally. Joe loved Pip even when Pip was being a brat or a snob--which was often especially in the first half of the book. Pip did nothing to earn Joe's unconditional love and support. Pip often thought of Joe as a fool, as ridiculous, as an embarrassment. But this reader saw him differently. I didn't need a late hour epiphany to see how awesome and amazing Joe was.

Favorite relationship: I really LOVED Herbert and Handel's friendship. I love how these two supported one another, confided in one another, wanted the best for one another. Herbert knew Pip--his strengths, his weaknesses--and loved him as a brother. That brotherly love was returned. When Pip came of age, he thought of Herbert first. How can I use my wealth to help Herbert get a start in life? When Pip's world started crashing in, I loved that Pip thought first of what this meant to Herbert and only secondly to what it meant for him and his dreams. I loved how these two seemed to understand one another. In hard, dangerous times or easy-going good times, these two were there for each other.

Favorite scene: I think one of my favorite scenes is between Pip and Miss Havisham. He is an adult now; he knows at last who his benefactor was; his own dreams are gone--his illusions shattered. He's come to ask for her help: he is not asking for money for himself, but money for his friend, Herbert, in setting him up in a career. His maturity in this scene effected me.
"If I give you the money for this purpose, will you keep my secret as you have kept your own?" "Quite as faithfully." "And your mind will be more at rest?" "Much more at rest." "Are you very unhappy now?" She asked this question, still without looking at me, but in an unwonted tone of sympathy. I could not reply at the moment, for my voice failed me. She put her left arm across the head of her stick, and softly laid her forehead on it. "I am far from happy, Miss Havisham; but I have other causes of disquiet than any you know of. They are the secrets I have mentioned." After a little while, she raised her head, and looked at the fire Again.
"It is noble in you to tell me that you have other causes of unhappiness, Is it true?" "Too true." "Can I only serve you, Pip, by serving your friend? Regarding that as done, is there nothing I can do for you yourself?" "Nothing. I thank you for the question. I thank you even more for the tone of the question. But there is nothing." She presently rose from her seat, and looked about the blighted room for the means of writing. There were none there, and she took from her pocket a yellow set of ivory tablets, mounted in tarnished gold, and wrote upon them with a pencil in a case of tarnished gold that hung from her neck.
She read me what she had written; and it was direct and clear, and evidently intended to absolve me from any suspicion of profiting by the receipt of the money. I took the tablets from her hand, and it trembled again, and it trembled more as she took off the chain to which the pencil was attached, and put it in mine. All this she did without looking at me. "My name is on the first leaf. If you can ever write under my name, "I forgive her," though ever so long after my broken heart is dust pray do it!" "O Miss Havisham," said I, "I can do it now. There have been sore mistakes; and my life has been a blind and thankless one; and I want forgiveness and direction far too much, to be bitter with you."
© 2017 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Unknown said...

This is a must-read! :)

- El @ El's Book Reviews

Jen said...

I think with any classic you have to give it a chance. And you need to take time to get used to the language. When you study them at school you often tear the books apart so much that you lose enjoyment. But I've gone back to the books I've studied and enjoyed them more. I didn't enjoy Hard Times but I will give it a go one day as I'm sure I'd enjoy it now

Carol said...

I didn't enjoy this one as much as some of his others but reading your last quote makes me want to read it again & savour it a bit more. Love
Y review.

Paula Vince said...

I love Great Expectations, and like to think how the unexpected twists would have wowed the Victorian readers. I totally agree with you regarding Herbert and Handel, and included those two on a list of best bromances once. The teaser at the end is do we think Pip actually married Estella?

Joy Weese Moll said...

I read Great Expectations, for fun, not an assignment, in high school and it's one of my fondest reading memories. That book kept me company for weeks because it did take a while to read. As you say, a steady pace is best. I had a crush on Pip that made my fellow classmates look kind of lame in comparison.