Book 22: “Great Expectations”, Charles Dickens

Great Expectations is a book so loved, so recognised, so revered, that I, like many others no doubt, knew much of it well before I read it.

Of course, it is central to Mister Pip, recently discussed on this here blog. I’ve also learnt a little about Dickens here and there – I had an influential English teacher whose doctoral thesis had been on Charles Dickens. And, for good measure, I once crashed a tutorial at the University of Adelaide under the pretence of having studied the book. This did require a quick brushing up on who Miss Havisham was, etc.. My friends drew a helpful diagram.

Thus I was aware that this was a pretty good book.

But I didn’t realise how good.

1.

From the very outset I was in the thrall of Dickens’ prose. It had a spectral old-world sort of charm – that of a book written by a genius in an age when a book written by a genius could get the whole of London talking. The writing is so masterful, so controlled, and yet so vivacious and even, at times, startlingly funny.

My first example of this is the characterisation. I have it on good authority that Dickens invented 13,000 characters. And, as I had learnt, and realised myself, every character is introduced with maximal efficiency of description/word. Thus with just a handful of sentences, Dickens gives the reader an incredible sense of a character’s appearance and nature:

“…Uncle Pumblechook, a large hard-breathing middle-aged slow man, with a mouth like a fish, dull staring eyes, and sandy hair standing upright on his head, so that he looked as if he had just been all but choked, and had that moment come to…”

Regarding the startling funniness, take Pip’s response to being told by a certain lady that he is growing tall:

“I thought it best to hint, through the medium of a meditative look, that this might be occasioned by circumstances over which I had no control.”

Or this sensuously poetic description:

“I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstances of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.”

Dickens is scarily insightful in to the human condition – his ability to write as Pip, to bring to life the experiences of the young-then-older Pip, is refreshing and astonishing.

2.

There’s a lot going on here. My main delight in the book was probably the prose, but plot-wise I suspect it is about Pip’s becoming a man, his growing in self-awareness, his increasing ability to make sense of his experience of the world.

A lot of this happens as Pip deals with his love for one Estella. Pip first encounters Estella when he is a naive boy, falls in love with her, and never quite shakes the habit. He does at least get a little wiser regarding the nature of their rather unsatisfying relationship.

“Whatever her tone with me happened to be, I could put no trust in it, and build no hope on it; and yet I went on against trust and against hope”

“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.”

And let’s be fair – Pip’s feelings for Estella aren’t exactly unique in the history of humanity. Perhaps, just perhaps, Dickens is describing an experience that is familiar to a largish proportion of the population.

3.

Finally, this book made me think of something someone once said to me – that they thought Of Mice and Men to perhaps be the best novelistic portrayal of friendship between two men. Pip grows up in the house of Joe Gargery, the blacksmith, and theirs is a beautiful friendship.

In many ways it’s a less than ideal friendship. As I’ve noted, Pip grows somewhat through the novel. So he starts as a naive child, spends a lot of time as a solipsistic git, and then winds up halfway decent. Throughout this time, Joe loves Pip. It’s a rare and true kind of love – there is no showering of affection, no grand displays, simply absolute positive regard. Pip struggles with this. He loves Joe, but Pip’s “great expectations” compel him to find Joe socially inferior. Pip doesn’t like feeling thus, but can’t really help it. Joe endures.

Things end well. Near the novel’s end, Pip has what I will non-spoileristically describe as “a holy-shit kind of experience”. He sort of gets at that point that maybe Joe is actually pretty good and that, just maybe, Pip himself is a bit of a douche. Or had been. Pip goes so far as to say: “the inaptitude had never been in him at all, but had been in me.” Which, let’s be fair, is a pretty self-aware thing to get at.

Writing this review has been a bit odd – I went a bit more overboard with quotations than usual. And said very little about the actual plot. Not to worry – you already know that you need to read Great Expectations. And now you’ve had the pleasure of experiencing some of the wonderful prose it has to offer

Get a copy on Amazon

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One Response to “Book 22: “Great Expectations”, Charles Dickens”

  1. one of my favourite books and authors!

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