Tuesday, 3 September 2013

'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens (1861)

Synopsis: Philip "Pip" Pirrip is a working-class orphan who lives with his aggressive, bad-tempered older sister (who frequently beats him) and her much kinder husband Joe Gargery. On a dreary Christmas Eve morning, Pip goes to visit his parents' graves and has a terrifying encounter with an escaped convict. Afraid for his life, Pip smuggles the convict some food and a file. When Pip sees this convict being re-arrested he puts this encounter out of his mind. A year later Pip is then invited to Satis Hall - a large and dilapidated manor house that isn't far from the Kent marshes where Pip lives. The lady of the house is a very wealthy spinster called Miss Havisham who intends for Pip to be a playmate for her adopted daughter Estella. Pip quickly falls in love with Estella despite her extreme rudeness towards him. He continues to see Estella every week for several months until Miss Havisham unceremoniously puts a stop to the visits. Pip then spends the rest of his childhood as Joe's apprentice-blacksmith. However, Pip's time with Miss Havisham and Estella has made him dissatisfied with his lot and he secretly dreams of becoming a gentleman. Much to Pip's astonishment his wish then comes true. Pip is informed by a famous London lawyer called Mr Jaggers that an anonymous benefactor wishes to provide him with a large fortune and to make him a gentleman of "great expectations". However, Pip can only receive the money on two conditions: 1) He must move to London 2) He must never attempt to discover who his benefactor is. Pip is nevertheless convinced that Miss Havisham must be his benefactor and that she must have given him the money for him to have the means of marrying Estella. He moves to London and it's not long before he encounters Estella again. Estella has now matured into a stunningly beautiful young woman and has recently returned to England after spending the last few years being educated in France. Pip sees quite a bit of Estella in London and falls even more in love with her than ever. He hopes that Estella will marry him but Estella has also caught the eye of a black-hearted brute called Mr Drummle which makes Pip anxious. Pip's new-found wealth is also having a negative and corrupting influence on him. Pip then discovers who his anonymous benefactor is; a secret that threatens to put both him and Estella in danger.

Great Expectations is usually considered to be one of Dickens', er, greatest achievements but when I tried to read it as a teenager I found it so boring that I couldn't finish it and it put me off Dickens for years. But after reading and enjoying David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol I finally decided to give the book another chance. So do I like Great Expectations now? Erm... in a way. I definitely appreciated the book's dark humour and haunting imagery this time around and I did find some of its secondary characters interesting and memorable (Miss Havisham, Estella, Joe, Herbert Pocket, Mr Wemmick, etc). But to be honest I still wouldn't call myself a big fan of this book because I find its middle section extremely slow-moving and dull and Pip really annoys me. He degenerates from being a cute and sympathetic child into a cold, whiny, shallow and ungrateful young man. He's nowhere near as likeable a narrator as David Copperfield is.

Before I finish this review I thought I'd mention that this book has two different endings. When Dickens showed his original ending to some of his friends they told him that it was much too depressing and that he should leave the book on a more optimistic and open-ended note. Most editions of the book include both the original and the revised ending. I thought both of the book's endings were good actually but if I had to choose which one I liked better then I'd go with Dickens' original ending rather than his revised ending. The original ending seems a bit more relevant to the book's themes and its overall message. Even though the revised ending was intended to be more open-ended I get the impression that Pip really is going to end up with his beloved Estella after all. 

Rating: 3/5

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