Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
This novel is everything my mind ever pictured when it hears the name of Dickens – grimy, smoggy London; sly and somewhat greasy criminals; and ugly festering secrets (the rotted wedding cake was just a bonus). Great Expectations is widely considered to be Dickens’ most magnificent novel, and the story has been turned into a movie / television production at least fifteen times.
I hated it.
Great Expectations is the story of a young fellow named Pip, and that is where Dickens made his biggest mistake. I didn’t like Pip.
Despite my objections, our very young and mostly-innocent Pip is surrounded by an outrageously colorful set of characters – all infuriating. The pompous Uncle Pumblechook with his never-ending torture of multiplication questions; the brutal Mrs. Gargery who brings Pip up by unflinching hand; the sadistic and drop-dead gorgeous Estella that Pip adores from day one; one and all, they’re a miserable set of characters. They’re a fascinating bunch if you like people-watching, but if not, reading about these characters is painful. Depressing, even.
I won’t rehash the plot (that would be cheating!); just assume this is a coming-of-age story disguised as a mystery, and that somewhere along the way Pip forgets who his friends are.
But Dickens left one redeeming quality in the novel: I liked Joe. Pip’s older brother-in-law is a blacksmith; uncultured, awkward, and barely able to spell his name, Joe is the orphan Pip’s substitute father-figure. He is not the least dynamic or exciting, but he is gentle, good, and forgiving, and breathes a wisp of redemption into Pip’s tarnished world.
Therein lies the conundrum. I liked Joe enough to keep reading, but I liked Joe enough to be outraged at what I read. Pip bumbles through life utterly unaware of the hurt he causes, and has an unhealthy dose of all-too-human pride and foolishness. Yes, Pip is a fully believable character with his own flaws. Yes, I see the nastier truths of life mirrored in his story. But did I want to read about them? Not for 300 miserable pages, I didn’t.
On the positive side, the mystery was interesting (with rascally names like Magwitch floating around, how could it go wrong?). The characters are beautifully drawn. Pip’s surroundings are magnificently described, whether the haunting mists or the squalor of the city.
In the end, Pip somewhat redeems himself… but unlike the ever-forgiving Joe, I still hold a grudge. Will I ever read Great Expectations again? Not until I’ve forgotten how mad it made me when I read it the first time. Will I ever reread the sections of Joe and Pip eating together in the corner by the chimney? Oh yes. Many times!
If you like Dickens, jump for “Great Expectations.” This novel is his magnum opus. If you like spending time with nice people, run for your life – but not until you have read the first few chapters. There is a blacksmith worth meeting.
Christina wrote this review (a different perspective on a classic!) at my request. She recently graduated and holds a degree in Public Relations.