Mrs. Hubble shook her head, and contemplating me with a mournful presentiment that I should come to no good, asked, “Why is it that the young are never grateful?” This moral mystery seemed too much for the company until Mr. Hubble tersely solved it by saying, “Naterally wicious.” Everybody then murmured “True!” and looked at me in a particularly unpleasant and personal manner. (Ch. 4)
Great Expectation is widely considered one of Charles Dickens’s greatest novels, I believe. It is right up there with Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol for the number of movie adaptations made of it. It is a Bildungsroman, following young Pip as he grows to adulthood, and, like David Copperfield, is narrated in first person.
Pip is an orphan raised by his sister, Mrs. Joe, and her husband, the meek Joe Gargery. Mrs. Joe is not kind to Pip, bringing him up “by hand”, that is to say, by giving him good thrashings whenever she is “on the Rampage”. Mr. Pumblechook exhorts Pip to be “be for ever grateful to all friends, but especially unto them which brought you up by hand!” (ch. 7) and gratitude is a major theme in Great Expectations. Joe, however, is a genuine friend to Pip.
One of Pip’s earliest memories involves sneaking food to an escaped convict under threat of having his heart and liver eaten. About a year thereafter, through Mr. Pumblechook, Pip is hired by a morbid recluse, the very rich Miss Havisham, to entertain her. There he meets her adopted daughter Estella, a girl about his own age, but very proud, beautiful, and contemptuous of him. Miss Havisham was jilted on her wedding day many years before, and since then has kept no track of time (all her clocks have been stopped) and has never seen the light of day. She glories in Estella’s beauty, encouraging her to break Pip’s heart as a beginning of her campaign to revenge herself on men.
“What could I become with these surroundings?” Pip muses. “How could my character fail to be influenced by them? Is it to be wondered at if my thoughts were dazed, as my eyes were, when I came out into the natural light from the misty yellow rooms?” (ch. 12). Pip becomes discontented with his life at the forge. He no longer wants to be a blacksmith like Joe, but wishes to become a gentleman, so that Estella can no longer look down upon him for his coarse hands, thick boots, and lack of education. “It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home,” Pip narrates (ch. 14).
Pip goes to Miss Havisham’s for around eight or ten months, and then becomes apprenticed to Joe. He remains discontent until, sometime before his apprenticeship is over, a lawyer comes from London with extraordinary news — Pip has Great Expectations. An anonymous benefactor has provided money to educate Pip and turn him into a gentleman, with the promise of providing for him as such thereafter. Pip quickly surmises that his patron is Miss Havisham. He happily leaves Joe and the forge behind him and embarks on his new life in London. When Estella returns from school abroad, Miss Havisham sends for Pip to escort her to London, and Pip, who is madly in love with Estella, believes that Miss Havisham intends him to marry her — after, of course, she has finished exacting Miss Havisham’s revenge on men.
After his twenty-third birthday, Pip’s benefactor reveals himself, and all of Pip’s hopes and expectations come tumbling down around him as he faces reality. He begins to recognize his ingratitude to Joe. Trouble tries him, and he comes through it a much better man than he had become.
Gratitude, as I said is a theme in Great Expectations. There are a number of candidates for Pip’s gratitude presented throughout the story. Mrs. Joe demands Pip’s gratitude for his upbringing. Through showing what Pip can scarcely feel genuine gratitude for (Mrs. Joe’s treatment of him), Dickens’s highlights Pip’s later ingratitude towards those to whom he really owes gratitude. When Pip receives his unexpected fortune, Mr. Pumblechook presents himself as another candidate for Pip’s gratitude in the character of the “founder of his fortune” (since it was Mr. Pumblechook who introduced Pip to Miss Havisham). Others are Miss Havisham, who plays on Pip’s belief that she is his patron, and Abel Magwitch who is Pip’s true benefactor. And then there is Joe, who truly deserves Pip’s gratitude for his faithful care and affection, but never demands it. After he becomes a “gentleman”, Pip ignores Joe as much as possible, until the futility of all of his dreams tries him and he learns to be ashamed of his ingratitude instead of being ashamed of Joe. Magwitch is the instrument of Pip’s change. He is the one who, unintentionally, brings all of Pip’s dreams to nought. At first Pip shrinks from him, and in doing so softens towards Joe, whom he had abandoned for this unknown benefactor. Through further adversity, Pip also softens towards Magwitch, and becomes a better person.
Forgiveness is also addressed in Great Expectations. Miss Havisham, in her misery, becomes the thing which she hates. She becomes aware of this when Pip, after learning who his true benefactor is, realizes that Estella is not intended for him and he has lost her. Miss Havisham sees in Pip a mirror of what she herself felt when her own heart was broken. Broken down, she begs Pip on her knees for his forgiveness (ch. 49). “Until you spoke to [Estella] the other day, and until I saw in you a looking-glass that showed me what I once felt myself, I did not know what I had done. What have I done! What have I done!” she explains. “But, Pip—my Dear! … Believe this: when she first came to me, I meant to save her from misery like my own. … But as she grew, and promised to be very beautiful, I gradually did worse, and … with my teachings, and with this figure of myself always before her a warning to back and point my lessons, I stole her heart away and put ice in its place.” She asks Pip, if he can, to write under her name “I forgive her”.
In a parallel scene, Pip begs for Joe’s forgiveness. “Pray let me hear you say the words,” he asks, “that I may carry the sound of them away with me, and then I shall be able to believe that you can trust me, and think better of me, in the time to come!” (ch. 58).
Pip is not the only one changed by adversity. Estella marries Bentley Drummle, an arrogant bully who misuses her. Long after Drummle’s death, Pip and Estella meet again. In the original ending (Dickens changed his original ending to Great Expectations to please his publisher), Pip notes at this meeting, “in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.” In the final ending of the book, Estella reminds Pip that the last time they met, he had forgiven her for her treatment of him. “And if you could say that to me then, you will not hesitate to say that to me now—now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape. Be as considerate and good to me as you were, and tell me we are friends.” (ch. 59).
Great Expectations is full of amazing characters. Pip is very well drawn. Miss Havisham’s portrayal is a vivid portrait of a warped personality. Estella’s attraction despite her coldness is skillfully depicted. The impenetrable lawyer who administers Pip’s fortune, Mr. Jaggers, was fun to read about. Mr. Jaggers’s clerk, Mr. Wemmick was another enjoyable character, with his castle-home, his Aged P., and Miss Skiffins. They provided welcome comic relief. Magwitch was also great. The reader can see why Pip would recoil from him, and yet come to feel compassion and sympathy for him.
I enjoyed reading about Joe, especially in the early parts of the book. He is not an clever man, but he can discern the truth clearly through young Pip’s tangled thoughts. When Pip returns from his first visit to Miss Havisham’s, he finds it impossible to tell his sister and Mr. Pumblechook what it was really like, so he tells them a whole string of lies instead. He later confesses this to Joe and tells him about Estella. “[S]he had said I was common, and I wished I was not common, and … the lies had come of it somehow, though I didn’t know how.”
This was a case of metaphysics, at least as difficult for Joe to deal with, as for me. But Joe took the case altogether out of the region of metaphysics, and by that means vanquished it.
“There’s one thing you may be sure of, Pip,” said Joe, after some rumination, “namely, that lies is lies. Howsever they come, they didn’t ought to come, and they come from the father of lies, and work round to the same. Don’t you tell no more of ‘em, Pip. That ain’t the way to get out of being common, old chap.” (ch. 9)
Pip’s friend Herbert Pocket is a charming young man, though in need of a little more backbone. Pip’s good fortune has the unfortunate effect of leading Herbert (who has no expectations) into debt. Otherwise, however, he is a diligent, cheerful young man, and a very good friend to Pip. I didn’t like his father, Matthew Pocket, as much. He reminded me of Mr. Jellyby in Bleak House. He makes an unfortunate marriage. His wife neglects her home. Instead, however, of at least pulling his own share, he abdicates his own role as father and manager of his house. Unlike Mr. Jellyby, who reacts to his difficulties by leaning his head against the wall, Mr. Pocket tries to lift himself up by the hair of his head. His care of his children consists in vaguely remembering that they are his and then giving them shillings and sending them off to play. And yet Dickens has the nerve to record later on that Mr. Pocket “was a most delightful lecturer on domestic economy, and his treatises on the management of children and servants were considered the very best text-books on those themes” (ch. 33)!
Another character, Biddy, provides an interesting contrast to Estella. Unlike Estella, Biddy is not proud, but gentle and good. She teaches Pip (though she is about the same age as he) and cares for his sister when an attack leaves her brain damaged. She sees through Pip’s show of care for Joe and realizes that he will not be coming back if he can help it, but she still loves him anyway. Although a trifle too sweet from time to time, Biddy is a sensible, hard-working young woman. In the end she marries Joe and makes him as happy as he deserves to be.
Pip’s feelings towards Biddy and Estella emphasizes the differences between them. He loves Estella despite knowing that she despises him, despite the fact that he is never easy or happy with her. He feels he has no choice but to love her. On the other hand, he feels that he would be a better person, that Biddy would be able to put him right, if he could only get himself to fall in love with her. He muses while walking out with Biddy, “I thought it would be very good for me if I could get [Estella] out of my head, with all the rest of those remembrances and fancies, and could go to work determined to relish what I had to do, and stick to it, and make the best of it. I asked myself the question whether I did not surely know that if Estella were beside me at that moment instead of Biddy, she would make me miserable?” (ch. 17).
Great Expectations is considered by many to be Dickens’s greatest work and it is not difficult to see why. The story is compelling, with plenty to interest and think about. It has a good mixture of comedy and seriousness. I didn’t like the portrayal of all of the characters (I think that Mr. Wopsle could have been expunged without harming the story), and there were some parts that I think might have been better left out. I once read that to be a good writer, you have to cut out your favorite parts, and I rather think that Dickens’s could have benefitted by this advice. Sometimes when reading his novels you can tell that he put something in, not because it furthers his story or is even connected to it, but because he has an opinion on a matter that he just can’t resist passing on to his readers. Still, all that aside, Great Expectations is one of his best works, I think.
I read Great Expectations August 18 – September 10, 2013.
Illustrations from top to bottom: “Mrs. Gargery on the Ram-page” by Felix O. C. Darley; Miss Havisham “In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on a table, etc.” by Charles Green; “Joe Gargery and Pip” by Felix O. C. Darley; “I entreated her to rise” by F. A. Fraser; Estella “Lightly touched my shoulder as we walked” by Charles Green; “He [Magwitch] had spoken his last words” by F. A. Fraser; “Then she [Biddy] softly patted my shoulder in a soothing way” by F. A. Fraser; and “‘Now, my young friend,’ by Guardian [Mr. Jaggers] began” by Charles Green.