Thursday, March 1, 2007

Great Expectations

Charles Dickens 1812-1870

Great Expectations was Dickens's third to last book. Written in 1867, it is one of his many classics. The king of Victorian prose at full power in this one. I listened to Great Expectations on audiobook. Dickens's language is so thick, textured and descriptive that if my mind wondered for a second I felt like I missed something. Dickens tells the story of the rise and fall of Philip Pirrip (Pip). He lives in a small, English, country town with his older sister and her good, blacksmith husband Joe. One gloomy evening as the young Pip sits ruminating on his parents' deaths a fugitive appears on the foggy marshes. A terrified Pip helps the dangerous man escape from his bonds by using one of Joe's files.
Pip's sister ("Mrs. Joe") rages about the house everyday, but Pip and Joe manage to have many "larks." Joe is a bit slow-witted, but he has a heart of gold. Pip is introduced to Ms. Havisham and the young Estella. Ms. Havisham is a wealthy old woman who has stopped living in the outside after being left at the altar years and years ago by a man named Compeyson. In her mansion the clocks are stopped at 8:40, the wedding feast, long rotted and mummified still sits on the table. Ms. Havisham is never seen out of her papery old wedding gown. Estella is enchantingly beautiful. Her ethereal beauty is the antithesis of Ms. Havisham. Pip immediately falls in love with her, but Estella only toys with and abuses him.
Now an adolescent, Pip receives word that he's to be lifted to the position of gentleman, presumably at the bequest of Ms. Havisham, who he's been humoring for about a year. He heads to London and lives with Herbert, a loyal friend. In London he meets his guardian Mr. Jaggers and Jaggers's employee, Wemmick. Wemmick leads an interesting double life, at work he is dull be he goes home to an old castle to tend to his "aged parent." Pip is convinced that Ms. Havisham is his benefactor and that she intends to have Pip and Estella married. He becomes ashamed of lowly Joe and Pip's childhood friend Biddy because of their country ways. The story turns when Able Magwitch (aka Provis), the same convict from the marsh, returns from Australia illegally and informs Pip that he's been the one paying for Pip's luxurious upbringing. Pip is initially disgusted, but eventually becomes loyal to the devoted man and unsuccessfully tries to leave the country with him. This fails because Provis's mortal enemy, Compeyson, tracks them and turns them over to the police.
Pip returns to Ms. Havisham and Estella, the old house has been the sight of much confusion and heartbreak for him. He leaves Estella forever, even though he knows it is the right move he is sad. Ms. Havisham's humanity is touched for the first time in years. In a fit of remorse for making Estella an unfeeling bitch and for stringing Pip along for years she walks over to the fireplace and sets her very flammable wedding dress on fire. Pip manages to save her despite the terrible things she's done to him.
In the end Pip learns that loyalty is the best value and returns to Joe and Biddy (Mrs. Joe died years before). He feels remorse for neglecting them and intends to marry Biddy only to find that Joe and Biddy have married each other. Pip has missed his chance with Biddy but the trio is extremely happy together. Eventually Pip goes off to work for the now successful Herbert .

Quotes and main themes
-"A Hercules in strength as well as weakness."
-Children are the main victims of injustice.
-When a minor character dies, Dickens writes she "conquered a confirmed habit of living."
-"Life's made of ever so many partings welded together."
-Pip has an interesting discussion of a production of Hamlet.

Rating: 8/10 Certainly a classic, but not my favorite Dickens novel. Still, great characters, especially Ms. Havisham, Magwitch, and the best of all Joe. His good-natured country ways are beautifully juxtaposed against the mostly terrible things that happen in the city.
(Credit for the pic)

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