Charles Dickens: Great Expectations
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
There are some books that have been spoken about to such an extent, that a person feels as if they would have few original things to say about them. Charles Dickens' classic, Great Expectations, is one such book. From Pip to Estella to Miss Havisham, the characters have become part of our literary culture. And not without good reason. Unlike lesser writers, who depict their characters as one-dimensional people, Dickens creates characters that are truly made of flesh and blood. They are people who come to life, whom we can fully relate to, who make the same kind of mistakes we make, day in and day out.
Pip is at the core of this masterpiece, and Dickens puts a great deal of effort into establishing him as a character we can all empathize with. He is an orphan, the unwanted "ward" of his sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery. From the start of the book, it's evident that Pip is used to being mistreated. His sister is physically abusive, and fails to demonstrate any level of true caring towards him. She insists on the bread being cut at dinner in a certain way, and doesn't allow Pip take a candle to bed, in spite of the fact he is frightened of the dark. She is vituperative, berates Pip frequently, and even abuses her husband, Joe. As Pip tells us in Chapter 2 of this 458-page book:
"My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbours because she had brought me up 'by hand.' Having at that time to find out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand."
His sister isn't the only character who instills fear in the young Pip. The book begins with an encounter between Pip and the convict, Abel Magwitch.
"A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron in his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied around his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head...."
Upon their initial meeting, Magwitch seizes Pip by the chin and tells him he has "half a mind" to eat his fat cheeks. He asks Pip details of who his mother and father are, and demands that he bring him some food, or "wittles," as he calls them.
Frightened, Pip promises him he'll do so, and begins saving up some of the rations his sister allots him. He even steals a savoury pork pie that Mrs. Joe (as she is called) has planned to serve for Christmas Day dinner. When he takes this pie to Magwitch, he encounters another stranger, a man who attacks Magwitch and whom Pip helps defend Magwitch against. Because of Pip's aid, Magwitch promises that he will one day repay him.
Cut to the character of Miss Havisham. Few embittered old spinsters have made as much of an impression on readers throughout the decades as the lonely, cynical Miss Havisham. Like many men and women who live their entire lives wrapped up in a cocoon of past experiences, Miss Havisham has no desire to break free. She is a woman who has built a cage around herself, a cage she refuses to let herself out of, a cage that eventually becomes a fatal prison. When Pip first comes upon her, he says:
"In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, (was) the strangest lady I had ever seen, or ever shall see. She was dressed in rich materials--satins, and lace, and silks--all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on--the other was on the table near her hand.....It was not in the first moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more in the first moments than might be supposed. But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow."
Never has there been a more poignant rendering of a woman who has allowed an unreciprocated love to destroy her, than Dickens' portrait of Miss Havisham. Forgotten on her wedding day, betrayed by the one man she ever cared about, she remains in a time warp of her own making, her heart having lost all its warmth decades before. She is incapable of moving past the event that brought an end to her romantic illusions, incapable of forgetting the man who hurt her so deeply--in short, incapable of truly living.
Her ward, Estella, makes a vivid impression on the reader from the start.The fact that the name, Estella, means "star-like" and love, demonstrates that Dickens was being ironic in his choice of moniker. Estella is a cold child, aloof and haughty. Pip tells us:
"...she (Estella) was about of my own age. She seemed much older than I, of course, being a girl, and beautiful and self-possessed; and she was scornful of me as if she had been one-and-twenty, and a queen."
What may not be initially evident to the reader is where this scornful attitude is derived from. However, we are enlightened rather quickly. Miss Havisham is using Estella as a vessel through which to vindicate herself against the world, and, specifically, against men. It is not enough that she remain cynical and bitter--she must take her revenge against the male sex. Estella treats Pip in much the way a mistress would treat a slave, as if is he is almost too inferior to associate with. At the same time, she taunts him with her beauty, even requesting at one point that he kiss her:
"...Instead of going straight to the gate too, she stepped back into the passage, and beckoned me.
'Come here! You may kiss me if you like.'
I kissed her cheek as she turned it to me. I think I would have gone through a great deal to kiss her check. But I felt the kiss was given to the coarse common boy as a piece of money might have been, and that it was worth noting."
Estella's cold condescension does not repulse Pip, however. Indeed, it seems to do exactly the opposite. As is often the case, the unattainable is more beguiling than that which is readily procured. Miss Havisham's cunning plan is off to a promising beginning. Estella is playing her part with a meticulousness that is matchless, and Pip is falling right into her--and, most importantly, Miss Havisham's--hands. After a game of cards that takes place at Miss Havisham's run-down mansion, she remarks to Pip:
"'You say nothing of her (Estella)...She says many hard things of you, but you say nothing of her. What do you think of her?"
"'I don't like to say,'" I stammered.
"'Tell me in my ear,'" said Miss Havisham, bending down.
"'I think she is very proud,'" I replied, in a whisper.
"'I think she is very pretty.'"
"'I think she is very insulting.' (She was looking at me then, with a look of supreme aversion)."
The more contemptuously Estella treats Pip, the more drawn to her he seems to be. She makes fun of him when he cries, gives him orders, and genuinely makes herself detestable. Yet, he falls in love with her. It is easy, when infatuated, to overlook many things. Not only is love blind--infatuation is also oblivious. But Pip's feelings for Estella quickly become something more than a passing fancy. Although the message of Great Expectations extends far beyond a story of misplaced love, the relationship between Pip and the calculating Estella must truly be one of the most memorable in all of Dickens' many novels. At fourteen, Estella has already been indoctrinated by Miss Havisham. She is the archetypal heartless female--callous, demanding, imperious, and aloof. The very epitome of an "ice queen."
Cut to Pip's unexpected opportunity. Considering the fact that Pip spends his childhood years in the blacksmith shop of his brother-in-law Joe, and sleeps and resides in his sister's impoverished home, it can only be seen as a stroke of good fortune when he is approached by a solicitor named Mr. Jaggers one day while he is working in Joe's shop. He presents Pip with the prospect of going to London and "becoming a gentleman," an unprecedented event in Pip's grim life. Pip immediately accepts the invitation, assuming that Miss Havisham is the person behind it. Being fixated on Estella, he can only imagine--most likely because this is what he wants to think--that Miss Havisham is preparing him to one day become Estella's husband.
When he goes to London, he is introduced to Herbert Pocket, a young relative of Miss Havisham, who becomes his living companion. Although initially, Herbert seems like a relatively insignificant character, it eventually becomes evident that he plays a pivotal role in the story. His cheerful mien is a good contrast to Pip's more melancholic personality, and he also becomes an important confidante, providing Pip with a listening ear and an understanding heart. He freely shares his sentiments regarding Estella with him, assuring him that his heart belongs to her. Herbert tries to instill common sense into Pip, telling him at one point:
"That girl (Estella) is hard and haughty and capricious to the last degree, and has been brought up by Miss Havisham to wreak revenge on all the male sex."
It is not until Herbert shares the story of Miss Havisham's heartache with Pip that he becomes fully aware of why Miss Havisham lives such a strange, cloistered existence. It turns out that twenty-five years before, she was made love to by a showy man who claimed to be devoted to her. In spite of the fact that Miss Havisham was not the type to be seduced easily, she fell passionately in love with the man, adoring him to the point of idolatry. She gave the man great sums of money, ignoring the sagacious advice of those around her, who told her he was taking advantage of her and her love for him. The love story ended up with Miss Havisham being deserted on her wedding day, a mere twenty minutes before the ceremony was to have begun. And Herbert discloses to Pip:
"...at which time afterwards she stopped all the clocks." Having heard this, Pip begins to understand both Miss Havisham and the behavior Estella has exhibited towards him. However, as is often the case when it comes to love, knowing why the person we love behaves the way they do doesn't prevent us from continuing to love them.
When Pip next sees Estella she has grown up into a beautiful and majestic young lady. The haughty, stiff young girl is gone. In her place is a woman fully capable of capturing and breaking Pip's still vulnerable heart.
"...She was much changed, was so much more beautiful, so much more womanly, in all things winning admiration had made such wonderful advance, that I seemed to have made none. I fancied, as I looked at her, that I slipped hopelessly back into the coarse and common boy again. O the sense of distance and disparity that came upon me, and the inaccessibility that came about her!"
Pip is well aware of the fact that he is still looked down upon by Estella. Though he has kept company with a group of dandies in London and has begun the long process of educating himself (thanks to his mysterious benefactor), he still feels inherent shame over his pitiful background. Though Estella admits, after Miss Havisham queries her, that Pip has changed a great deal, she remains the aloof queen, treating him rather like an admirer who simply amuses her. Pip is fully cognizant of this.
He tells us:
"The air of completeness and superiority with which she walked at my side, and the air of youthfulness and submission with which I walked at hers, made a contrast that I strongly felt."
She discloses to him on this same walk, that she is incapable of human feeling. When Pip tells her that she once made him cry, she doesn't even remember. She demonstrates no regret for having wounded him.
"You must know," said Estella, condescending to me as a brilliant and beautiful woman might, "that I have no heart--if that has anything to do with my memory....Oh, I have a heart to be stabbed in or shot in, I have no doubt...and of course, if it ceased to beat, I should cease to be. But you know what I mean. I have no softness there, no--sympathy--sentiment--nonsense."
As she looks attentively at him, Pip wonders how much of her being resembles that of Miss Havisham. He seems little similarity, and, perhaps because of this, he refuses to take what she has to say at face value. He refuses to believe her. But then, a person is disinclined to take a negative self-assessment at its full worth when it is made by someone he or she cares about. It is difficult for anyone to believe that the person they love is as heartless, selfish, or unfeeling as they say they are. Indeed, it is difficult to accept the loved one's words even when he or she makes it clear that they will hurt us. Such is the case with Pip and Estella.
Yet, the reader remains reluctant to blame Estella for anything when it is ostensibly clear that Miss Havisham is at the root of everything. "Is she beautiful, graceful, well-grown?" Miss Havisham asks Pip on the same occasion that Estella has told Pip she is heartless. "Do you admire her?" she persists. Then she tells him, drawing his head close down to hers, "Love her, love her, love her!" These instructions are scarcely necessary, though, as Pip already does. He writes:
"Far into the night, Miss Havisham's words, 'Love her, love her, love her!' sounded in my ears. I adapted them for my own repetition, and said to my pillow, 'I love her, I love her, I love her,' hundreds of times.'"
Pip continues to believe that Estella and he will end up together, as soon as he has finished his education of "becoming a gentleman." When Joe Gargery comes to visit him in London, he can hardly stand it because it is a reminder of the rural background from which he came. Although he loves Joe, he is ashamed of the fact he knows him. He cannot bear anything about him--his lack of education, his lack of breeding, and what seems to Pip to be a certain crudity and commonness. The theme of loyalty towards those we love is also something the reader feels Dickens was trying to explore. The idea of letting go of those who mean a great deal to us, yet who have not moved up in the world as we have, is something many can relate to. Let's face it--sometimes where we end up is simply not where we began. And re-visiting our roots can be painful, if not humiliating.
Cut to Pip's twenty-first birthday. Pip was told, upon his arrival in London, that the name of his benefactor would not be disclosed for quite some time. And it is on his twenty-first birthday that he finally does discover the truth. Although he had managed to convince himself that Miss Havisham was the person behind his good fortune, it turns out that it is Abel Magwitch instead. Rather than being grateful, Pip is both ashamed and horrified. On the one hand, he is angry with Miss Havisham for making him believe that she had anything to do with his opportunities. On the other hand, he is embarrassed that he must be in any way connected with a common criminal. This is yet another instance of Pip rejecting someone on the basis of class and social status. Even though Magwitch cares for him deeply and makes his affection clear, Pip refuses to reciprocate it in any way. He is a sophisticated young gentleman now--he can not afford to associate with a man of Magwitch's ilk.
Shortly after this, Pip returns to Miss Havisham, intending to berate her for having deceived him into thinking she was his benefactor. However, he is sidetracked by the announcement of Estella's forthcoming marriage. In spite of actions on her part that should have led him to believe exactly the opposite, Pip has held on to the hope that the two of them would end up together. Great expectations indeed.
When an accident takes place during Pip's visit to the Havisham mansion, a glimpse at the humanity and compassion he still retains is glimpsed by the reader. He comes to Miss Havisham's aid when her dress is set on fire, thereby temporarily saving her life. This scene is significant in that it shows that Pip is still capable of caring for someone beyond himself and Estella. So often, when a person is obsessed with a man or woman they love, that person becomes the focal point of his or her existence. And for Pip, Estella represents his true raison d' etre. Everything he does is in some way influenced by her. She is the constant occupant of his thoughts. Even her marriage to another man cannot bring an end to Pip's obsession.
He does, however, manage to redeem himself. When he falls ill and Joe Gargery nurses him, he starts to see that what a person is--their qualities and character--are much more important than how much money or education they have or what their social status is. He has, over the course of time and the somewhat difficult hand life has dealt him, learned lessons that many of us wait a lifetime to discover.
The criticisms of Dickens' writing--that it is long-winded, discursive, and even heavy-handed--seem to be forgotten when one reads this book. Those who have claimed he had little understanding of romance and male-female relationships must surely admit that, in this particular novel, such is not the case. What Dickens offers to those who read him is not just a glimpse into the inner core of life. Likewise, the general exuberance that characterizes much of his fiction is not what makes him such a
phenomenal author. Rather, it is his profound understanding of human nature that puts him a class with few others who have ever penned a book. To many, including the writer and Dickens admirer, G. K. Chesterton, all his novels seem to be about "great expectations" as they present characters who are always expecting something. To me, though, the greatness in his novels and what makes them genuinely timeless is not something that can be summed up in one sentence, much less a mere phrase. It is a greatness that defies explanation, a greatness that must be read to be fully understood.
To close this review, I will use a monologue of Pip's--a speech he makes to his one true love, Estella. These passages, to me at least, demonstrate why Dickens is an incomparable writer. He comprehends completely the most important emotion any of us can feel, the only emotion that can decidedly alter our lives, for better or worse. And that emotion is love.
"You (Estella) are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here...You have been in every prospect I have ever seen....You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil."
Thank you, Charles Dickens, for reminding us what love is....and for showing us just how powerful a force it can be.
Great Expectations was written between the years of 1860 and 1861. Charles Dickens only completed one novel after it, the lengthy and important Our Mutual Friend. His final book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was never finished. Great Expectations remains one of the most beloved of all Dickens' work, even prompting some, such as the writer, John Irving, to say "...it (Great Expectations) is the first novel I read that made me wish I had written it; it is the novel that made me want to be a novelist--specifically, to move a reader as I was moved then."
My rating: +++
My advice: If you haven't yet done so, read this book. Immediately. For the record, this is the third time I have read the book,
and I would list it among my top 5 favorites.
Last edited by titania7; 16-Dec-2008 at 02:32.
"All men have the same defect: they wait to live, for they have not the courage of each instant.
Why not invest enough passion in each moment to make it an eternity?" ~E. M. Cioran