Monday, February 16, 2009

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - 544 pages


Book CoverPip is a young orphan living with his austere sister and her gentle blacksmith husband, Joe. Though his sister badgers and throttles him mercilessly, Pip finds affection, acceptance and a measure of happiness in the love of Joe and in the routine of his life. Pip lives an ordinary and simple life, believing that he will spend his days both in the forge with Joe, and outrunning his sister's stick. His story truly begins when he has two unusual and life-altering experiences. First, he encounters and aides a convict in his escape from prison, and secondly, he is employed as a companion to the wealthy and disturbed Miss Havisham. When Miss Havisham introduces him to the young Estella, he quickly becomes consumed with her. As Pip grows to understand that he is far from Estella's equal in terms of social class, he becomes distressed and forlorn in realizing that in order to win Estella, he must become a gentleman, a task that seems impossible without an influx of funds and opportunity. Deep in the throes of his disappointment, Pip is suddenly beset by the wonderful and unexpected news that he is to be financed in his cultivation of gentility by a mysterious anonymous benefactor. The one condition on this gift is Pip's agreement to never mention or question the identity of this secret benefactor. Believing that Miss Havisham has done him this great favor in order to level the playing field between him and Estella, Pip begins to nurse the hope that one day he will one day win Estella's hand, and he sets about in his new life with hope and vigor. As Pip begins his new life as a gentleman, he makes a few new friends and a handful of enemies and hangers-on, and begins to spend his way through his great fortune, procuring both his much needed education and his foppish fancies. But Pip will soon be faced with certain revelations about his new fortune and will be beset by the adversity and heartbreak that he thought he left behind. Are Pip's great expectations truly a sham, or, against the odds, can he find his way to become the gentleman the he so wishes to be?

The story of Pip's rise and fall is one that is both extremely moving and perfectly constructed. In this work, Dickens uses some great symbolism and delves deeply into the themes of gratitude, suffering, and shame. Masterful as he is in portraying his themes, they never feel coercive or oppressive. Rather they seem natural consequences of the character's folly. The extensions of these themes carry them throughout the story in interesting and astonishing ways, turning what was once fortune and prosperity into hopelessness and humility. Dickens also shows his great regard for sentiment in this novel. His characters truly embody their love and hate; they are not quiet about their feelings, often losing themselves in their exquisite expressiveness. Pip was especially articulate and expressive in his perceptive discourses, and although at times his feelings were not pleasant, they rang with a truthfulness of spirit and with an unrestrained emotion that is rarely found in a character.

In addition, the character creation in this novel was dazzling. The way Dickens embellished even the most minor players with unique habits, singular qualities and exceptional descriptiveness was something that impressed me on many levels. He found the perfect balance between the stimulating and the unusual, which gave the story individuality and authenticity. Of all the characters in this book, I believe it was Miss Havisham that left the deepest and most lasting impression on me. The tenacity of her animosity towards others and her crafty manipulation of all the other characters in the book left me dumbfounded. In the beginning of the story it was easy to sympathize with her and feel as though she was a woman much wronged, but much to my amazement, she slowly revealed herself to be a truly monstrous woman capable of great injustices and antagonism. And yet, in what I believe to be the beauty of Dickens, at her worst, there existed within me a pity for the woman that was truly undeserved. I knew I should hate her, but she filled me with such sadness that I could not.

My feelings for Miss Havisham were not the only ones that surprised me. Pip, so normally a loving and kind boy, also evinced strong feelings from me. His shame and apathy towards those he left behind in their meagerness astounded and embarrassed me. At times I felt ashamed to be on his side, reading his story with relish, for at times he was so undeserving of the merits placed upon him. That is not to say that I was pleased when he fell from grace or thought that he deserved his fate, for I believe that he did not. It is only to say that these characters had a curious way of entangling me with their circumstances and pitting my emotions against each other. It was interesting to find myself reading and reflecting about characters who were so florid and unbecoming, but were still able to win me to their sides despite my mental protestations.

One of the great things I found out about Dickens was his brilliant use of comedic flair. His pithy asides and colorful imagery had me smiling and laughing at even the most unexpected of moments, and I am hard pressed to think of another author who has had the same effect on me in the manner he did. His comedy was perfect in tone and scope, oftentimes relieving the pressure that had built up in the narrative with a thought-provoking quip. The plot management was brilliant as well, with not a sour note struck. Many of the twists and turns of the narrative were so unforeseen and shocking that I was completely bound to this book, forever shirking my responsibilities in order to get in just one more page.

Reading this book was a fabulous journey, filled with action, intrigue, romance and humor, and it was so much more than what I was expecting when I picked this book up from the shelf. If you have never read Dickens, this is a great place to start. There are so many interesting aspects of this story that I feel it can be recommended to a wide audience, especially those who love wordplay. I am so glad to have discovered this gem of a book. Highly recommended.

8 comments:

Steph said...

I have never read any Dickens and I do intend to start here! Your review was fantastic and really encourages me to give it a try. I have built up a Dickens phobia over the years that I know I need to overcome. Hopefully Great Expectations will do the trick!

Zibilee said...

Steph,
It's so funny that you mention your Dickens phobia because I had a huge one going on as well. I have stayed away from Dickens for years, and I fully expected to give this the most cursory read and review. I was very surprised at how accessible and wonderful it was. Let me know how it goes for you!

Steph said...

I'm not sure why I got so Dickens-phobic! I think it just crept up on me! I vaguely recall reading Oliver Twist when I was about 13 or so, but I've just had it stuck in my mind that Dickens is long-winded and a bore... even though somehow I intellectually know that having started Great Expectations once that he's actually quite funny!

Do you think that given your positive experience with Great Expectations that you'll try something else by him?

Zibilee said...

I think that there are others of his that I would read, now that I have had success with this one, but there are some that I still don't think I will tackle. I don't really think I will read A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers because of their density of language and the subject matter. Although I might read Little Dorrit, Hard Times, or Bleak House.

I do agree at times he can be long-winded, but in the case of this book, I kind of saw it as an overabundance of words and exuberance to get his point across. It seemed to me that the excitement of his story got the better of him, and he just had to tell it all! I don't think I would say he was at all boring in this particular book, but one of the reasons for my Dickens phobia is because he has been in the past. I strongly disliked what I read of A Tale of Two Cities, which was about the first 35 pages. I felt it was boring and a bit complicated.

Marie said...

I think Great Expectations is one of the best things ever written in English- so glad you enjoyed it too!! :-)

Aarti said...

I have a really pretty edition of Great Expectations but haven't once opened it. Some day soon, maybe, with such a positive review! Have you been watching the Masterpiece Theatre offerings with Dickens recently?
And I think you just commented on my blog now- how funny we're doing mutual visits :-)

Nymeth said...

One day I'll find the courage to read this. It definitely sounds worth it. One day!

Zibilee said...

Aarti,
No, I haven't been watching. How is it that I haven't heard about this. I must correct this situation immediately! Thanks for letting me know.

You have a great blog btw!

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