This review has been so long in coming, you wouldn’t believe. It can be difficult to review classics though – a lot of people have already read it and therefore already have their opinions, and the reviewer worries about getting it ‘wrong.’ In addition, I have an odd relationship with Dickens to begin with – A Christmas Carol is one of my all-time favourite books and always will be, but Oliver Twist bored me almost senseless. It’s not easy to read another of this books without comparing it to one or the other of those two. What I’m trying to say is… bare with me – this review may not be the most coherent!
Plot summary: Great Expectations traces the growth of the book’s narrator, Philip Pirrip (Pip), from a boy of shallow dreams to a man with depth of character. From its famous dramatic opening on the bleak Kentish marshes, the story abounds with some of Dickens’ most memorable characters. Among them are the kindly blacksmith Joe Gargery, the mysterious convict Abel Magwitch, the eccentric Miss Haversham and her beautiful ward Estella, Pip’s good-hearted room-mate Herbert Pocket and the pompous Pumblechook. As Pip unravels the truth behind his own ‘great expectations’ in his quest to become a gentleman, the mysteries of the past and the convolutions of fate through a series of thrilling adventures serve to steer him towards maturity and his most important discovery of all – the truth about himself.
My opinion about Great Expectations isn’t quite as clear cut as A Christmas Carol or Oliver Twist. My interest levels shot constantly up and down, so I couldn’t really maintain a steady reading pattern. At times I was absolutely riveted – completely immersed in the plot and the characters, unable to put it down – but then other times I really just desperately wanted to be reading something, anything else. This meant I had to be careful when to stop reading, to ensure I actually wanted to pick it back up later.
It gets going pretty quickly – we meet Miss Havisham, arguably the most famous and interesting character, after only 60 pages or so. I didn’t actually know the plot before I picked it up, so I assumed everything was what it seemed, as you do. There are a good few twists in this book and I really enjoyed coming to it without much foreknowledge at all.
Great Expectations should be read carefully; don’t skim it. If you do, you’ll miss the absolutely wonderful humour and turns of phrase that made Dickens the celebrated author that he is. It’s so dry and clever, especially near the beginning, but you really have to pay attention to notice. In this respect, it’s much more interesting than Oliver Twist, which I occasionally felt had the dullest prose in existence.
“Miss Havisham, up town?” said Joe.
“Is there any Miss Havisham down town?” returned my sister. “She wants this boy to go and play there. And of course he’s going. And he had better play there,” said my sister, shaking her head at me as an encouragement to be extremely light and sportive, “or I’ll work him.”
It seems to be a staple of Dickens that his books start out clever and witty, but then slowly meander their way down into drudgery. To be fair, Great Expectations stays interesting for longer and does pick up again when Magwitch pops up. It’s the part in the middle where Pip is aimlessly traipsing around London that irks me. Nothing happens, other then a few meetings with his solicitor and a lot of presumptuous whining.
As always, it’s the characters that really make this book. Dickens’ characters always seem to become icons of literature and that’s because of their larger-than-life realism. They practically stare you in the face and jab you on the nose, they’re so real. They’re never particularly likeable, especially the women but that’s hardly a surprise – this isn’t my first Dickensian rodeo after all!
I really, really liked Miss Havisham and I was quite surprised when she didn’t actually feature all that often. Obviously she’s mentioned a good few times, but I’d expected her to have a larger part. She’s wonderful though – and very good for me at the time. I was going through a hurtful break-up when I read this, and there’s nothing to dissuade you from moping like the thought of turning into Miss Havisham!
It was not in the first moments that I saw all these things, though I
saw more of them 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 luster, and was faded and yellow. I
saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress,
and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of
her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded
figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung
loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some
ghastly wax-work at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible
personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old
marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had
been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now wax-work and
skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should
have cried out, if I could.
As you can probably tell from the above, atmosphere is another strong point for Charles Dickens. The mist and tension seem to seep through the pages and into your everyday life, especially in the scenes at Satis House where it feels as though you have just walked into the decay and the rot, not Pip. Again though, that tails off when Pip leaves for London. *headdesk*
My conclusion is that I did like Great Expectations. I liked the beginning a lot more than the end, but the end a whole lot more than the middle. I finished the book slightly depressed, which is an improvement from the desperate urge to jump off a cliff I felt when I finished Oliver Twist. I love the characters and I love the humour… I just wish it were more consistent.