Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is the latest instalment in my ‘Reading the Classics‘ series. I have become quite the Charles Dickens fan in recent months and I can’t seem to stop myself from picking up his books.
Great Expectations – The Plot
Great Expectations follows the trials and tribulations, the ups and downs of ‘Pip’. The novel opens when Pip is roughly 7 years of age. Pip is a rather lonely boy. His parents died before he could remember and he lives with his sister who raises him along with her husband, Joe. Pip’s sister is a cruel carer and seemingly lacks any maternal instinct.
“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.
Pip describes his sister.
She was not a good-looking woman, my sister; and I had a general impression that she must have made Joe Gargery marry her by hand.”
She is sharply contrasted with her husband Joe, the Blacksmith. Despite his strong stature, Joe is the most caring, kind and compassionate character perhaps in all of Dickens’ novels.
“…I’m dead afraid of going wrong in the way of not doing what’s right by a woman, and I’d fur rather of the two go wrong the ‘tother way, and be a little ill-conwenienced myself. I wish it was only me that got put out, Pip… I wish I could take it all on myself; but this is the up-and-down-and straight on it, Pip, and I hope you’ll overlook shortcomings.”Joe explaining to Pip why he refuses to stand up to his wife.
Pip and the Convict
The novel begins when Pip encounters a convict on the run who persuades Pip through various threats to bring him food and a file to remove his shackles.
“Hold your noise!” called a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!” A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied around his head.”Pip encounters the convict.
As the novel progresses, we see the influence of the chance encounter and how it affects Pip’s life as we witness the boy become a man.
Pip Falls in Love
It is no great spoiler to reveal that Pip falls in love with Estella early on in the novel. This is unsurprising, seeing as this is a Victorian novel. Love is an emotion that rules many a modern life and the Victorians were no different to us.
“Though she called me “boy” so often, and with a carelessness that was far from complimentary, she was about my own age. She seemed much older than I, of course, being a girl, and beautiful and self-possessed; and she was as scornful of me as if she had been one-and-twenty, and a queen.”Pip describes his first meeting with Estella
The relationship between Pip and Estella is an important one, but not one that necessarily dictates the narrative of the novel.
“I have a heart to be stabbed in or shot in, I have no doubt, and, of course, if it ceased to beat, I would cease to be. But you know what I mean. I have no softness there, no—sympathy—sentiment—nonsense.”Estella speaks of her emotions
Climbing the Social Ladder
The desire to climb the social ladder features prominently within the novel. Dickens almost sneers at the snobbery and ridiculousness of some of his characters. Joe, on the other hand, is the humblest and kindest of all.
“I heard Joe on the staircase. I knew it was Joe, by his clumsy manner of coming up-stairs – his state boots being always too big for him – and by the time it took him to read the names on the other floors in the course of his ascent.”Pip describes Joe
Pip’s treatment of Joe early on in the novel made me turn against our protagonist, which actually made me enjoy the book all the more.
“I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.”Pip’s class realisation.
Pip is not an all-out hero. Dickens doesn’t force us to love the protagonist. In Pip’s desire to climb the social ladder, his flaws are revealed. He is most definitely a flawed character but very much the product of his era. Ultimately, Pip is embarrassed by his humble origins.
“Not with pleasure, though I was bound to him by so many ties; no; with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity. If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money.”Pip is embarrassed by Joe
Why I loved Great Expectations
First of all, I have come to absolutely love Dickens’s writing style. He includes vivid descriptions not only of the characters in his novels but also the world they inhabit.
Each of Dickens’s novels includes a little something of his life and Great Expectations is no different. Pip comes from a humble background but yearns to climb the social ladder, just like Dickens. Indeed as Dickens’s father was sent to prison when he was a young boy, he was sent out to work to put food on the table. Like Pip, Dickens knew the toil of hard labour. Dickens also spends time describing the plight of the poor in society. This was an important agenda in his works as Dickens fought for the rights of children and the poorest in society.
I have read a number of Dickens’s novels and they all take a unique form. Not one of the books I have read thus far centres around the nuclear family. Pip is an orphan who is raised by his sister and her husband. As he finds his way through life, he creates his own family which include some of his dearest friends. This is seemingly a feature in all of Dickens’s novels.
Furthermore, I really enjoyed the story. As we follow Pip’s journey from childhood to adulthood, there are some interesting characters he meets along the way. The setting of Victorian London is one I find particularly fascinating. No doubt Great Expectations will remain on my shelf for a long time to come!
For similar posts, see my Reading the Classics category.