As I read Great Expectations a lot of questions popped up for me. Do people struggle through some of this old language like I am doing? Is this book still relevant, or is it a quaint morality tale belonging to 19th century England? What was Dicken’s own stance on class? And, was Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of Miss Haversham over the top? (I haven’t seen the film adaptation, a friend described her performance as contained). I actually had a heavily annotated edition of the book, so the third question was addressed by numerous scholars.
The settings of this novel are dark: dark nights in the marsh, an unlit mansion, dark apartments and streets. Pip, another Dickens’ orphan boy, is raised by his older sister in a small town between London and the sea. She is married to a blacksmith, Joe, who is very kind to Pip. She is not kind and shows no filial love whatsoever. Pip is her burden. The small town where he lives includes characters like Wopsle and Pumblechuck. The names are descriptive of the characters. The dialogue amongst these villagers is very strange to a modern ear, and this was where I struggled a bit.
Pip has a strange encounter with an escaped prisoner on the marsh in which he unwillingly saves the prisoner’s life. Some time later Pip receives an unexpected invitation to the mansion of Miss Haversham, a woman who is mad as a hatter. Decades earlier her fiance left her waiting at the altar, and time stood still since that day. It’s all very spooky and weird. Miss Haversham is wealthy, she’s visited occassionally by relatives who aspire to be beneficiaries of her estate. She is attended by a “ward” a beautiful young girl, Estella, with whom Pip falls in love. Haversham has him come to the mansion in regular intervals, and, Pip decides that he has “great expectations” of improving his lot from poor boy to rich man who may win Estella. As luck would have it he does fall into a fortune, and he believes Miss Haversham to be the source. Dickens has given the reader enough clues to question Pip’s belief that Miss Haversham is his benefactress. His journey to London brings in many more characters, and the plot twists and turns in typical Dickensian fashion until Pip learns of the source of his wealth and many other things.
If the story were just about Pip, it would be a short book. Dickens takes a winding road with many stops. His characters create a multil-ayered portrait of mid-19th century England. Pip aspires to wealth, but the wealthy come across as bumbling, petty and irresponsible spenders. This includes Pip. Becoming a gentleman doesn’t make him a great student, or a great person. He spends more than he has and treats his former friends like crap. And yet, good friends that they are, they stay loyal to him. And while Dickens is sympathetic to the poor, he certainly doesn’t romanticize poverty. Some of his characters are sympathetic, many are reprehensible. There are plenty of child abusers, thieves and rogues amongst Dickens’ poor.
It’s easy to imagine reading this book in serial form, as it was published in Dickens’ time. I think I would have snapped up each magazine as quickly as possible to learn Pip’s fate. Oddly, Dickens wrote two endings for the story, both of which were included in this edition. I didn’t find one more satisfying than the other, the point of the story has been made before the very end.