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Great Expectations (Signet Classics)

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Charles Dickens

An absorbing mystery as well as a morality tale, the story of Pip, a poor village lad, and his expectations of wealth is Dickens at his most deliciously readable. The cast of characters includes kindly Joe Gargery, the loyal convict Abel Magwitch and … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher: Signet Classics
1 review about Great Expectations (Signet Classics)

A More Mature Dickens, But Not His Best

  • Jul 24, 2009
"Great Expectations" was Charles Dickens' third attempt at writing semi-autobiography, and his most successful. Poor Oliver Twist barely registers in his own book, while David Copperfield becomes a pasteboard figure after reaching adulthood. Pip only grows richer and more complex, and it's no wonder critics thus see "Great Expectations" as the best of the lot.

We open with the finest sequence in the novel, along a swampy coastline in southern England where a small boy at his parent's grave is threatened by a desperate convict. The convict wants food and a file to help cut him free. The boy, Pip, must wrestle with some serious guilt, not to mention the threat of his sister and guardian's overzealous discipline. Social expectations cut one way, but a rogue feeling of sympathy for the convict guides him another. Which will win out?

Pip's a bit of a prat, but he's meant to be. After coming into some mysterious money, the former blacksmith's apprentice abandons those who love him in a doomed attempt to win over Estella, the high-class, heart-challenged ward of balmy Miss Havisham. Estella bothers some people. How could Pip love her? Man, I've been there, and I reckon a lot of others have been, too. Estella is one of the great fictional representations of unrequited love, and in Dickens' hands, becomes something even more potent, a symbol of class division and status-scrambling folly.

Dickens' handling of Pip is subtle and worth careful re-reading. By using the device of an older, unseen Pip as narrator, we sense where he fell astray without it being pointed out overmuch. Clashing with a snooty rival for Estella's affections, he sweats the possibility of being discovered as the friend of a guileless village blacksmith, Joe: "So throughout life our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise."

Whenever the focus is on Pip, particularly when dealing with Estella, Miss Havisham, or the mysterious, vaguely creepy lawyer Mr. Jaggers, "Great Expectations" is both high art and a great read. Dickens' descriptive powers remained in high beam in this, his penultimate novel (completed in 1861). The storyline takes its time, but in such a way that it often feels like a prototype for the stream-of-consciousness narrative authors would employ a century later.

If only "Great Expectations" didn't suffer from one of Dickens' chief bĂȘte noires, compounding coincidences. Whether it's the identity of Estella's long-lost father or Miss Havisham's unworthy suitor, too many of the plot strands wind up twisted together to unwholesome effect.

Other plot strings, like the tale of a blackguard named Orlick or the romances of Pip's pals Herbert Pocket and Wemmick, do little to merit the lengthy attention they receive. Most annoying is the story of Compeyson, built up as Pip's main adversary. Yet we hardly meet the guy before he vanishes in the black waters of Dickens' top-heavy plot machinations.

Except for Jaggers, Estella, and Miss Havisham, "Great Expectations" suffers from an uninteresting cast of supporting characters. But when you have three such meaty characters, not to mention the noble yet shifting Pip at the center, you have one eminently worthy novel. Add to that Dickens' descriptive abilities, and that harrowing opening, and "Great Expectations" delivers most of the way on its title's promise.

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