Review: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens book cover
Great Expectations (1861) is Charles Dickens’s cautionary novel about the effect of wealth and aspiration upon one’s character. Pirip (Pip), a young orphan raised by his hard sister and her gentle husband and local blacksmith, Joe Gadgery, has no expectations beyond an apprenticeship and life working at the forge. A chance encounter on the local moor with escaped convict, Magwitch, who demands assistance from the young Pip, sets an uneasy tone to the novel’s opening. As he grows up in humble surroundings, Pip falls into contact with Miss Havisham, a wealthy spinster who spends her life hiding from the world and ruing the collapse of her engagement. Miss Havisham manufactures a relationship between her adopted daughter, Estella, and Pip, but cruelly cuts short their burgeoning love as part of a cycle of continuing retribution that she wages against men for her own mistreatment. When the indomitable lawyer, Jaggers, informs Pip that an unnamed benefactor has provided for him financially and desires his advancement, Pip sets out for London and a better life. With his newly acquired expectations, Pip is drawn into the world of wealth and luxury, and disregards those from his previous life, particularly the kindly Joe. However, as secrets are revealed about his benefactor, Pip is forced to question his hollow existence and decide upon the sort of man that he wants to become.

Great Expectations is one of Dickens’s bleaker books and can be read as a denunciation of his earlier, more optimistic work, David Copperfield, in which the hero ascends from the masses to a position of privilege. In this sense, Great Expectations is Dickens’s reconsideration of his own position to wealth, and as a novelist in general. Here the reader is presented with the negative impacts that the acquisition of wealth can have; that Pip rejects those who have loved him dearly is testament to the corrupting power of money. There is a consistent conflict between love and money, with many of the characters’ relationships soured by money in one way or another. Pip himself desires status and comes to represent England; the snobbery that results from his aspirational desires, equated to the materialism that Dickens saw all around him. Great Expectations debunks the conception of Victorian England as an affluent success story, and repositions it as a period of self-satisfaction and, ultimately hollow, indulgence.

Pip feels an innate sense of guilt and, as an everyman, carries within him not only society’s potential for guilt and evil, but also the potential to atone for the sins of his forbearers. That Dickens chooses to discuss original sin in this way is interesting, particularly as Great Expectations is the first work in which Dickens moved away from the hereditary determinism of his earlier books, and chose instead to promote the idea of nurture, of one’s environment, as the predominant factors in determining one’s character; a far cry from the incorruptible goodness of Oliver Twist.

The novel is laced with mystery and secrets and Dickens uses symbolism throughout; contrasting darkness and light, tying meals and food with different forms of love. The places too are important; from the misty marshes to London around Newgate prison. As ever there are some great characters, who collide abruptly with one another; the mysterious and troubled Miss Havisham; the simple, unswervingly good, Joe; the officious Jaggers; the comical Herbert; and many more. There are, in particular, some brilliant female characters, which are a long way from the Victorian ideal of womanhood; they being dominating, mad, powerful. As the novel’s protagonist, Pip, whilst not the most engaging character in the novel, is the perfect tool for Dickens’s purpose. His first person point of view (split between the younger naïve Pip, who participates in the events, and the older, mature Pip who tells the story and reflects with maturity upon it), whilst limiting, allows the bildungsroman to develop subtly as Pip’s morality is shaped and reshaped. However, whilst allowing for more sophisticated story development, that all the events are seen through Pip’s eyes is limiting, and one misses the humour that comes from having Dickens as the omniscient third-person narrator.

With a tide of aspirational literature washing over the reading public, and a colonial spirit of self-importance and desire to succeed taking hold, Dickens perceptively saw the need for a study of the negative effects of self-advancement, the need for a story to puncture the notion that hard work and commitment inevitably led to wealth and success. Through Great Expectations, Dickens questions the impulse towards self-improvement, and sneers at the common understanding of improvement as being linked to wealth, rather than to becoming a better person. In many ways, Joe is the novel’s hero, the antidote to a society wrapped up in its own advancement; a good man, who is content with his lot, wise enough not to create imbalance and competition within his marriage or community for the sake of a dream. Pip’s moral development throughout the novel is poignant and, through his evolving relationship with Magwitch, he is able to put to rest the cycle of injustice and revenge that pervades the novel’s many threads; an optimistic conclusion then, to one of Dickens’s fiercest social critiques.

This is one of Dickens's most tightly plotted novels, and yet I'm beginning to find his style a little frustrasting (only a little though). Perhaps I have read too much Dickens in a short space of time, but I'm finding his excesses of language and general style a little grating. On the other hand, there is much to admire in Great Expectations; it's intelligent, has brilliant characters, and brings out a a fiercer side in Dickens's writing. 

Useful Links
Reviews of Great Expectations on Amazon (UK)
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Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Interestingly, Dickens wrote two endings for Great Expectations, to be a little reductive; one happy, one sad. Critics continue to debate which best fits the novel’s themes and tone, but it’s worth reading both.

Sarah said...

Interesting review Matthew. I read this book years ago and it isn't my favourite Dickens although it is really popular. I think Dickens is a fantastic writer but he was a problem with women characters that this book highlights. While Miss Havisham is a wonderful creation I find her completely over the top.
Have you read Bleak House? If you're looking for the next Dickens to read I would recommend this. Again some of the young girl characters are sentimentalised but the story is absolutely wonderful.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

That's an interesting point about female characters. I've never had a problem with melodramatic characters, and so I'm pretty comfortable with Dickens caricatures. I also think the men are equally unbelievable, but then I've only just started on Dickens, so maybe my opinion will change on that score.

Funnily enough, I'm mid-way through Bleak House at the moment. I'm really enjoying it, but it's a bit of a task! I'm definitely going for a nice, short Dickens for my next read!

Claudine G. said...

Hi Matthew, I popped by from Book Blogs. I am in the midst of reading Great Expectations (just got to the part where Pip was offered to be raised as a gentleman) and am loving the characters! I didn't read through your post carefully because I was worried about plot surprises. So far, this is a wonderful story.

I have the inclination to compare Pip with Oliver Twist and I like the former a lot more because of his ambitious nature. (Weepy heroes don't cut it for me.) The heroines in Dickens's stories tend to be stronger than the heroes ~ Little Dorrit & Nell come to mind. :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Nice to hear from you Claudine - book blogs members are alway welcome here :) Do stop back when you've finished Great Expectations and let me know what you think.

I think I prefer Pip too - he's a much more realistic character and, whilst he has some big failings, is so much more human.

Janet Lewison said...

I look forward to reading your review of Bleak House Mathew! I do love lady Dedlock in that novel with her permanent 'ennui' and the terrible relentlessness of her truly heartless nemesis, Tulkinghorn.Very Different to Miss Havisham? And then you do get the first person narrator with the bonus of the third as well, so more expansive then Great Expectations?which as you rightly say is constrained by Pip's eye?

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for stopping by Janet - lovely to hear your thoughts.

I've stalled about halfway through Bleak House - think I need a short break from Dickens before I take on the second half!

I'm definitely enjoying the 1st/3rd person narrative split (although in a way I preferred Pip to Esther as a narrator - maybe I'm just being contrary)

Charlie said...

This is a fantastic review! So many things you've mentioned that I'd not even thought about, though reading what you've written I agree entirely. I'm intrigued by your description of this as one of Dickens bleaker books as I'm hoping to choose something happy next time and didn't find this one too bleak.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks Charlie - it's always lovely to get good feedback, and I'm glad if I picked out any points that you found interesting.

Dickens had a tendency to sugar coat everything in the end, so even in his tougher books there is usually a happy ending. In this case he originally wrote a harsher ending, but was persuaded into changing it. A shame, but then Dickens is no Hardy on the scale of morbidity, so one just accepts it I suppose. After all, who doesn't like a happy ending...

Di said...

Ha. Just so you know, I just wrote on my blog a "defence" of Great Expectations a few days ago.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Great - I'll stop over and take a look! (And feel free to post a link here for others' reference.)

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