The Short Version: Young Philip Pirrip, known as Pip, has a chance encounter with an escaped convict as a young boy and thus his life of luck begins. Having fallen into several circumstances through virtue of said luck, he finds himself a young man in London with ‘great expectations’ bestowed upon him by an unknown benefactor. Thinking it to be the strange old lady Miss Havisham, he prepares to be wed to her ward – but when the true identity of his patron is revealed, it shakes the very foundation of his heretofore charmed life and upsets everything he’d come to hold dear.
The Review: To this point – a third of the way through my self-proclaimed Dickens2012 challenge – I had begun to develop an appreciation for Dickens but I had yet to see anything truly spectacular. Certainly he’s a talented writer, a surprisingly witty humorist, and a great chronicler of the human condition – but I suspected there was more yet to be discovered that would make me realize why he has endured so strongly. I did not doubt this – I simply knew that I’d need to wait and read the right book. Great Expectations was that book.
The moment where it clicked for me – where I realized that Dickens had truly tapped into the human condition in a way that has continued to ring out in the century and a half since his writer – was the early scenes of Young Pip in London. He and Herbert fall in with a debauched group of elite ponces, they run up heavy debts, drink a lot, go do silly things: in general, act like a bunch of 20 year olds. And there’s this paragraph where Dickens writes (from Pip’s point of view) that “there was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did. To the best of my belief, our case was in the last aspect rather a common one.”
That struck me like someone scored a direct hit on the gong in my soul. It vibrated out through me and made me suddenly see so many of the novels that I hold dear as being descendants of this very tale. Is the narrator of Bright Lights, Big City any different? Does not that quote sound like it could’ve been taken from Less Than Zero? Any novel of early adult debauchery/unhappiness would, it seems, have its roots right here in this very book – and I found it so comforting I nearly wanted to cry. The thought that this is a universal truth – that we, as young men, go about and play at having such a damn good time but really we all know, in the back of our minds, that we’re only playing at it… that there’s more to be had, more to be done, but why bother with it when we can go get drunk and be stupid and regret it in the morning?
And so I hold this novel in high regard. Sure, it has several other excellent moments as well. The character of Miss Havisham, long known to me from the Thursday Next novels, has now been clearly explained (although I daresay Jasper Fforde has inadvertently changed the way I interpret these classic novels – I mean, I didn’t know that the ending of Jane Eyre really was that Rochester comes back, I thought that was just a thing in The Eyre Affair. But anyway.) and she’s as striking a character in 2012 as she must’ve been in 1862. Pip’s leaving home and heading towards London at the end of Book One should be enough to draw a tear from even the most hardened of hearts – for who hasn’t left their home at some point and looked back, realizing that things would never be the same? So too, the unrequited(?) love that Pip holds for Estella – who hasn’t longed for someone in such a manner?
Speaking of, I should say a word on the instance of the endings. Apparently Dickens revised the ending and the one we read here, with Pip and Estella heading off together (destination unknown although one can probably safely assume marriage…), was not his original intention. The original novel ends with a more even-keeled note, where Pip sees Estella in the street and is happy to find her a softened woman – but they don’t join up together. Now, I’m all for the author’s “preferred” text or the author’s “intended” text – if Dickens wanted to change something, then by God he reserves that right and whatever he changed shall stand as correct. Still, it’s interesting to see that originally the novel ended much more in keeping of the tone of the final third of the book, where Pip’s fortunes have turned and his great expectations have been left rather dashed. This ‘new’ ending gives a bit more hope, a bit more happiness – and I’d be inclined to agree with scholarly opinion that it somewhat weakens the book.
For up to that point, the final third is borderline tragic. Pride comes before the fall, of course, and so we can safely assume that Pip will be in for some kind of rude awakening – because he’s quite a little shit as his station is raised. He’s no Pumblechook (who is a truly odious character) but the way he treats Joe and Biddy especially is horrible. He’s one of those people who are raised up and don’t want to look back at where they came because they’re ashamed of it – and ashamed of how ashamed they are. Being Dickens, we can almost be assured that his fall is going to come – but it hurts because it turns out he isn’t a bad guy. He helps Herbert anonymously, he tries to do right by Joe even as he fails, he maintains a sense of a moral compass, and even in the end comes to the aid of Magwitch (despite having not necessarily wanted or intended to).
I’m no longer surprised by things like Dickens’ wit or keen observatory skills. The book has several laugh out loud moments, most stemming simply from the droll way Dickens describes them. Even a character like Wemmick, who I didn’t originally like, turns out to be a source of hilarity at his home: the “Aged Parent” and the fact that that’s his name struck me as consistently entertaining. The early encounter between Pip and Herbert is also entertaining in the way Dickens presents it, with shock on the part of both combatants at the way things play out. His ability to combine Gothic dread (the scenes with Miss Havisham, especially in the first book) with sprightly humor with keen observations on that thing we call ‘the human condition’ make this book an extraordinary Frankenstein that comes together as a beautiful sum of its multitude of parts.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I did think it dragged on a bit at times and I found myself straying a bit here and there – but that, I think, is just my lot with Dickens. When it engages me, I find his writing to be nigh unparalleled. When it doesn’t, I’m impressed but at a remove and wonder when the next lightning strike of wonderful will occur. Regardless, the story of young Pip is a wonderful one and it will always sit in my mind when I read (or write) the tales of young twentysomethings. I now have first-hand evidence that Dickens truly is the writer – the deity – that everyone has told me he would be.