Charles Dickens: Great Expectations (1861)

In Great Expectations the orphan Pip tells the story of his life. He tells us how, after having lost his parents as a small child, he was brought up “by hand” by his mean and quarrelsome sister who hit him and her husband. How his sister’s husband Joe and Biddy the teacher were the only kind people in his life. How he met a convict and helped him. How he was invited to the excentric and melancholy Miss Havisham to play at her house. How he saw the wonderous house for the first time and met the beautiful Estella who would be the love of his life. How being introduced to Miss Havisham and Estella made him long for another life and feel ashamed of his own. How finally he was made rich and hoping for great expectations from an unknown benefactor. And how in the end things turned out in a very different way.

Great Expectations offered everything I expected from Dickens and so much more. The only thing I could criticize is that it was predictable and that there were a lot of coincidences which didn’t seem all that realistic but who cares. There is so much in this novel to like that I can easily forget its flaws. The characters were, as was to be expected, quirky and over-the top, much more caricatures than portraits, but drawn which such a wonderful imagination that I loved each one of them.

I also liked the atmosphere, how with a few words, a few sentences he captures a mood, a season, the weather, a location, a house, a street. All his descriptions are highly evocative and one sees every little detail.

There were many uncanny, witty and captivating scenes and I would have a hard time picking favorites. I liked all the chapters at Miss Havisham’s house. The sorrow and grief which had made the time stand still in that place and entrapped its owner for eternity, gave the book a very gothic feel.

But I also loved all the scenes including Mr Jagger’s clerk Wemmick and his father. They made me chuckle very often. They are such an endearing couple.

To do this book justice and write properly about it, I would need more time which I don’t have. Maybe I will return to it next year and write something a bit more detailed.

For now I would just like to say, I loved it for many reasons but what stood out the most is that Dickens comes across as a writer with a huge heart who can even  make many of his villains endearing.

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45 thoughts on “Charles Dickens: Great Expectations (1861)

  1. I haven’t read this in a long long time but it remains lodged clearly in my mind. It was a school text but even that didn’t ruin it. Joe Gargery has always remained a kind of shorthand for a ‘good man’ in my mind.
    It could form the basis of a very interesting readalong with all the books that reference it or are directly influenced by it – Jack Maggs, Master Pip, My Cousin Rachel and many more, I’m sure.

    • That’s a very great idea. That would indeed be an interesting readalong and remids me I still haven’t read Master Pip. Thanks for reminding me.
      Joe is an amazingly good character Il liked him. It’s that book that will stay with me too, I’m sure.

  2. Wonderful review, Caroline! Your affection for the books glows throughout the review 🙂 Glad to know that you liked ‘Great Expectations’ very much. I read an abridged version when I was in school, but seem to have forgotten most of the story. I am able to remember some of the scenes after reading your review. I hope you read the book sometime.

    • Thanks, Vishy, I liked it very much. You have to read an unabridged version, I’m sure you will like it.
      I love descriptions of derelict houses, cemeteries, fog, rain… And the characters are so endearing.

  3. For as famous as this book is, do you know I don’t think I ever really knew what it was about?! I have only read David Copperfield of Dickens’ longer novels and am enjoying my reread of A Christmas Carol. I like him for all the reasons you mention and despite the flaws you mention, too! And I can sympathize for that rushed feeling about writing about books–I have a few more that I want to write about that are worthy of posts but feel a bit rushed about them, too.

    • I felt I didn’t do it justice, after all, it’s on of the most famous classics and 600pages long. Yeah well. At least I finished it and liked it lot.
      Although I’ve seen the movie, I completely forgot about the content. I think it’s the detailas which make this shine. The story as such is predictable and helped along by coincidence.
      I think that you would like this too.

  4. I read this twice, once in fifth grade and again a few years ago. I rememeber really liking it.

    I believe that that many folks have criticized this novel for a “Happy Ending”. Supossedly there was a darker ending that Dickens changed. As I seem to read a lot of sad books, I did not mind an upbeat conclusion for a change.

    • I have only read the “Happy Ending” but I knew the other one is in the back of my edition too. I should read it as well. It will be difficut to decide. I find with alternative endings, I always like the one I read first, whether it is the one first written or not, best.

  5. What I remember most about the book are the scenes at Ms Havisham’s house, but since I’ve seen the movie a few times too, they tend to blend in in my head, book and movie.
    And yes, Dickens is a great creator of atmosphere. Those long sentences are perfect to give the reader a proper idea of the setting. I used to be impatient, thinking what’s the use of a full page of description but I’m beginning to change my mind. 🙂

    • It’s true, the sentences are long but I they are well constructed, quite easy to follow.
      I wasn’t aware that the scenes at Miss Havisham’s had such a ghotic feel. The descriptions would be ideal for a ghost story.
      The whole book is full of eerie moments. It was much better than I would have expected and I’m really glad we did “Dickens in December”. 🙂

        • I can remember that you mentioned Fahrenheit 451 but not this book. Oh I liked it so much. I need to rewatch the movie now, I’m already hunting it. My silly cat kicked the DVD pile now I can’t find a thing. She will not be allowed to watch it. 🙂

  6. I”m so glad you liked it. It’s one of my favorites by him. We had a lazy weekend and I was able to complete this and A Christmas Carol. Now I need to write the reviews for Dickens in December.

    • No rest for the wicked. 🙂
      I really liked it a lot and am about to finish A Christmas Carol too and like it very much.
      I’m looking forward to discuss it with everyone.

  7. We read this for my book group earlier in the year and I got on with it better than I feared. In fact, I listened to it on audio book, which was a great experience. My friend suggested it – she doesn’t much like Dickens when she reads him, but loves to hear the books spoken. They do have that story-told-round-the-fire feeling which works well aurally.

    • I think Dickens is that kind of author. I could imagie he was a good narrator and could tell stories and people would listen. There’s an oral quality to his writing. I thought I would hate it but I enjoyed it despte the flaws because he has a truly unque voice. I think you could pick most of his books, read a few pages and know that’s Dickens.
      I was surprised however that I didn’t find it very realistic. I find he has something of a fantasy writer although he didn’t really write fantasy. His characters reminded me of Fellini.

  8. I am not sure that the ending Dickens finally settled on *is* a happy ending. Pip can’t see another parting, but Estella specifically says that they will remain “friends *apart*” (my emphasis). Isn’t Pip deluding hi self all over again? Isn’t he doomed once again to being hurt? At the very least, this ending strikes me as uncertain rather than unambiguously happy.

    Amongst other things, “Great Expectations” is a very vivid depiction of the pain of unrequited love, and as such, I find it almost unbearably moving. [Please note: spoiler follows] in the scene of Magwitch’s death, Pip tries to comfort Magwitch by telling him that his daughter is alive, is beautiful, and that e loves her. But what makes that scene so very poignant is what Pip *can’t* tell Magwitch – what, indeed, he can barely say even to himself: that Estella has grown up an emotional cripple.

    I suppose everyone will read this novel in different ways, but for me, it’s central theme is a search for moral values in a world in which human worth is judged purely in terms of wealth and social status. Pip behaves despicably, but at each step, we can see quite clearly why he does so. He does eventually redeem himself morally by learning to love Magwitch, but this is late Dickens, and moral redemption cannot guarantee happiness: Pip remains deeply unfulfilled right till the end, and even the revised ending gives me no confidence that we will remain anything other than unfulfilled. This is a sad, sad novel,and perhaps moves me more tan any other I’ve read.

    • I think that the character of Joe and his marriage to Biddy made the whole book far more positive. I had a feeling the end – the ne I read – was meant to be happy but I had my doubst whether it could really be possible.
      It is true that it is about unrequited love but since Pip is so not likable it didn’t move me that much. I was far more moved by Joe.
      In any case, you’re right, it can be read many ways, each reader will see other points. If I had read that as a teenager, I’m might have been stragely affected by the description of Estella. It would have been an unpleasant mirror.

  9. Wow! reading your review makes me rethink of how I think of great expectation.
    I watched the movie with Ethan Hawk and Gwyneth and I felt terribly bored. So, I never bother to even consider the book.

    Have you seen the movie? I am wondering how you compare the two

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  11. I loved this book when I read it. “roman fleuve” and “grand moment de lecture” are the words that comes to my mind when I think about it.
    I’m glad you had one of those moments with it too.

    • Nice to know you liked it as well. I didn’t expect to like it but after Richard’s glowing review of Bealk House I knew there might at least be a chance.
      It’s one to read again, some day.

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  13. I’m amused at your comment about Dickens’ coincidences in this book. To me, that’s just a Dickensonian trait. They’re all a series of interconnected coincidences. 🙂

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