Man, Pip can’t catch a break, can he?
Now, I don’t know that we really need to affix a spoiler alert to a century-old novel, but if you’ve yet to complete high school and you’re really excited to dive into your first Dickens spoiler-free, well, you’ve been formally alerted.
I first read Great Expectations (Charles Dickens, 1861) back in ninth grade. Prior to this recent reading, that’s about all I could tell you about it. That and there’s a woman who wears a wedding dress all the time and that it was fairly boring. I think that, sometimes, we are given books at the wrong time or are taught them in the wrong manner such that books that are labeled as “classics” get a bad rap. Some books from school I remember quite well, but others, like this one, are completely obscured. I’d like to go back to these and see if they truly merit the attention and whether it was just me – or, let’s be honest, my teachers – who failed to read them well the first time around.
Great Expectations has a lot more going for its plot than I remembered. We follow Philip Pirrip, aka Pip, from his boyhood through his twenties, when he goes from being a boy with nothing to a young man with “great expectations” to a man with, well, nothing again. As a boy he is doted on by the eccentric Miss Havisham, a woman who was abandoned on her wedding day and sits in her house in her yellowing wedding dress amongst the decaying remnants of the dashed celebration. Here he meets the impervious Estella, adopted daughter to Miss Havisham, and promptly falls in love with her. He later learns that he is to go to London where he is to become a man of “great expectations,” that is, he is to learn to be a gentleman and has been named heir to a large sum of money. Who has been bestowed this money upon his is a mystery, but he, and we, assume that it is Miss Havisham setting up his future and Estella as his betrothed.
This isn’t the case at all and here’s where the plot twists and turns. We find out who the money has come from, who spurned Miss Havisham at the alter, who Estella’s parents are, and how everyone is connected to each other. On the romantic front, poor Pip learns that Estella is to be married to Bentley Drummle (who is basically the 19th century version of a bro) and begs her to marry someone who, if not him, is at least worthy of her, but she, having been taught by Miss Havisham to be a tease and thwart the love of all good men, refuses to give it another thought. Through the course of events, Pip winds up as poor as he was before expectations were set upon him, back at Miss Havisham’s house, with Estella by his side, both having been greatly changed over the years. They leave the house hand-in-hand, Pip finally achieving one something great.
The story is actually quite interesting. The problem is that it takes us nearly 600 pages to get through it and there isn’t actually 600 pages worth of story to be had. It’s like Dickens was being paid per word. No wonder I was so bored back in 9th grade. As to whether it’s a classic that must be read, I will say this: read it if you want to. By which I mean, if you want to get involved in a long, drawn out story, with many tangents and few advances of plot and don’t mind taking the scenic route to the point, then by all means, read it. If not, you won’t be hurt too much by skipping it. Although I don’t much see the point of being forced to read this all those many years ago, I am glad to have read it now.