Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Another brilliant story from a man who was a master of telling a good tale, even if he is occasionally a tad wordy. I think if Dickens had had a good editor, his books would only have been half as long as they are.

Great Expectations is almost a reversal of the usual Dickens’ tale. Instead of beginning with a good, meek, kind-heated child who overcomes having been victimised by both his situation in life and the world around him, he starts with a young boy of lower class who has a decent, if poor home, good friends and love and turns him into an ungrateful being by providing him with unexpected and unmerited wealth. In this light, Great Expectations is a more mature, or realistic, work than many of his others. It is more likely that a child will become greedy than it is that he will remain good-hearted and meek regardless of being ill treated.

Pip is an average boy growing up in an average village with his sister and her husband Joe. He is expected to grow up and live the same sort of life as they, following in Joe’s footsteps at the forge. One night, entirely by chance and accident, the course of Pip’s life is changed when he meets an escaped convict out on the moors. Pip helps the convict by providing him with food and a file to remove himself of his chains. The point is, however, not how he helped him, but why. Pip didn’t do it out of pity or kind-heartedness, but out of fear. He was petrified of the convict and of the consequences of helping him out. Although his fear can be excused by the simple fact that he is a child, his actions having arisen from his fear and not from compassion for a fellow sufferer are pivotal for the development of the story.

After the convict is discovered and returned to the ship from which he escaped, life goes on pretty much as before. He eventually is sent for my Mrs. Havisham, who ostensibly needs him as a companion. In reality, she has designed Pip to grow up and love Miss Estella, who is destined by Miss Havisham to break Pip’s heart in revenge for her own jilting years before. Pip eventually realises what Miss Havisham is doing, but is still unable to avoid falling into the trap laid for him. His desperation at his unrequited love, his longing to break through the evil spell Miss Havisham has cast on both him and Estella, and his disappointment at not being able to do so all help to further focus Pip’s attention onto himself and his own misery.

Having set Pip up in the manner, Dickens suddenly ejects Pip from a life of toil without his beloved Estella into a life of idle luxury, when he comes into great expectations of wealth and property. He does not know who his secret benefactor is. He is only told that it will not be revealed to him until his benefactor deems it appropriate, thus Pip assumes it must be the only wealthy person he knows, Miss Havisham. Pip, grasping at straws, unknowingly uses his assumption to set himself up for even more heartache, namely by assuming that if Miss Havisham is his benefactor, that he must also be destined for Estella as well.

At this point the reader might assume that all will continue well for Pip, but his own fear, avarice and thoughtlessness take Pip on an entirely different course. Dickens sets Pip up like this in order to show that money alone will not cure social ailments, as perhaps some of his other works have suggested. Wealth can be its own curse and corrupter as well as being a boon, and Pip falls to it’s darker side. In this sense, Dickens’ title is apt. Expectations are after all, only expectations and not given facts. Just because a person is given the means to do good, does not mean that he will choose that course. As mentioned, Pip’s earlier experiences in life have already started to lead him down an entirely different path, which the introduction of wealth facilitates rather than changes.

It’s all actually quite clever when you think about it. Had Pip been another Oliver Twist who had absolutely nothing and no hopes of ever having anything, he might have been more kind-hearted and fallen less of a pray to worldly evils. He might have developed sympathy for others in the same situation as he. However, Pip was provided with the basics of life from the beginning and had people who cared about him. This paradoxically helped to make him the selfish creature he became instead of a second Oliver. It makes one wonder if Oliver would have been a less caring and happy creature had he had a different start to life or if it is his suffering and the resulting compassion that made him what he was.

Again, another good story with more good life lessons. Two thumbs up for Great Expectations.


Anonymous said...

You bring up such an interesting paradox in your conclusion: does wealth and privilege contribute to selfishness? Of course, we can't say that it does conclusively, but compared to Oliver Twist we might say that Dickens believes that to be a possibility. I wonder sometimes, if I should have raised my son with less to make his heart even more. Fascinating thought. I enjoyed your review very much.

Trish said...

Intersting thoughts about this and Oliver Twist. I've read this one twice but haven't gotten around to OT yet--ones of these days. Dickens is wordy, but I love it all anyway. If anything, Eliot could have used a friendly editor!

Sorry the Mr. Linky is down on the classics challenge blog. You can just leave your url in the comments if you'd like and I'll try to add it when Mr. Linky gets back up. Such a pain, but I guess we'll get through it. :)