Fiction: “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens

So, I have a confession to make. I am very proud of the fact that, while I majored in Business Administration & Finance, I minored in 19th Century British Literature (a.k.a., English). And I’ve read a lot of 19th Century-era British novels – I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s novels, I’ve read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre multiple times, I … well, I have enjoyed Thomas Hardy in the past, Mayor of Casterbridge notwithstanding. And don’t get me started on the myriad of times I’ve read Dracula.

So here’s the thing — I have, somehow, managed to not have ever finished a Charles Dickens title before now.

How is that possible? Well, somehow, through high school and college, I always managed to … bypass it. We didn’t read A Tale of Two Cities in my freshman year at Brunswick High, I may have skimmed the majority of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (don’t tell Ms. Van Orden), I read three hundred pages of Bleak House (but then I watched five out of the six episodes of the BBC miniseries — I stopped watching after Esther agreed to marry Jarndyce, and I didn’t want to see her break his heart when she left him for her sea captain), and when we read Hard Times in that summer class I took, I literally couldn’t read the book because my glasses had broken. Like, lenses falling out of the frame. I literally could not read it. Last year I tried to read Oliver Twist, and I gave up forty pages in. Or was it David Copperfield

So. Congratulations, Great Expectations, for being the first Dickens novel I was able to finish! And thank you, Gillian Anderson, for making me want to read it so I could enjoy your portrayal of Miss Havisham.

The narrator of Great Expectations is Pip. He was raised by his older sister and her husband, Joe. He grew up in a poor blacksmith’s forge, and everything was going as well as could be expected until his fake uncle, Mr. Pumblechook (not making that up), visits the house and tells the family that Miss Havisham would like a boy.

What that means is that she would like a male companion to play with her adopted daughter, Estella. Because see, Miss Havisham was left at the altar, and ever since then, she has been alone. Well, except for when she adopted Estella, of course. Anyway, Pip comes over and immediately falls in love with Estella at the tender age of 10. And Estella is a right little bitch to Pip, but apparently, Pip likes that. And then Miss Havisham binds Pip to Joe as a blacksmith’s apprentice, and Pip gets sad.

Fast-forward a few years, Pip is about eighteen, I’d wager, when Mr. Jaggers, the attorney (yes, the attorney, shut up, this is my review) comes to tell Pip that he’s been given “expectations” — a large fortune with an allowance, in order to become a gentleman. But there’s one binding part to his contract: he cannot ask or learn who is benefactor is, until such a time as the benefactor decides to reveal himself. Or herself.

Because of course, Pip assumes that Miss Havisham set him up with money to make him a gentleman so he can marry Estella. Because Pip is, first and foremost, a romantic.

So Pip goes to London and becomes a gentleman, all the time trying to leave his poor past behind so he can become a gentleman so he can marry Estella, but —

OH SHIT I skipped something. Damn it! These whole expectations bit, I made a big deal, and then I totally forgot. Fuck, this is bad reviewing. Like me telling a joke: “Oh wait, back up, I forgot to tell you the cowboy rode a blue horse.” Fuck. Anyway, seeing as it’s really fucking important, I have to back up to the very beginning. Can I say ‘fuck’ more?!

So the first scene of the book is six-year-old Pip hanging out in the graveyard with his dead parents and this escaped criminal comes up and when he learns that Pip lives with a blacksmith, he wants Pip to bring him back some food and a file so he can get out of the leg manacle. Pip, being scared out of his wits, does so. And then the criminal gets captured again.

Okay. So, Pip goes along, gets into debt because that’s what young gentlemen of means did back then, collects his allowance, and pines after Estella. Around the time he learns that Estella is to be married to a real jackhole, he also learns who his benefactor is: that criminal he helped when he was a kid.

See how that all turned out? But wait — there’s more! He decides that he doesn’t want to have all that fortune (his expectations) because they were bestowed upon him by a hardened criminal, but he also doesn’t want to just cut the criminal out of his life. So he and his friend Herbert (not making it up!) come up with a plot to get the criminal out of the country, but the plot gets foiled and — spoiler alert! — the criminal dies in prison. Sorry.

Pip goes back home, finds Joe and rekindles their friendship, and then runs into a widowed Estella after Miss Havisham almost dies in a fire, and there’s a chance they could reconicle. So, not quite happily ever after, which I’ve heard is about par for the course with good ol’ Mr. Dickens.

Wow. I just realized that I totally did a shitty job of recapping this classic novel. I’m sorry — the fact is, it was really hard for me to finish this. Truth is, I started reading it back in January, but when I went to Annapolis, I left it behind because I was reading the cloth-covered hardback version, and I didn’t want my book to be the deciding factor on whether I checked my luggage or not. So I brought some paperbacks and called it good. When PBS finally aired the BBC miniseries with Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham, I picked it up again. And then it took me an interminable five weeks to freaking finish it. Good lord, when I read Vanity Fair four years ago, I read that 900-page novel in three weeks while I was taking classes. Lousy Dickens.

I have to say that I think the BBC miniseries had the best death scene for Miss Havisham. She truly died in a fire, whereas in the book, she goes up in flames but then gets really badly burnt, but lingers for a bit. It’s more maudlin and not full of self-pity whatsoever.

Anyway. I liked it, I guess? For a book that I really wanted to finish so I could move on to something else, but didn’t have the energy or wherewithal to? And to be honest, I’m kind of speeding through this review because apparently, I am REQUIRED to watch a movie called Hobo With a Shotgun before I go to bed. So, check out the sister blog at moviesalainasneverseen.com for that particular review.

Grade for Great Expectations: 2.5 stars

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