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Book Review: Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

A poor little orphan comes into money, grows to become a gentleman, and never gets over his first kiss.

Great Expectations

Published 1860, Approximately 186,000 words. Available for free at Project Gutenberg.


Considered by many to be Charles Dickens's finest novel, Great Expectations traces the growth of the book's narrator, the orphan Philip Pirrip (Pip), from a boy of shallow dreams to a man with depth of character.

From its famous dramatic opening on the bleak Kentish marshes, the story abounds with some of Dickens's most memorable characters. Among them are the kindly blacksmith Joe Gargery, the mysterious convict Abel Magwitch, the eccentric Miss Havisham and her beautiful ward Estella, Pip's good-hearted roommate Herbert Pocket, and the pompous Pumblechook.

As Pip unravels the truth behind his own "great expectations" in his quest to become a gentleman, the mysteries of the past and the convolutions of fate through a series of thrilling adventures serve to steer him toward maturity and his most important discovery of all - the truth about himself.




I read Great Expectations in high school, but my memories of it were so vague that I remembered the Ethan Hawke/Gwyneth Paltrow movie better than I did the book. Rereading it was like reading it for the first time, but it was very familiar, because all Dickens novels are familiar once you've become a Dickens fan. The careful plotting, the signature characters, the baroque Victorian prose (for which Dickens gets unfairly downgraded by modern readers -- there's nothing really difficult about his writing, and his mastery of English rivals Shakespeare's) is all here, along with numerous twists and tragedies and fallen characters raised up and elevated characters brought down.

Great Expectations has got everything that makes Dickens a great read, but I would rank David Copperfield above it. Indeed, in many ways, GE almost seems to be an earlier version of DC. They both feature poor orphans who endure various hardships on the way to a more prosperous adulthood, aided and thwarted by turns by a large cast of characters who all coincidentally turn out to be people Pip met as a child. In the very first scene, Pip meets an escaped convict, the sinister Magwitch, who threatens to eat his liver. Pip steals food and a file for the convict's leg irons, but the convict is soon apprehended anyway, but without either of them revealing Pip's complicity in his escape attempt. Magwitch then fades from Pip's life... but it being a Dickens novel, of course he will return years later to take an important role.

There aren't a lot of slums and poorhouses and starving orphans in this book, and while Pip has a somewhat hard-knocks childhood (thanks to his abusive older sister who raises him "by hand" -- literally), it's leavened by Joe, her husband, who is a true friend to Pip in one of Dickens's most generous portrayals of a father figure. Pip's childhood also includes batty dowager Miss Havisham and her beautiful young ward Estella, his pompous "uncle" Pumblechook, and Biddy, the plain, good-hearted girl whom we know from the beginning that Pip should have married.

Pip's early exposure to the wealthy Miss Havisham and the refined, haughty Estella leaves him unsatisfied with his bumpkin existence as Joe's apprentice, so when a lawyer arrives to announce that a mysterious benefactor has left him with "great expectations," he loses no time in abandoning Joe, Biddy, and everyone else, running off to London to become a wealthy, educated young man who turns up his nose at the people who raised him. Since this is Pip's story, his come-uppance and moral schooling is inevitable, but Great Expectations doesn't end on a high note. Although all the surviving characters are better off in the end, not everyone is happy and not everyone is rich. Which is one of the things that made Dickens a great author -- he didn't give you tidy endings where the boy gets the girl, and while virtue is rewarded, sometimes the rewards are small comfort.

Great Expectations doesn't disappoint, but somehow, the characters did not stand out as strongly as in other Dickens novels. They had all the usual signature quirks and names and endearing or despicable behavioral traits, but only Magwitch really stood out as an exceptionally strong character.

Bitches be crazy





I just have to complain, though, about my biggest beef with Dickens -- women were these unfathomable alien creatures he kind of loved but also found terrifying, and it shows. Being a 19th century writer is no excuse, since Anthony Trollope was able to write women who were neither caricatures nor archetypes. That's not to say Dickens's women aren't memorable (I adore David Copperfield's Betsey Trotwood), but the only women he gives happy endings to are the ones who live humble, docile lives like good Victorian angels. Any woman with self-motivation, however wrong-headed it may be, gets punished with eternal spinsterhood or worse.

It's particularly glaring in Great Expectations. Other than sweet, biddable Biddy, you have:

Miss Havisham: Jilted by her fiancé, spends the rest of her life living like a lich-queen and turning her ward into an "instrument of vengeance." Repents of being such a wicked woman after she sets herself on fire.

Estella: Raised without love, lives without love, marries badly, ends up rich and alone.

Mrs. Joe: A tyrannical, abusive harridan, until she's fixed with a blow to the head. Permanent brain damage makes her a much more agreeable woman.

This is pretty typical. I love me some Dickens, but Chuck had some issues with women.

One of Dickens's most-filmed works



According to Wikipedia, there have been at least seventeen film versions of Great Expectations, most of them starring some of the biggest stars of their day. I was rather surprised that only five versions were available on Netflix.

Great Expectations (1946)





This 1946 film was produced in England. Unlike Hollywood films of the era, this British production stayed pretty close to the book, though there are a few omitted scenes and characters. It's a pretty low-budget film, with not much spent on costumes or sets, but it does a good job of adapting Dickens's novel in two hours. Except the end -- skip that, they went totally Hollywood in the last two minutes.

The 1981 BBC miniseries





As usual, the BBC version is the most faithful adaptation of a classic British novel, and this one was almost a line-by-line reproduction. It's also one of the best 80s British serials I've seen. Produced as a 12-part miniseries, the short 30-minute episodes actually made it feel more like Dickens's novel while following the story almost perfectly. Not only was this adaptation very faithful to Dickens's text, for the most part it captured Dickens's tone as well. It's gloomy and dark and dramatic, and fairly well-acted.

The 1998 Americanized version





Nearly every classic novel has been treated to a "modernization," usually with pretty bad results. The 1998 movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke, and Anne Bancroft set Dickens's story in 1990s New York.

Dickens purists may not like this version -- it changes all the details, the names, and the setting -- but it's worth seeing just for Anne Bancroft as the magnificently deranged Nora Dinsmoor (Miss Havisham).

My heart. It's broken.

The 1999 Masterpiece Theater version



Great Expectations (1999)

This version became available some months after I originally wrote this review, and having watched it, I'd say it's similar in tone to the 1981 BBC miniseries, though it takes a few more liberties and condenses the novel some. It's even darker and gloomier than the other versions — almost gothic in tone. Well produced and well acted, it's a period piece that hardly feels like Dickens at all. The essential plot and character details are preserved, but the over-the-top Dickens characters are made somewhat less Dickensian by making them more believable.

The children's cartoon





I've watched several "Dickens Family Classics" adaptations. These are low-budget made-for-TV animations that condense Dickens novels for children, made in the early 80s. Most of them are absolutely terrible. In terms of animation, this one was no different -- we're talking sub-Hanna Barbera quality -- but it surprised me by being a pretty faithful adaptation for an hour-and-fifteen minute condensation. While it of course leaves out all the exposition we're given in the novel by Pip as narrator, most of the actual scenes and dialog were preserved. I'd actually call this a semi-decent children's adaptation, notwithstanding the crappy animation.


Verdict: This isn't my favorite Dickens novel, but I haven't read one yet that I didn't like. Great Expectations is creepy in places, which is probably why so many people like it, and the bittersweet ending (Dickens actually wrote two endings) is perfectly consistent with the story. This book is a good "starter" Dickens, and also perfectly satisfying for Dickens fans.

Also by Charles Dickens: My reviews of David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities.

Great Expectations is one of the 1001 books you must read before you die, but I did not read it for the books1001 challenge; it has already been assigned to someone else. (Waves at books_n_cats. ;))
Tags: books, books1001, charles dickens, movies, netflix, reviews
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