You’re sitting at a table in a book store café, reading something—Jane Eyre? Gone With The Wind? Maybe you’re drinking coffee. Maybe you have a gun tucked into your purse and you’re planning to rob the place, hold all the staff at gunpoint, and make off with a stack of Jane Austen novels—as soon as you’ve finished this next chapter, obviously.
Suddenly, out the corner of your eye, you notice a lady climbing on top of one of the café tables. Wait…what? Yep, it’s some college student, primly dressed in grey and black. Only said college student is not acting so prim; rather, she’s vivaciously waving a book in the air.
“Oh.My. Goshhhhhh!” she shrieks. “This is RIDUCULOUS. Holy Miss Havisham, do I ship it or what!”
Everyone is gaping at her. She pays no mind, and starts frantically dancing, still on top of the table.
“Pip and Estella!” she continues. “They are, like, my OTP. I mean, yahhh-their relationship is foggier than the mist over a marsh in Kent, but who really cares?! I don’t!”
“Uhhh, Pip as in Pip from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens?” you manage to ask.
“Yep! So romantic, right? Him and Estella are my precious babies!”
Okay, let’s just stop here. Because this would never ever happen. Though, admittedly, the most unrealistic part about the whole scenario isn’t the fact that a college student leaped onto a table and started majorly fangirling. (She’s a college student—it’s probably exam week and she’s cracked from stress. Don’t judge.) No, what’s crazy, it that she was fangirling over Great Expectations. Great Expectations isn’t the type of the book that you obsess over. It’s not the type of book that you write fanfiction for, or the type that you slip under your pillow at night, just to be near it.
Well, duh. I mean, it is a classic. When I picked Great Expectations up, I wasn’t expecting a chick-flick. Heck, I didn’t want a chick-flick. I got exactly what I did want—a masterfully written piece of literature choked full of complex characters and unexpected twists. So what was the with the whole crazy-college-girl thing? (Did it even have a purpose? Does any part of this post have a purpose? Should I quote some Shakespeare here??)
Um, yes, I was trying to make a point, thank you. It was not so much a point about how society/the blogosphere/literary emphatics view Great Expectations; instead, it was a point about how I viewed Great Expectations before I had read it. Something along the lines of: you’d have to be absolutely cracked to enjoy a novel by dear old Dickens! To be more concise, I had very few great expectations when I started reading the novel (har, har).
Now, I know what you’re expecting. I’m going to pull an Elizabeth Bennet—I’ve just explained my bad first impression, but now I’m going to babble on and on about I how I fell in looovvvee with the book and it will forever hold a treasured place in my heart and how all of humanity must read it.
Yeah, what she said.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love classics. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, Catch-22, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn…shall I go on? The thing is, I wasn’t ever in love with Great Expectations, but, (to quote Nicky from everyone’s favorite high school classic) “I felt sort of a tender curiosity” toward the novel. I really enjoyed it, but I don’t plan on building a shrine to Charles Dickens in my room anytime soon.
Now that y’all know my complicated feeling toward Great Expectations, it’s time to actually talk about the book itself. (Gosh, I rant about Tolstoy and Victor Hugo writing bricks instead of books and then I ramble on for pages myself. It could be worse…?)
Great Expectations started with a bang. No boring exposition here, chums. Dickens threw the reader right into the drama. I was immediately hooked by the dark, shadowy feel of the first several chapters, a feeling that was largely created by the setting. There’s something so gothic and intoxicating about English marshes, and I was reminded a little of the vast and lonely moors in The Secret Garden. Throughout the entirety of the book, Dickens used the setting to influence the reader’s perception of a scene, a writing technique that really cemented the visual imagery of the story in my head. Yes, yes, everyone knows thunderstorms are ominous, but when you have a mysterious visitor banging on the door in the dead of night and the whole house is being eaten alive by thunder…yeah, it sounds cliché, nevertheless, it gets the mood across.
About halfway through the book, I decided to start jotting down some thoughts on certain passages in a journal. Doing this diffidently helped me to get more out of the novel, and it gave me a chance to consciously analyze the characters and events. Also, you know, the journal was a good place to scribble down my outrage when certain plot-twisty events flew out of the book and hit me on the head.
When I say “plot twists”, well, I’m talking “OH-My-GOODNESS-I-DID-NOT-SEE-THAT-ONE-COMING” plot twists. Let us look at some examples of this unexpectedness, shall we not? (Spoilers ahead, obviously).
- When that random convict was revealed to be Pip’s guardian: What a shocking twist!!!! The whole time I was reading (up to this point)—I had supposed Pip’s guardian to be undoubtedly Miss Havisham. How awful for Pip—that all of his “great expectations” were built on “false” pretenses—he is the gilded offshoot of a rotten root, in his mind anyway, and so in his mind he’s pretty much ruined (No Estella!) After all, Pip really cares about his perception of reality more than anything else…. The book is really starting to connect for me, and why Dickens opened with the convicts suddenly makes sense.
- When Estella’s not-so-beautiful background was revealed: Oh my goodness! Estella’s father is a convict and her mother is Mr. Jagger’s murderous housekeeper. And not only that—her convict of a father is Pip’s convict of a guardian. And she acts so high and mighty, when she comes from dirt. Well, we are what we are made to be. Still-! Also, shows good strength of character on Pop’s part to forgive Miss Havisham.
- When Orlick kidnaps Pip and tries to wipe him off the face of the Earth: Sooooo, Orlick is a villain?? I didn’t really see that coming—I always thought of him as some aimless dirtbag—but a murderous dirtbag, what with Joe’s wife and all. I’m a little confused on his motives though—Pop was treated better than him (um, by Joe maybe), Pip turned Biddy against him (okkaayyy) and he’s drunk…? Perhaps I skimmed over some major point in the novel, but as of now I’m a bit perplexed as to where all these murderous tendencies came from.
- When Biddy and Joe…get…married: Joe and Biddy are—married?? WHAT?? I mean, I guess it’s nice and all, but ugh, isn’t he little old for her (notwithstanding the customs of the time). Pip is taking it pretty well, though. At least he didn’t go into histrionics.
See, he could have reacted more like this:
But instead, he just sort of went
(Even though he was totally thinking this:)
WELL, LOOK AT MY ENGLISH-ANANLYSIS SKILLS ARE YOU IMPRESSED OR WHAT.
The plot was masterfully crafted, and took my surprise a great many times (as I just so wonderfully illustrated). Like I said before, the physical locations were flawlessly paired with scenes to create perfect backdrops for all the drama. Estella and Miss Havisham were shadowed by decay and rot, the convicts were first perceived through swirling fog, Joe was closely linked to the bright glow of the hearth and forge. Additionally, the descriptions of places were gorgeously done without becoming too wordy or posh. Take this one depiction of early-morning London:
“Wednesday morning was dawning when I looked out the window. The winking lights upon the bridge were already pale, the coming sun was like a marsh of fire upon the horizon. The river, still dark and mysterious, was spanned by bridges that were turning coldly gray, with here and there at top a warm touch from the burning in the sky. As looked along the clustered roofs, with church towers and spires shooting into the unusually clear air, the sun rose up, and a veil seemed drawn from the river, and millions of sparkles burst out upon its waters.”
I found the characters on the whole to be quite complex and unusual. I enjoyed the fact that even the minor characters were quirky and thought-provoking enough to be memorable, though Estella was the character who really captivated me.
Estella was, in a sense, created by Miss Havisham as the latter’s “revenge upon men.” I think it interesting that Miss Havisham originally intended Estella to be a light in her own gloomy life, but instead she turned Estella to a much darker path. Estella has been raised to be cold and callous and unfeeling, but you can clearly see that this an attitude that has been pressed upon her. It is a mask, yes, but it is so deep a mask that it is virtually part of her personality; in many ways it is a mask that Estella seems to have no qualms about accepting. She probably finds some security in being able to take power over her own life, even if that power comes through belittling others and turning them into the powerless ones.
Obviously, Estella recognizes that her personality has been largely twisted by her guardian, as evident in the scenes where she lashes out at Miss Havisham, demanding how Miss Havisham can ask to her to be loving when she was raised to be exactly the opposite. I feel that she is a little afraid of herself, and her own capacity for cruelness. Yet she also wants to accept all parts of herself, realizing that this is the way she is now, and nothing will ever change that. Estella wants to be loved as herself; not necessarily as the person she might have been if she had been raised by her birth parents, not as the person Miss Havisham sought to create, but as the combination of these two faucets. “So I must be taken as I have been made,” she says. “The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me.”
This, I think, is Pip’s problem. He wants to not only love Estella, but to fix Estella, to turn her back to her “original” soft and kind personality. Pip’s issue is that he doesn’t ever think to realize that, firstly, perhaps Estella doesn’t want to be fixed, she merely wants to be accepted. He also never bothers to consider the nature of Estella’s “true disposition”—perchance she always was a child inclined to be unemotional and a bit haughty. Miss Havisham possibly only cultivated the characteristics which already existed in Estella—or maybe Estella would have been more accepting toward love if she had not been forced down a certain path.
Estella is mainly defined in terms of Pip—we only ever see Pip’s perception of Estella, not the Estella that an unbiased narrator might have recorded. It took the length of the novel for Pip to see Estella as she really was, and even then, he was pretty wrapped up in his own sensibilities and nolgista. Estella held mystery for Pip, which is why I think he was more inclined to win her heart than Biddy’s; Biddy accepted Pip for who he was while Estella invoked his idealism and require him to challenge himself.
So if I found Estella so fascinating, why didn’t I fall completely head-over-heels in love with Great Expectations? That, mi amigos, was due to the protagonist. I spent the majority of the book being really, really irritated by Pip. Yes, at some points in the storyline I pitied him, or I identified with him in some manner, but for the most part I just wanted him to stop whining and get on with his stinkin’ life.
Pip was an idealist, but was he was not ambitious. He had expectations— “a belief that something will happen or is likely to happen (source).” Ambition is a specific goal. Pip did want to better himself, become less “course and common”, and prove himself worthy of Estella, but he even as he worked toward some of these goals, he still really hoped that “success” would just fall out of the sky and make him instantly knowledgeable and accomplished. And it did—and then look how Pip reacted. He turned into an absolute snob. Not this is an unthinkable reaction, if anything, Pip was a very, very human character. He has a clear character arc, starting with his obsession with class and social status and ending with his realization that it is a person’s character that determines their worth, not a title or a sum of money.
I don’t mean to say that Pip is an unrealistic or badly written character (on the contrary!), he simply irritated me personally. He was quite sensitive, and way too caught up in what other people thought of him—really, he based his self-worth on other people’s opinions. As soon as he achieved an elevated status, he treated Joe and Biddy—his family—like they were trash. Sure, he felt guilty, but he didn’t let his conscious influence his actions. Certainly, most of Pip’s internal struggles were between his sense of right and wrong and his idealism. As a writer, I found this to be an interesting study of internal conflicts in a person, but as the reader, I simply wanted to chuck a brick at him. (You know—I feel like my first response to any fictional character that I dislike always involves a brick. Where are these violent tendencies coming from?? *my inner warrior queen is so smirking right now*.)
I hope that my analysis/review/rant of Great Expectations has kept you at least mildly interested. As usual, I have lots more I could say, but I’ll spare both you and my cramping fingers from that rabid onslaught of opinions. Per usual—comment and give me all your thoughts on Great Expectations, Pip and Estella’s relationship, and all the other glorious things on your mind.