Despite my love of Victorian literature, Charles Dickens has never appealed to me as much as other 19th century writers and until recently the only Dickens novel I had actually read was A Christmas Carol. A couple of years ago I decided to give him another chance and although I still don’t think Dickens will ever be one of my favourite Victorians, I’m pleased to say that my opinion of his work is rapidly improving with every book of his I read!
Great Expectations is narrated by Pip, a young orphan who is brought up by his sister and her husband, Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. Near the beginning of the book two important incidents occur: first Pip meets an escaped convict in the graveyard near his home, and then soon after this he is invited to visit the eccentric Miss Havisham who lives at Satis House. When Pip unexpectedly receives a large sum of money he moves to London to become a gentleman and leaves his old friends behind. But who is the mysterious benefactor and will Pip’s ‘great expectations’ really change his life for the better?
I won’t go into the plot in any more detail for two reasons: firstly, because I suspect many of you will already be familiar with the story even if you haven’t read the book, and also because I wouldn’t want to spoil any of the surprises and plot twists the novel contains. But as well as the wonderful plot, Great Expectations is also full of strong and memorable characters. Miss Havisham, hidden away in her ruined mansion wearing her wedding dress, is probably the one most people will think of when they think of this book, but from the convict Abel Magwitch and Pip’s best friend Herbert Pocket to the lawyer Mr Jaggers and Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter Estella, the book is full of unforgettable characters. I posted a few weeks ago about one of my favourites, Joe Gargery, and how sad it is to see the way Pip’s relationship with Joe changes after he is given his great expectations.
If you’ve never read any Dickens before, I think this might be a good place to start. I’ve read four of his other novels (A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and in comparison to some of those, I thought this one was much easier to read and understand. And I loved all the observations on life and human nature that Dickens scatters throughout his writing, like this:
“That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
“So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.”
Now I just need to decide which of Dickens’ books I should try next. I have three of his novels on my list for the Classics Club: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist. Have you read any of those or is there another one you would recommend?