I read Great Expectations for the first time when I was a freshman in high school. I enjoyed it very much then, and enjoyed it even more with the second reading. Dickens’ descriptions of Mrs. Joe and Wopsle make me laugh. Even though I wanted to feel sorry for Pip, imagining Mrs. Joe smacking her husband around with a frying pan is hilarious, and I think most people cheer when Orlick renders her an invalid. I think most people today can relate to Pip’s struggle with wanting his circumstances to be better, and so many people go about it in the wrong way, just as he did. Materialism is an especially relevant subject today, as the rich grow even richer. I could relate to Pip as he realized that he must accept himself and the circumstances of his life in order to be happy.
Dickens style of writing is not exactly concise. He is very descriptive in his writing, using long sentences for thorough explanations of the characters’ thoughts, actions, dialogue, and settings. Reading Dickens requires a little adjustment for me, and I usually have to re-read the first one or two chapters once I fall into the flow of his writing.
Pip is the narrator of Great Expectations, with his perspective being the only one the reader sees. At first, knowing poor Pip’s thoughts helps the reader sympathize with him as his sister raises him “by hand.” But then, once Pip meets Estella and grows more ashamed of his life and family, the reader is increasingly disgusted with Pip’s snobbish and ungrateful attitude. Finally, though, Pip is redeemed as we see how Miss Havisham and Estella have hurt him, and how he slowly comes to realize he must accept himself and his life.
Pip’s story takes place in several settings. Pip spends his young life living with his sister and her husband in the village forgery, and visiting Miss Havisham and Estella at Miss Havisham’s home, Satis House. Pip moves to London to be educated as a gentleman and then to India to work with Herbert. In the original ending, Pip returns to London and meets Estella, who has remarried, but in the revised ending, Pip returns to Satis House to find Estella a worthier person, educated by life and an abusive husband. Great Expectations does not have a specific time setting, although it is safe to presume that it is set sometime around the Industrial Revolution in Victorian England. Although Great Expectations is not intended to be social commentary (as he intended his novel Hard Times to be), Dickens does seem to be commenting on the horrors of prison life in London with his description of Newgate Prison in chapter 32.
The protagonist is Pip, a dynamic character as he loses his innocence to pride, and is then once again humbled by learning of his convict benefactor. The antagonist might easily be determined as Miss Havisham, although Pip’s own ego and pride certainly have a hand in creating his own conflict and struggles. Estella might have been a dynamic character, judging from the revised ending where she is educated by life, as Pip was, and realizes how awfully she treated Pip. In the original ending, however, Pip must accept that Estella truly is incapable of love for him. Miss Havisham experiences a change toward the end of the novel when she sees how much Pip loves Estella and how much her obsession with revenge against men has hurt Pip. She asks Pip’s forgiveness, and the reader is pleased to learn that Pip does not blame her entirely for his sufferings, and even injures himself trying to save Miss Havisham when she accidentally sets herself on fire. Only a very few of the characters in Great Expectations are truly good: Joe, Biddy, and Wemmick, for example. The rest serve only to advance the plot.
The plot of this novel is progressive and somewhat complicated, but can be summarized in three stages–Pip’s childhood, Pip’s education, and Pip’s return to England. Pip grows up in the village and is introduced to Miss Havisham and Estella by Uncle Pumblechook. Pip spends the next few months visiting Miss Havisham and Estella regularly. He is then apprenticed to Joe and grows increasingly unsatisfied with his “common” station in life. After about four years of his apprenticeship, Jaggers, a lawyer, comes to the village to tell Pip of his benefactor and that he will be educated in London. Pip leaves for London and is taken as a student of Matthew Pocket. Throughout his years in London, Pip becomes even more ashamed of his past and of Joe, and eventually confesses his love for Estella, which she explains to him, she cannot return. Pip discovers that his benefactor is the convict Magwitch, whom he helped when he was a child. Pip tries to save Magwitch from being recaptured, but fails and Magwitch dies. Pip then goes to the East with Herbert and then returns to London after about eight years, and again meets Estella. Pip experiences many types of conflict: person-against-person, such as when Orlick tries to kill him; person-against-nature, such as when Pip saves Miss Havisham from the fire; and person-against-self as Pip struggles with his false sense of pride and disdain for his upbringing.
The theme of Great Expectations is didactic but subtle and simple: a person’s worth does not come from social station or money, but from one’s own self. We see Pip’s false sense of pride as he thinks he has become a gentleman, although through someone else’s money–a convict’s money, an idea which horrifies Pip, but one which he must accept. This inappropriate pride is juxtaposed with Joe’s honest and sincere pride in himself and in his work. Joe always gives Pip unconditional love and acceptance, referring to them as “always the best of friends.”
Great Expectations is a rather long novel, around four hundred and sixty pages long. The edition I read included several illustrations, was bound in a plain brown cover, and printed in a rather small font.