I broke with custom in my rereading of Great Expectations and didn’t do a pre-reading post. Not because I didn’t want to. I just started reading and forgot to stop and write something and all of a sudden I was so far into it I didn’t think I’d be able to separate my thoughts about the book from this time around from what I had thought before. Not that it’s changed that much. But it seemed pointless to do a pre-reading post when I was halfway through rereading it. Ugh. Stop trying to explain yourself, Jill, and just talk about Dickens.
I have an extensive history with Great Expectations. Twenty-two and a half years, to be precise. It was assigned in freshman honors English. I didn’t finish it. So I hated it. It was assigned again in AP English. Didn’t finish it again. Still hated it. But less. I kept meaning to finish it on my own but just never got around to it. So senior year of college, I decided to take a nineteenth century British novel class because it was on the syllabus, and that time, damnit, I was going to finish this book. And I did. And it was actually pretty good. So this book was not one I was dreading getting to at all. When we decided to embark on this AP Challenge, I went out and bought a new copy of Great Expectations, because my original one has vanished. The last time I saw it it was missing both front and back covers, and it was time for it to be retired anyway, so I’m not irritated by having to buy a new copy like I was with Lord Jim.
For those of you unfamiliar with the plot of Great Expectations, here’s a brief synopsis. Pip is an orphan who is being brought up “by hand” by his much older sister, known as Mrs. Joe, and her husband, the sweet and gentle (and a bit simple) Joe, the blacksmith of the town. One Christmas eve, six-year-old Pip is visiting his parents’ grave, when an escaped convict comes upon him. Pip’s village is apparently close to water and in the water near the town are prison ships where all kinds of scum and villainy are holed up. This does not seem like a good plan to me, but that’s okay. So the convict demands Pip meet him back in the marshes with a file to remove his leg irons and also food. Pip is terrified, but does as asked. Ultimately, the convict is captured, in a somewhat exciting chase scene through the marshes, and that’s the end of that. Pip grows, and somehow falls in with Miss Havisham, the eccentric rich lady of the town. She was left at the altar many years before and she did what any sensible person would do: she stopped all the clocks in her house, left everything all ready for the wedding, boarded up the windows, and left her wedding dress on ever since. Somehow she ended up with an adopted daughter, Estella. She wants Pip to play with Estella so she can watch them. Pip grows and becomes apprenticed to Joe. He, of course, has fallen in love with Estella, and doesn’t want to be a mere blacksmith anymore, so there is much angst about all this. When Pip is probably in his late teens, he is informed that he has come into property, and has an anonymous benefactor who wishes to see him educated to become a gentleman. Pip, along with everyone else, assumes that Miss Havisham is the anonymous benefactor, and that Estella is to be his bride. He moves to London to begin his education, where he takes up with Herbert Pocket, a cousin of Miss Havisham’s, and an all around pleasant individual. In London, his guardian is to be Mr. Jaggers, his benefactor’s lawyer. Mr. Wemmick is Mr. Jaggers’ clerk, and Pip cultivates a friendship with Wemmick. Time passes, Pip racks up a lot of debt, and eventually he learns that his benefactor was not, in fact, Miss Havisham, though she does nothing to dissuade him from that belief early on. His true benefactor is that convict, Abel Magwitch, from back at the beginning of the book. Pip is obviously devastated. At around the same time he makes this discovery, Estella marries a fellow Pip strongly dislikes, and his misery is basically complete. Magwitch was sent to Australia, and actually did quite well there. He was banned from England on penalty of death, but decides to risk returning so he can see Pip with his own eyes. The last part of the book involves trying to get Magwitch back out of the country safely—he has several enemies who really want to see him punished in one way or another for his prior misdeeds. Their plans fail; Magwitch is tried and convicted, and sentenced to death. He dies in prison of wounds sustained during his capture. Pip moves to Cairo with Herbert Pocket, and earns a modest living, his fortune being forfeit back to the Crown when Magwitch is convicted of his crimes. Generally Pip is happy. At the end, it seems like Pip takes pity on him, though, because he comes home to England to visit Joe, and lo and behold runs into Estella, whose evil husband has died (“due to an incident involving the beating of a horse”), and he “saw no shadow of another parting from her.” That’s GE in a nutshell.
What struck me the most in this reading of Great Expectations is that there is so much more to it than Miss Havisham and Pip’s unrequited love for Estella. Granted, that is a huge part of the story, and Miss Havisham is a very memorable character. But how could I possibly have forgotten about all the rest of it? Jaggers and Wemmick are wonderful characters, very well drawn and interesting. I could have read a book just about them and their legal adventures. Probably they could have their own TV show (a crime investigation procedural with comic relief when Wemmick goes home to his “castle” with the moat one can step over). The townspeople are hilarious. There is a scene in which Pip and Herbert go to see a production of Hamlet starring Mr. Wopsle, the town clergyman. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time. And whenever Mr. Pumblechook turns up, I just want to laugh. He is Joe’s uncle, and so absurdly obtuse. Sometimes I want to kick him more than I want to laugh at him. The relationship between Pip and Magwitch in the last part of the book is beautiful, in its way. That relationship is truly Pip’s salvation, in more ways than one. Looking back on it now, I can find nary a fault with this book.
Our freshman year English teacher had a custom: in all the novels we read we were to identify a “significant quote,” write it down, and memorize it. He would randomly call on us in class and demand we recite a significant quote from whatever book he named. Sort of annoying. No one else ever made us do anything like that. But the point is that annoying as it was, I still remember the bulk of my significant quotes from that year. My one from GE was this: “We changed again, and yet again, and it was now too late and too far to go back, and I went on. And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me (160).” This is the final paragraph from the first part of the novel, when Pip is leaving home for England to embark upon his expectations. There was something about the mists rising and the world spreading that appealed to me at thirteen. It still does, actually. And the “changing” in the quote is, of course, changing the coach’s team of horses, but I like to imagine it’s actually referencing the changes people go through that make it impossible to go back to the way things were before the changes happened. If you can believe that, I came up with all that nonsense the first time I read this book. And here is what I consider my “significant quote” from senior year, though Fr. Murphy didn’t require that exercise of us. “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts (160).” This is in reference to the tears Pip sheds as he is leaving home. For some reason I always thought it was about the many tears he sheds over Estella. That’s what I always think of when I think of that quote, never of leaving home for the first time. See what I mean about only remembering the romance plotline? Fricking teenagers. There are a few more unrequited love sorts of quotes that I made note of when I was seventeen and again at twenty. I won’t repeat them here; just know that for a girl in love with the idea of being in love there’s plenty of food for thought in this book. That’s probably why that’s all I remember.
Were there any significant quotes this time around, you ask? Of course! All of my old favorite quotes still resonate with me and remind me of the me I used to be. But here’s a new favorite: “We spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us. We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintance were in the same condition. There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did. To the best of my belief, our case was in the last aspect a rather common one (275).” Now if there was ever a better way to describe life in one’s early twenties I have no idea where to find it. It comforts me to know that even back in the nineteenth century young adults felt the same way. Or perhaps adults felt the same way looking back on their young adulthood.
Bethany bought me a book for Christmas a long time ago called Jack Maggs, by the Australian genius Peter Carey. (I have heard he is a genius. Though I own many of his books, I’ve never read any of them.) It is sort of a prequel to Great Expectations/the story told from Magwitch’s point of view. I think now would be a perfect time to finally read that book, with GE so fresh in my mind. But first I must read Anna Karenin(a).
All in all, Great Expectations has been a pleasure to revisit. I’m looking forward to having some time to dive into more Dickens sometime this year. Everyone should read this one if they haven’t already.