Friday, May 11, 2012

Dickens: Great Expectations

Charles Dickens wrote some of the greatest novels in the English language: Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield.  However, many regard Great Expectations as his best work.  This is the first novel of Charles Dickens I have read (living up to my blog title).   Partially an autobiographical tale, Great Expectations follows the life of Pip, a boy of humble origins who comes into great wealth and must adapt to his new circumstances.
Pip grows up on the marshy grounds east of London in the early part of the 19th century.  He is destined to be a member of the "lower class" working as a blacksmith, something that Pip feels is beneath him.  Suddenly an unknown benefactor decides to bestow Pip with great wealth and turn him into a gentleman.  As Pip pivots from pauper to prince his relationships with friends, family and acquaintances changes and Pip becomes haughty and supercilious.  This sets him up well the hubric shock that comes at the latter part of the novel.

Dickens throws at  us the themes of guilt, justice, social mobility and feelings of self-loathing.  I have read that the characters in this novel are somewhat one-dimensional, but I never thought that.  However, I do think Dickens overloaded this book with descriptions of places and settings - that is both his gift and his vice. 

One the great things for me is seeing the convict Magwich and the wealthy, old recluse Miss Havisham both try to turn their charges into representations of their desire for revenge.  Magwich wants to prove that he can make anyone noble and Miss Havisham wants to destroy the egos and hearts of men, as her heart was once broken.  It is also a story a redemption, with several characters mending their ways after undergoing their trials.

The character of Pip is one of my favorites.  Watching him change from a boy to a man in Dickens's autobiographical way is enlightening.  Pip is one of the few characters I have read who actively engages is self-reflection and he tries to improve himself constantly throughout the book.  However, he struggles against his own wealth and "expectations" which causes him to treat people as less than equal.  It is an important message that we sometimes may get what we wish for, but we may not like the person we become when we get there.

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