Monday, 5 October 2015

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860-1)

Originally Written in 2008

It has been claimed before now that Dickens rather lost his magic touch towards the end of his life. Certainly his prolific output and workaholic tendencies slowed significantly as he grew older; while he was working on The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby practically simultaneously between 1836-9, he 'only' turned out two complete novels in the 1860s and started work on The Mystery of Edwin Drood before his death in June 1870. The same perceptive mind was still there, though, and Great Expectations' reputation as one of the finest of his novels lingers on even today. It's another example of Dickens attempting to tell a story differently and yet it comes off very well.

There's a sense in which he's come full circle here: compare this, his penultimate book, with Oliver Twist, his second book. They are a similar length - around about 350 pages - and are both 'rite of passage' Bildungsroman stories (the only significant difference being that Great Expectations takes Pip beyond childhood), and both open with the main character as an orphaned child in pretty desperate straits. It is no accident that the two are often included together in complete editions of Dickens' works.

Pip, the narrator of Great Expectations, is so clearly another of those masterfully created figures that it is hard to imagine a world in which he had not yet come into being. More of an effort is made in the early chapters to capture the limitations and trials of the young Pip's mind than in the similar chapters of David Copperfield. The opening scene, of course, is the most famous by far - in which Pip meets Abel Magwitch the convict for the first time. It's tightly written, brimming with tension, and that marshes setting is incredibly striking. No wonder it looks so good in the black-and-white film.

Where most brownie points are scored in Great Expectations is in the way Pip faces his moral dilemmas, and very plausible they are too. Chapter 14 is a particular triumph in this regard, summed up beautifully by the opening line "There is nothing so miserable as being ashamed of home", before dwelling on Pip's frustration with his 'common' upbringing. It is only through his exposure to the wider, more genteel world, the world of Estella and Miss Havisham, that he gains a desire to become integrated into that society. This desire drowns out his apprenticeship and his love for his boyhood mentor, the ever-dependable Joe.

Along the way to exceeding his 'great expectations' and marrying the proud, beautiful Estella, Pip meets a host of interesting and vivid characters. Herbert is a delightful creation and a loyal friend - his scenes with Pip carry with them such an air of boyish geniality that one finds oneself swept along in the amiability of their relationship. Estella is a little more dignified, proud and haughty than your average Dickens heroine, and effectively - if a touch problematically - the 'object' of the quest which forms much of the book's second half.

The story has a good pace to it, and at times the excitement levels are higher than ever before - a scene in which the thoroughly rotten Orlick ties Pip up in an abandoned shack and threatens to kill him could have been lifted straight out of a Bond novel (no disrespect to Dickens or Ian Fleming intended either way there). The 'secret life' led by Pip and Herbert as they seek to smuggle the enigmatic Magwitch out of the country, down the river Thames by rowing boat, is also terrifically well-written. Both this and A Tale of Two Cities have an observable focus on secrets, deceptions and lying to oneself - I wonder if this will prove true in the next Dickens novel on my list.

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