Great Expectations

English: Title page of first edition of "...

I came to this book having read very little Dickens. We read A Christmas Carol in the book club a few years ago, but I don’t think that really counts as a fully fledged Dickens. In the book club we have tried on numerous occasions to try and get a ‘proper’ Dickens on the table to no avail. The length and perceived complexity has always been a barrier when our usual monthly time frame is factored in.

At Christmas, we usually allow ourselves more time by dint of the fact we can never get together in the run up to Christmas. So the stars were aligned and Great Expectations (GE) was suggested and carried to be the December book, the last of the year.

I have seen a fair few television and film adaptations of GE and it’s fair to say some of them cast a fairly long shadow. David Lean‘s seminal and masterful black and white film adaptation has long been a favourite of mine. It is sensationally cast and acted and the trademark lush Lean cinematography is a joy to the eye. Recent TV adaptation with Ray Winstone is also worth a mention for its dark beauty. Although I’ve not seen the most recent film adaptions, there are already lots of ways this book can be digested which can sometimes be an issue when reading a book for the first time.

I’ve written before about the issues of film versions of famous books and the reading thereof. It’s always an interesting process to see if the book can bring something new to the reader as often its the book that comes first and more often we’ve seen the film version first. Anyway, on to the book. First thing to note is that Dickens is a very funny writer. I’m talking laugh out loud funny at times. His keen eye for the ridiculous back then is not lost on the reader of today and his superb characterisations are at the heart of this book. Dickens wrote this book and many of his others as serialisations for magazines and at times this is obvious with an almost soap opera nature to the chapters. In the first half of the book this does drag on a bit if I’m honest and the minutiae of the various family lives does wear a bit thin when it’s not driving the narrative along.

The story of Pip plucked from poverty and propelled into wealth and a life of ‘great expectations’ by his anonymous benefactor is well-known I think, but the book fills in lots of the gaps and embellishes what is already a timeless and rewarding story. Dickens is a master at tugging on the heartstrings and he shamelessly goes for the jugular where emotion is concerned. Having read Clare Tomalin’s superb biography of the complex writer, I can see how he drew on much of his upbringing and early life in GE.

The second half of the book is where Dickens’ turns in a virtuoso writing performance. He takes the reader on a roller coaster of emotion by bringing Pip’s story to a fulfilling and dramatic conclusion – not entirely in keeping with what we’ve seen in the film adaptations over the years. I’ll admit I found this very long book hard yards in the first half – even with lots of Xmas down time it took some application to get it rolling – but in the second half of the book, the pages turned easily and quickly.

This is a very moral book about hopes and aspirations and what might happen if we actually get what we wish for and it not turn out quite as we expected. It’s a book about friendship – between men predominantly – with women portrayed as manipulative and cruel. There’s a sweet bromance between Pip and Herbert that is as passionate as any Jane Austen male/female romance and male characters and their relationships with each other are the backbone of the book.

There is an interesting moral conundrum at the heart of this book. Ian S likened it to a reverse Frankenstein – Pip is turned into this reverse monster, a gentleman. Dickens creates this construct then almost as Shelley did with her monster, explores morally how everyone behaves around it. It’s an interesting idea – a Dickensian Prometheus. Rob explored the theme of social mobility – just as prevalent in Dickens’ time as now – and what the outcomes might be. Michael built on this theme with Pip and Estella’s ‘ideas of destiny’. Gurdev countered with the thought that Dickens’ stature as a literary genius may be overstated and he likened him to a Grisham of his time – and who can argue with that? Ian T finishing thought was around the Pygmalian-isation of Pip, you get on in life but at what cost…

As ever with a brilliant book, we had a brilliant evening discussing it. And as I’ve said before, often the discussion and ensuing enlightenment sheds a different light on the book. So is Dickens all that he’s cracked up to be and are his stories still relevant hundreds of years later? I’d say yes and yes. Dickens’ timeless understanding of the human condition has lots to tell us today and although the language and conditions may have changed, the themes and emotions have not.


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