Way back when I was a kid in the 1970s, I remember seeing part of a TV production of Great Expectations starring Michael York as Pip. While I had forgotten most of the story, I do have a vivid recollection of Miss Havisham, who cannot help but leave an impression on a viewer or reader. I don’t think I ever read the novel before now, or if I tried, I never finished. And so with this review, I give a nod to “the canon,” which rates Great Expectations as a literary classic. The story is a genuine page-turner, with those soap-operatic elements that appear in much of “classic” 19th century literature (check out Tolstoy, for example) — young, unrequited love; poverty; class division; dastardly villains and flawed heroes. In addition to the pure entertainment value of the story, however, Dickens also gives the reader some deep themes to consider in regard to what is truly valuable in life and how one ought to live.
By way of synopsis: young Pip is an orphan raised by his grouchy and abusive sister and her kind husband Joe Gargery. While out on the marshes one evening visiting his parents’ graves, Pip encounters a convict who forces Pip into getting him food and a file to saw off the manacles around his ankles. Crime and convicts will make repeat appearances throughout the novel but this particular encounter will have great meaning for Pip later. Young Pip is also paid to visit the eccentric, reclusive and wealthy Miss Havisham whose adopted daughter Estella is both beautiful and proud. This relationship with the two females will change Pip’s life, but whether that is for the better or not remains to be seen. A few years later, Pip becomes Joe’s apprentice (black smith), but then receives notice that he has been given a great fortune. The generous donor prefers anonymity until such a time as they decide to reveal themselves. Pip, whose trips to visit Miss Havisham and Estella had made him painfully aware of his own shortcomings as well as those of his family, is thrilled to have the opportunity to become a gentleman and perhaps become worthy of his great love Estella. He moves off to London, where the attorney Mr. Jaggers and his assistant Wemmick, manage his affairs. Pip befriends an industrious young man named Herbert, whose father acts as Pip’s tutor and who also happens to be a distant relative of Miss Havisham. Pip studies to become a gentleman and pines away for Estella, but he also gets to know Jaggers’ assistant Wemmick. Jaggers is a tough attorney who deals with crime and criminals in London. He is respected and feared among that element, as is Wemmick. Pip is pleasantly surprised to learn that at home Wemmick is a very different sort of man — pleasant, amiable, doting on his aged father and in love with an upright lady. Over the course of a few years, through these London friends, Pip will learn more about Miss Havisham, Estella, and his anonymous donor. He will also find himself falling into debt and the object of sinister men’s evil intentions. Several seemingly disparate plot lines will be shown to be linked in unexpected ways, while Pip begins to see the truth not just about others but about himself. He learns that he has been foolish and unkind toward those who have always loved him and that he has valued the wrong things in life.
It’s easy to see why Dickens is such a beloved writer. His novels are peopled by fascinating characters; his plot lines are thrilling and heartwarming/heartbreaking; and he exhibits a fine sense of humor (reminding me a bit of Mark Twain). Dickens also shows the reader something about the best and worst of human nature. Pip, for example, is a flawed hero. The reader feels sorry for his harsh upbringing and all the hard knocks he faced as a child, and yet when his dreams come true, we cringe at his treatment of Joe and Biddy, the young woman who had been his friend and teacher. Pip is immature, and Dickens allows him to behave as an immature, insensitive teen would. But Pip also has the opportunity to grow and improve, which happens as a result of the company he keeps and the revelation of the source of his fortune. Characters such as Joe, Biddy, and Herbert are steady and reliable individuals who help Pip maintain his decency and humanity when he is in danger of going astray. My favorite characters though are Miss Havisham and Wemmick. They are certainly eccentric. Miss Havisham has never recovered from being jilted and still wears her bridal outfit in a house that is unchanged from the moment of her betrayal. She is a forbidding woman, raising Estella to be as heartless toward men as they were to her. Yet Miss Havisham, as we learn later in the story, is fragile and capable of remorse, too. She has been terribly hurt in her life and all of her wealth could not remove that pain. Wemmick seems to be all business with no time for sentimentality while in his work office, but at home, he dotes lovingly upon his aged father and maintains a most unusual domicile, complete with drawbridge and working cannon. Wemmick gives Pip advice, support and friendship on the sly and meets with a most delightful end himself.
While Dickens’ characters may come off as comical or eccentric, the fact is they represent the complexity of human nature. People can be cruel and harsh, yet turn around and be generous and selfless. Pip comes to recognize this in others and in himself, realizing how shabbily he has treated those whom he considered “common” but who were in fact extraordinary. Appearances can be deceiving. A related and equally important lesson is that money, as attractive and desirable as it may appear, cannot buy happiness or goodness of character. This may seem somewhat trite and tired as far as lessons go, but it feels timely. Apparently, such simple lessons are difficult to absorb and are continually in need of being taught.