562 pages • Penguin English Library • 26 April, 2012 [PB]
Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, and by the time he died at the age of 58 he’d completed 14 novels. Great Expectations was serialized between December 1860 and August 1861 in the weekly periodical All the Year Round. It is, as the critics like to say, one of his “best-loved” works. Like David Copperfield (1849-1850), it’s a coming-of-age story, but whereas that tome clocks in at 982 pages (in the gorgeous Penguin English Library edition I’ve been reading), Great Expectations is 554 pages. It’s more concentrated in terms of its cast of characters as well as the strong emotions that propel it forwards. And it has an irresistible magic to it – the magic of possibility. It animates the book’s narrator, Pip, and weaves a spell through his tale. There are no subplots to get lost in as every page is about his story, his great expectations; and the energy of the novel is drawn from that.
Phillip Pirrip is a poor boy from a poor family. His parents are dead, and he is being “brought up by hand” by his scold of a sister, and her husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery. He is a self-conscious, uncertain young boy, and his innocence is broken by two events that thrust him into the world outside of Joe’s forge and change the course of his life.
In the opening chapter the six-year old Pip recounts “his first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things”. On the marsh land near the forge he runs into an escaped convict, Abel Magwitch, who threatens his life and intimidates him into stealing wittles (i.e. food) as well as a file to cut his chains. It is a dramatic, forceful start. Pip does as he is asked; and he also brings brandy of his own accord. In this he learns what it means to lie.
Magwitch is captured, and the theft from the forge blamed on him. Pip escapes a whipping from his sister, who suspects that he is behind it all. Through the intervention of the pompous windbag Mr Pumblechook, Pip is then sent to Satis House to attend to Miss Havisham, who is surely one of Dickens’ most compelling characters.
Miss Havisham was left at the altar many years before, and spends her days in the room prepared for the guests, now thoroughly dishevelled, still wearing her wedding dress. She has a ward, Estella, who is Pip’s age, and that is the reason Pip is there. Miss Havisham is fashioning Estella into an instrument of revenge, a woman who will break men’s hearts; thus she teaches Pip what it means to yearn for love and, in turn, for social position.
Pip, nevertheless, thinks that it is he who is being groomed. When he is almost of age and comes into money from a mysterious benefactor he naturally assumes that it is the work of Miss Havisham. And at this point he is hopelessly and blindly in love with Estella.
What’s so mesmerising about how Dickens plays out this love story is that it all happens within the confines of the dreams that Miss Havisham has planted in Pip’s mind, and in the great expectations he thinks are his alone. Yet it’s a game for Miss Havisham as she plays out an act of revenge on the lover who abandoned her at the altar. In the game of love Estella and Pip are pawns, just as they are in the game of social standing, the rules of which are already fixed. Estella is, as Miss Havisham made her to be, a vessel filled with intent, not character. It is in Pip’s perception of Estella, and how he channels his own great expectations into her empty soul, that lies the source of her fascination to the reader. Pip’s relocation to London, and his training as a gentleman, this is dictated by his love for Estella, who is nothing more than that which he cannot have. In the end, this is his great lesson.
The five bestsellers in the Penguin Classics series, interestingly, are Alice in Wonderland, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Frankenstein, and Great Expectations. This tale of great promise, and the disappointment of that promise, is extraordinarily powerful. Throughout his work, Dickens is interested in how people are created by circumstance, as well as the characters that wield circumstance to their own ends. This is why it still shines, and a story like Pip’s reaches towards the universal rather than being fixed in the costume drama of its countless television and film adaptations.
This is, I think, the sixth time I have read Great Expectations, and this time in the new Penguin English Library edition. This series of 100 books is being published between April and December this year. The new look is stylish. The covers are thick, and slightly waxy, and the pages are … well, this is my favourite description from Penguin: “extra floppy pages to ease the reading experience”. I wasn’t sure what that meant until I picked up an older Penguin Classics edition and compared. The pages in the English Library books feel softer, and they turn effortlessly. If you’re serious about reading you’re also serious about the feel of the book; or at least I think so. This edition offers something the soulless Kindle could never replicate.
Great Expectations is a story about possibility, and how possibility is shaped and determined by a social system from which there is no escape. That is why Dickens’ original ending, which he revised on the advice of his friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton, is more convincing than the published one. This is the book’s one flaw. As George Bernard remarks in the essay reprinted at the back of the Penguin English Library edition, “It is too serious a book to be a trivially happy one. Its beginning is unhappy; its middle is unhappy; and the conventional happy ending is an outrage on it.” Nevertheless, Great Expectations remains one of the finest books in the English language, a sad story yet also a joyous story for it is about what it means to love and to live.