“Great Expectations is too much done,” she said dismissively, faulting it as a high-school text. And, indeed, I agreed with her meekly that its autobiographical predecessor, David Copperfield, was the better book.
Great Expectations is not, I surmise, popular in high school because it’s the best. It is popular because it’s short–about 500 pages as opposed to 900–and much less digressive than David Copperfield, which is written for people with long attention spans. Many people I know have read no Dickens except Great Expectations–an experience that did not inspire them to read his other work.
The masterpiece of all masterpieces, of course, is Bleak House, in which Dickens juggles at least three narratives linked by the never-ending Jarndyce v. Jarndyce inheritance case. In Great Expectations, Dickens focuses on the plight of one person, the narrator, Pip, mysteriously raised in his teens from blacksmith’s apprentice to the status of gentleman by an anonymous patron. One story is necessarily easier than three. The mystery of the novel centers on the identity of the patron.
Pip thinks he knows who his patron is. Raised by an abusive sister, traumatized by a meeting with a convict hidden in the marsh who swears him to secrecy when he is a young child, he does not question the inexplicable summons by a cousin, Pumblechook, to visit the rich Miss Havisham, a spinster with a personality disorder who has not seen the light of day since she was jilted as a young woman. And it seems logical to him that Miss Havisham, the only rich person he knows, is his patron. He hopes that he is fated to marry her beautiful ward, Estella.
But is Miss Havisham his patron? She certainly lets Pip think so. But Dickens lets us suspect early on that she is far too crazed to take seriously as a patron. When Pip first meets her,
“She was dressed in rich materials–satins, and lace, and silks–all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil, dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on–the other was on the table near her hand…”
She commands Pip to play. He cannot play. He is ordered to walk Miss Havisham around and around the room, and Estella, her ward, a beautiful, cruel girl, is encouraged to snub him.
The story of Pip’s ascendancy of status, of the development of his personality, his kindness and irresponsibility, reminds me very much of the trajectory of the lives of heroes of Trollope’s books, who always go astray before they mature and become accountable for their actions. It is impossible not to love Pip’s friend, Herbert, a sweet man who teaches him manners and who “is always looking around him” for a chance to make money–and it becomes clear would never do so without Pip’s secret patronage.
Pip forgets his kind brother-in-law, Joe Gargery, a blacksmith, and only the appearance of his real patron, the convict, Magwitch, makes him remember his family.
It’s a fascinating, great, great book about class, law, and prisons–also with dark analyses of marriages, from abusive to sad to getting-by. This really is an “unputdownable” novel, as they say. It is not a children’s book, and it’s too bad that it is judged, either sentimentally or dismissively, on early readings.