Thursday, March 2, 2006

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

"You don't get to choose. You just fall."
(Unknown, referring to love)

"So taunt me, and hurt me,
Deceive me, desert me,
I'm yours, till I die....."
(Cole Porter, "So In Love," Kiss Me Kate)

I have to admit that I don't write about books very often, which I most seriously regret. Unfortunately, I don't have much time to read any more. That having been said, I have done quite a bit of reading in my time. Among my favourite books is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. There has always been debate as to what is Dickens' greatest work, but I have always thought it was this book.

Great Expectations was first published as a serial in All the Year Round from December 1860 to August 1861. It is a Bildungsroman, or a novel which traces the development of its protagonist. In the case of Great Expectations, that protagonist is one Philip Pirrip, better known simply as "Pip." Two events shape the life of Pip, a poor boy who would eventually be apprenticed to the blacksmith Joe. The first event is meeting the beautiful Estella, Miss Havisham's ward. As a child he is brought to play at Miss Havisham's house where he meets Estella, the eccentric old woman's ward. Sadly for Pip, he falls totally and irrevocably in love with Estella. The second event occurs when a mysterious benefactor gives Pip an enormous fortune and sees to it that he is trained to be a gentleman. The novel traces the impact that these two events have on Pip for several years of his life, as Pip moves in the upper crusts of Victorian England and yearns to win Estella.

The most central theme of Great Expectations is simple: one's personal ethics, love for others, and loyalty to one's friends is ultimately important than social status and wealth. These themes are explored as Pip constantly seeks to better himself, spurred by his longing for Estella. They also create a constant source of conflict for Pip. On the one hand, he wants to constantly better his social status, never quite satisfied with the current level he has attained. On the other hand, he also wants to be a good man, disappointed when he does not measure up to his own ideals of morality. Indeed, Pip's wish to become a gentleman and his quest to be a good person are two of the things which motivate Pip in his life. Of course, the third is his love for the beautiful Estella.

In some respects, it is little wonder that Pip loves Estella, for the two have a great deal in common. While Pip was trained to be a gentleman by a mysterious benefactor for that benefactor's own purposes, Estella is raised by the eccentric Miss Havisham to break men's hearts. Having been stood up at the altar by the wealthy but immoral Compeyson, Miss Havisham seeks revenge on all men by moulding Estella to toy with men's affections and ultimately destroy them. Sadly, the only man Estella nearly destroys is the one least deserving of it--Pip. Estella is largely the opposite of most love interests in Victorian novels. While most Victorian heroines are kind and friendly, Estella is distant, cold, and manipulative. At the same time, however, like Pip, Estella genuinely wants to be good. She constantly regrets the harm she causes Pip and enourages Pip to forget about her and to look to his own happiness (never mind that Pip cannot be truly happy without her...). The relationship between Pip and Estella is one of the most fascinating aspects of Great Expectations. While many lovers in romances are kept apart by circumstances, in Great Expectations it is Pip and Estella themselves who largely create the conditions that prevent them from being together. As a case in point, Estella marries the wealthy but cruel nobleman Drummle instead of Pip, who genuinely loves her. This and other actions Pip and Estella take are largely what causes them to be apart for much of the novel. In many ways the romance between Pip and Estella is one of the most realistic in Victorian literature.

Of course, this also points to the fact that Pip is perhaps the most realistic progtaonist Dickens ever created. While the heroes of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield are largely one dimensional (the secondary characters are always more interesting), Pip is a fully developed, realstic character. Pip's desire to be a wealthy gentleman sometimes conflict with his desire to be a good man. He longs to be with Estella but can never quite achieve that goal. The realness of Pip especially demonstrated by the fact that Pip, when he is older and wiser, narrates the novel. While the older Pip lets us know how he felt at any given time when he was younger, he also sometimes displays amusement at the foibles of his youth. This should be expected as Great Expectations is largely about Pip's development as a person. He is signficantly changed at the end of the novel from what he was at its beginning.

One aspect of Great Expectations that is particularly interesting is that Dickens wrote two endings for the novel. The original ending was a sad one, in which Pip has again lost Estella. Dickens' friend Wilkie Collins (most famous as the author of The Woman in White) objected to the ending, feeling that it would be a disappointment to readers. Dickens then wrote the ending with which we are now familiar, which is a bit more ambiguous. It appears that Pip and Estella might finally be together, although there is room for argument that this might not be so. There has always been some debate as to which ending is better. Some have argued that the second ending is much too conventional and too upbeat for a novel which is largely unhappy. Others have argued that the second ending simply continues the separations and reunions that have plagued Pip and Estella throughout their relationship. Personally, I prefer the second ending. Besides the fact that it would appear that Pip and Estella can finally be happy (after all the sturm und drang the two go through, they would seem to deserve a bit of happiness), I feel that Pip at last understands Estella and as a result he can finally, truly love her. In other words, the ending portrays another step in Pip's development as a person.

Great Expectations is a complex work with one of the most interesting protagonists of Victorian literature. It covers a number of different themes with regards to morality, social class, and even love. Arguably, this was Charles Dickens at the top of his game. In my humble opinion, it is quite simply the greatest novel written by one of the greatest writers (short of Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest) in the English language.

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