Saturday, March 24, 2012

Great Expectations

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is the novel that I alluded to in an earlier post that I was struggling with. I found it slow and boring. The language is lovely, and there is some wicked humour and beautiful phrases. However, if Dickens had written this book in this century, an editor would have made it about half as long as it is.

I think part of the reason that I didn't enjoy it is that I didn't like Pip. Usually, if a book is well written, I can put aside my dislike for the character, but I couldn't with this novel. Pip would make me sigh with frustration at his snobbery. I laughed when Trabb's boy was making fun of Pip for pretending not to know anyone and making out that he was too good for the locals where he grew up. But even with Pip narrating from later in life, I still think he has very little insight. Or very little insight into Biddy, who knew him better than he knew himself.
   Because I cannot generate much enthusiasm for this book, I will answer some of Penguin's bookclub questions:

   Why do you think it is one of Magwitch's principle conditions that Pip (his nickname) "always bear the name of Pip" in order to receive his financial support?
   I don't think there was a deep and meaningful reason for this, like some other reviewers. Magwitch was poorly educated and a criminal. Often, criminals go by an alias. Magwitch didn't know Pip's real/full name, so he had to identify Pip by the name he knew, and he wanted Pip to retain the name so that he could find him.

   Why do you think Miss Havisham manipulates and misleads Pip into thinking she is his secret benefactor? 
   She was a wicked, bitter old lady and wanted to inflict emotional turmoil on Pip. By letting him think that she was his benefactor, she kept him tied to her and Estella, whilst he might otherwise have gone off looking at other women. Also, her own family thought that she was Pip's benefactor, and it suited Miss Havisham to have her jealous family (who just wanted her money) to be in equal turmoil to Pip.

   Miss Havisham confesses to Pip that in adopting Estella, she "meant to save her from misery like my own". Do you believe this, given Dickens' harsh characterisation of Miss Havisham throughout the novel?
   I do believe that Miss Havisham honestly thought that to begin with. She was lonely and wanted something to love. She would have been better off getting a pet. She certainly couldn't have adopted a boy. But given Miss Havisham's bitterness, and how beautiful Estella ended up being, the result could not have been any other way.

   When Miss Havisham is set afire, do you believe that, given her state of mind, Dickens intended us to read it as an accident or a kind of penance/attempted suicide on her part for her cruelty to Pip and Estella?
   I certainly read it as a suicide attempt. I don't know if Dickens meant it that way.

   What do you think makes Pip change his opinion of his benefactor Magwitch from one of initial repugnance to one of deep and abiding respect and love?
   Pip's repugnance was born out of his fear (of Magwitch being a murderer) and his sudden loss of his own belief that Estella and he were destined for each other. Once Pip got to know Magwitch and his past, and once Pip accepted his circumstances, his repugnance for Magwitch dissipated. However, I don't think he would have loved and respected Magwitch as much if Magwitch wasn't on the run and in need of help. If Magwitch was going to be a continual burden on Pip and follow him around forcing him to live how it pleased Magwitch, I don't think Pip would have loved him at all.


  1. I agree w/you, an editor today would've cut half the book. I still haven't gotten fast the first few chapters (but I'm in love with the 90s Ethan Hawke, updated movie version!).

    1. I haven't seen that movie - I'll have a look for it. I've been considering getting the short series (3 episodes) that aired recently, off iTunes. I really don't think it's worth reading, if you can't force yourself. Stick to the movie.

  2. (oops, I meant PAST the first few chaps)...