Dickens’s magnificent novel of guilt, desire, and redemption
The orphan Pip’s terrifying encounter with an escaped convict on the Kent marshes, and his mysterious summons to the house of Miss Havisham and her cold, beautiful ward Estella, form the prelude to his “great expectations.” How Pip comes into a fortune, what he does with it, and what he discovers through his secret benefactor are the ingredients of his struggle for moral redemption.
In Great Expectations Dickens takes Pip, a young orphan of modest means, from a marshy graveyard to London high society, twisting his fate again and again to ask the question: who makes a man—himself? Or everything and everyone who builds him up? Is the importance of living a good and true life only discovered in the highs and lows? Can great expectations be given or must they be earned?
The actual plot, while frequently entertaining with its sharp turns and interlocking character backstories, is too fantastic to properly address these questions. Pip’s journey is long but the significant bits, places where he learns the value of money, the visage of true love, the treasure of friendship, and the loyalty of familial love, are short and subsequently seemingly unearned.
The characters, fortunately, are sharp and bright as stars on a clear night. We have the youthful tragics of Miss Havisham that have left her cold and frozen, icing the heart of her beautiful ward Estella, and eventually that of Pip’s as well. Joe, sweet Joe the blacksmith, whose accent was practically unreadable at times but never failed to shine as a beacon of humanity. And of course, the unforgettable Wemmick, a law clerk who has built a castle in London for himself and “the Aged,” his death father whom he communicates with either by cries and cannonball firings.
It’s a good story but one that failed to seam together for me. Reminiscent of Maugham’sOf Human Bondage and plenty of other bildungsromans, yet heavier on plot and lighter on epiphanies gained through growing-up.