Review: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens



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.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham


Of Human Bondage is the first and most autobiographical of Maugham’s masterpieces. It is the story of Philip Carey, an orphan eager for life, love and adventure. After a few months studying in Heidelberg, and a brief spell in Paris as would-be artist, Philip settles in London to train as a doctor.

And that is where he meets Mildred, the loud but irresistible waitress with whom he plunges into a formative, tortured and masochistic affair which very nearly ruins him.


I’ve come to the conclusion that in my life I’ve done a lot of waiting. Waiting for a school bell to ring, waiting to leave for vacation, waiting to go to university, waiting to hear back about that job, waiting to see a friend I haven’t seen in months: in short, waiting to live. Because implicitly, any act of waiting is an act of not living. That is, unless authors like Somerset Maugham write epic bildungsromans like Of Human Bondage and force us to remember, or at the very least to acknowledge, that our lives are lived in the waiting.

It’s a message I couldn’t wait a single moment more to hear, a message for me right here, right now. Because currently I’ve been waiting too much, thinking more about how my life could be than contenting myself with how my life is. I have taken to studying calendars. I count weeks and make fantastic calculations: only 79 days until I know whether I’ve gotten into grad school, which is equivalent to a childhood summer vacation; only 38 days until I go to Berlin, equivalent to the NFL postseason.

Philip Carey, Maugham’s vaguely autobiographical protagonist, does a lot of waiting too. Orphaned and club-footed, he spends a childhood waiting for adulthood, and once he arrives, he spends his early adulthood waiting for something better, the thing he had actually dreamed of. In one heartbreaking sequence early in this serious chunk of book, Philip spends months praying nightly for God to cure his clubfoot. The miraculous day arrives and Philip jumps out of bed, only to walk to breakfast limping as usual. Philip feels that these nightly calls to heaven were wasted. And in a way they are. But Maugham also warns us against simplistic thinking: nothing is wasted if it makes us who we are.

I love nothing more than some good retrospection, and 80% finished with the book, I paused, awed at how far Philip had come. We follow him across Europe, through various failed relationships, and discarded career attempt after discarded career attempt. The most simultaneously unsatisfying/satisfying component of the novel concerns Philip’s frustrating and illogical love for Mildred, a fickle, dull, and rude woman who never returns his sentiments. Although it seems that Philip never learns and that he will wait forever on a woman who will never love him, we can see, eventually, once Philip himself sees it, that love is toxic, but the most wonderful thing we know. It’s an answer. With Philip we learn, as his life unfolds like a tapestry, that beauty is an answer. Happiness may be fleeting but beauty is not, so we must search not for happiness but beauty.

For anyone susceptible to waiting too much and too long, I suggest reading a bildungsroman. There’s nothing like it to bring you through everything, up and down and out again. Life goes on. We get through things. Waiting can be the most important thing you ever do if you realize that it’s not really waiting.

4 out of 5 stars