Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Monday, February 21, 2011

"Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens

"Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."

This was a re-read for me, but it's been a sufficiently long time (which, with my sieve-like brain, could mean mere weeks, but in this case it's been at least ten years) so that I couldn't remember much about Great Expectations other than the vague notion that I really enjoyed reading it.

I remembered that there was Pip, and there was Estella, and there was Miss Havisham who was a little bit gross and a lot crazy. And there were varying incarnations of unrequited love and impressive coldheartedness. I wasn't sure how many of my shadowy memories of the story came from the modernized 1998 movie and how much I actually remembered from the book.

As it turns out, I didn't remember much. The gist of the book was familiar (Pip, raised in a lowly blacksmith's home, admires the rich and snooty until, unexpectedly, he is given the opportunity to become rich and snooty himself, and he does a bang-up job of it). But so much of it took me by surprise. Which was really kind of nice, because it's much easier for mysterious and suspenseful plot twists to be mysterious and suspenseful if I'm not sure where they're going.

One thing I certainly didn't remember was how funny this book is! Not in the way that Anna Karenina occasionally made me laugh when I wasn't sure I should. No, Dickens's tone is surprisingly (and intentionally) quite droll. And Dickens managed to hit Pip's voice just perfectly. It was not at all pompous, prolix or pontifical, the way Dickens seems in my mind whenever I'm not reading him. Pip is hopeful and optimistic, and even when he was painfully ashamed of his roots (or, more importantly, of the loving people he left behind), I still didn't hate him.

Here's something interesting we discovered at book club: we didn't all interpret the ending in the same way. Even more interesting is a fact I unearthed today: did you know there are TWO DIFFERENT ENDINGS to Great Expectations? (Don't follow that link unless you've already read the book, or if you just happen to love spoilers.) It's like Choose Your Own Adventure! I need to ask Lydia if her book had the original ending, which would make our differing interpretations completely understandable. At any rate, I certainly prefer the ending in my copy of the book.

Another certainty: Great Expectations is SUCH a good story. It was definitely worthy of a re-read. AND I would read it again in the future. Dickens deserves to be named the Supreme Mugwump of Victorian Lit, even if I still love Henry James more.

I've got a couple of surplus tidbits for you. First, historical perspective: Great Expectations was initially published in serial form, with the first installment appearing in December 1860 and the final installment in August 1861. These dates bracket the start of America's Civil War, which officially began in April 1861.

Detail of Goya's The Old Ones: 
Miss Havisham?
Second, don't you think Miss Havisham could have been modeled after this grotesque old woman?


Verity C said...

Congrats, I've awarded the Seven Facts Award to your blog.

Kathy said...

Thanks for the award!

Kristi said...

I'm so glad you loved it on second read. I read this almost seven years ago. I remember loving it (enough to take it to the hospital with me to read while in labor). I don't remember many details though aside from Miss Havisham. How could anyone forget her? I have a craptastic memory. I can't wait to read it again.

Rachel said...

ahaha that woman is gross... I didn't picture her to be THAT gross when I read the novel... just old and sad. Maybe I need to re-read.

Andi said...

*sigh, swoon* I love this book. Not surprising since I named my blog after Estella. I first read it in high school, and it's a miracle that it impressed me even the tiniest bit back then (I wasn't the deepest). But it did. Or maybe it was just Miss Havisham's crazy grossness. Either way, it stuck, and I re-read it about 10 years after the fact, and I *hearted* it all over again.

Kathy said...

Kristi--Miss H is definitely memorable. Your memory sounds about like mine. ;) And I am cracking up that you read this book while you were in labor.

Rachel--yeah, maybe I went a little overboard with the picture (at the very least, she should look like she has more of a mouth) but you should read Andi's post on this book (see comment below yours)--I LOVE how Andi described Miss H as "all rot and spite"--suits her character *perfectly*.

Andi--this really is a truly great book! I wish they were all this good . . .

Lesa said...

How funny! I just posted about the Little Dorrit miniseries. It was so fabulous that I'm still swooning!! Lots of drollness in it and it was originally written in serial form too.

I read and liked Two Cities in high school and have been meaning to reread but I think I want to read LD and GE first. From your review, GE sounds intriguing.

Leslie said that she sincerely dislikes Dickens-- I'm going to read more of his works to see what I think but based on the Little Dorrit miniseries, I am a fan.

Kathy said...

But . . . but . . . surely Leslie is wrong. Has she tried Dickens lately? Maybe something has changed!

My memory of Two Cities is about as vague as my memory of GE prior to the re-read--I remember I loved it, and I remember London and Paris and spies and old ladies knitting. Definitely need to re-read it at some point.

rohit said...

Must be an enjoyable read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

Kathy said...

Rohit--It is an enjoyable read! I highly recommend it.