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'Great Expectations' a wonderful character study

'Great Expectations' is a read that lives up to mine and reminds me what I loved about Charles Dickens.
Courtesy of Wordsworth Classics

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens


I must confess that I never read Dickens' novel "Great Expectations" before -- which is a bit odd considering that my major in high school and college was English Lit. But it was this month's selection for a book club I'd joined and the perfect opportunity to rectify that.

I have to say that it's not my favorite of all of Charles Dickens' novels but it is a fascinating character study of the times in which it was written. "Great Expectations" was a study of the class differences and the cultural mores of those classes. Set in the prime of Victorian England, the story is full of the hypocrisies of that society and the dangers of rising above one's social stratus.

Phillip Pirrup, known by his self-given nickname of Pip, is a six year old orphan at the beginning of the story, being raised by his much older, abusive sister and her kind, good-natured husband, Joe. They are hard working folk from the lower classes, living within their means in a day to day fashion. But Pip wants more -- he has expectations of becoming Joe's apprentice and finding a wife, having children, and being a blacksmith. But his life doesn't follow along with his expectations as we watch him grow from that wide eyed six year old to a young man.

Pip's adventures begin in a churchyard when a convict assaults him, scaring the boy silly and demanding food and a file with which to remove the convict's shackles. When the convict is recaptured, Pip waits in fear for someone to realize that he's aided and abetted a criminal. Instead, Pip is brought to the residence of a Miss Havisham to become the companion for her adopted daughter, Estella. When a large sum of money comes to help educate Pip and turn him into a gentleman of means, Pip is off to London to begin his greatest adventure and fulfill the expectations of his youth -- rise above his station and be more than he is. Pip has no idea who that benefactor is -- although he has his suspicions -- and in trying to become that gentleman, he is also trying to learn the identity of this person.

Dickens was well known for his character studies and "Great Expectations" is no different. His reverence for the human spirit looms large in the people that populate this book. Pip is inquisitive and imaginative, but maybe reaches a bit too far. His sister, Mrs. Joe as she is called throughout, has a mean streak but appears frustrated with a child not of her loins, who asks too many questions and seems too much of a dreamer for her sensibilities. They are all pure Dickens in their actions and part of the story.

But the plot compels them all forward. Each one has "great expectations" for Pip, who has his own expectations. Pip learns of the upper classes and yearns to be free of the poverty in which he was born. He "expects" the largess of the mysterious benefactor to help him get away from that poverty and Mrs. Joe "expects" to ride on his coattails. Joe expects Pip to remain his friend and "son" but Pip is embarrassed by Joe's illiteracy and "expects" to find better friends and move amongst them with ease.

The theme of expectations leads Pip to his inevitable conclusion in the lessons he must learn as he goes along, not always accepting the answers from those lessons. And Dickens ends the book on a bittersweet note that echoes the theme.

Dickens fans will also be interested to know that the author wrote two endings to this story. The original, which has garnered critical acclaim as being truer to the theme and spirit of the book, was dark in the final scene between Pip and Estella. But Dickens' friends felt the ending was too dark and so he rewrote it to suit his friends' tastes with a more upbeat ending. When purchasing a copy, you'll be able to find both copies available and I leave it to you as to which you'd prefer.

For those of us that enjoy classical literature outside of the classroom, this is a wonderful story and certainly a good read. And a good way to get prepared for the movie coming in November, as director Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral", "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") brings his version to the movies.

You can find a copy of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" through all online bookseller, through your local library, or locally from Joseph-Beth Booksellers in the Lexington Green Mall on Nicholasville Road or Barnes & Noble in the Hamburg Pavilion Shopping Center at Man o' War Blvd and Sir Barton Way.

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