Review: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Well it’s taken me a few months but I have finally finished Great Expectations! Yes I know I started it like months ago and have been slowly trying to finish it up between the move and other books I’ve been reading.

I started reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens for the Gothic Literature Reading Challenge, I had it down to read for the Victorian Literature Reading Challenge also but I decided to use it for the Gothic one since it had a lot of classic Gothic themes which I love.

I have struggled with reading Dickens over the years only because I think he is wordy and often his stories seem a little slow to start.

However, last year I read the book Drood which is a fiction work based on two English literary greats…Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. After reading that book I was curious about Dickens’s life and works. After signing up for both the Victorian and Gothic literature challenges having some Dickens novels on my ‘to read’ lists was a no brainer. 

I started Great Expectations and I will admit it took a little bit to get into it….I know with Victorian writers often there are a few chapters that are what I call the ‘fluff’ of a novel….the back story and set up before actually getting into the story. Often Victorian writers are wordy and long winded….Dickens is no exception!

The novel follows the life of the more or less orphaned Pip. Pip, by a stroke of seemingly good luck, meets Miss Havisham and her daughter Estella. He falls in love with Estella and all that she represents. He longs to become a gentleman and thus her ‘equal’. Pip is able to fulfill his dream of being a gentleman through a secret rich benefactor.

Once I got into the story it was great though, even though Miss Havisham cheeped me out a bit it was hard not to like her as a character…so eccentric and colorful and yet so tragic. She was so unbelievable as a character, I mean really….she sits around in the dark in her nasty old wedding dress….???….waiting….???

I thought she was so interesting because she let one horrible event control her entire life….people like that fascinate me. It is interesting to me that some things can effect others so differently….Miss Havisham suffered something that many others have lived through and moved past but for whatever reason she just could never get past it.

But what I think is important to remember if that she CHOSE to NEVR to get past her failed marriage and allowed her life be miserable and ruined by that heart break. Rather than moving on and having a new life, she adopts Estella and raises her to be vicious and manipulative as a way to get back at the male race in general. She is TRULY the vision of a woman scorned!

The whole bride frozen in time thing is a great illustration of the evolving gothic romance genre….the dramatic and romantic nature of Miss Havisham illustrates the notion of love ‘till death do us part’ REALLY well! Gothic characters are often tittering between madness and sanity….CLEARLY that is Miss Havisham!

Another thing I loved about Dickens is all his fun characters and names. I like that many of the character names reveal something about their roles/characters….for example ‘Estella’ means star and her character was supposed to be so ‘high above’ Pip, like the stars, rather fitting don’t you think?

I never could warm up to Estella….EVER. I could never understand what Pip saw in her (especially in the beginning) she was so stuck-up and manipulative. I could never really get past that about her.

Some have said that Estella was one of Dickens first REAL convincing female characters and I would have to agree. She is not the typical female ‘protagonist’ and does not fit into traditional female roles (especially for Victorian era women). She is manipulative and undermines all things romantic and ‘pure’ that women were supposed to be.

She is manipulative, cold hearted, and cruel. Ironically enough though, Pip loves her and wants desperately to fulfill the ideal that she represents to him. To Pip, Estella is beautiful, wealthy, and socially high above him. He wants to be everything she is, not just for himself but so that he might be with her….a notion that Estella picks out right away and uses to manipulate him with.

She marries a man who torments and abuses her for years and in the end, Estella realizes the ‘error’ of her ways and acknowledges this to Pip:

Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching. . . . I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.

Dickens has used this as a way of enforcing the idea that happiness and well-being are not connected to a social position.

I think Dickens truly had a gift for writing great memorable characters, if I don’t remember the story I am SURE I will remember the characters and the messages these characters conveyed not only about society but about life in general LOL. 🙂

The story had lots of great gothic characteristics as well. I loved all the references to ghosts, the feelings of despair, the misty marshes, social status/levels, and the old decaying house. There was a distinct feeling of doppelgangers or ‘doubles’….each character had its own mirrored character such as Estella and Biddy…both interested Pip but in different ways and for different reasons. There are also the two mirrored characters of Miss Havisham and Joe, and then of course the two convicts etc.

I loved the decaying house especially. In gothic lit usually things like a decaying house is a tool used to create anxiety and fear of impending doom in the reader and the house definitely does that! I think my favorite gothic element though us the psychological state of Miss Havisham….I REALLY REALLY REALLY liked her character as a gothic character, even though she was creepy….that’s the whole point of gothic lit and characters isn’t it LOL!! 🙂

There were also lots of reflective and thought provoking quotes, Dickens surely had a talent for putting complicated ideas into easy to understand quotes, and here are some of my faves from the novel:

I never had one hour’s happiness in her society, and yet my mind all round the four-and-twenty hours was harping on the happiness of having her with me unto death.

Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule

So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.

It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home.

. . .suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.

In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong.

I think the last two quotes though are my fav….this book is about bettering one’s self and moving forward and embracing one’s past, present, and future and these two quotes really drive that concept home—I like them  A LOT. Words to live by if you ask me…..often I think people think that change is about forgetting who you are and becoming someone new. This book is about improving yourself and building on your past…you can either let you past consume you (Miss Havisham) or move forward and take your experiences as they come as Pip did.

At any rate, over all the book was a little long and a little ‘drag-ish’ at times but it was a GREAT book and lots of fun to read especially if you are a gothic lit fan as I am. Pick up the book you will NOT be disappointed!

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

  • Kindle Edition, 380 pages
  • Published (first published 1861)

This book counts toward: Gothic Literature Reading Challenge and the Victorian Literature Reading Challenge

Recommendation: 4 out of 5 (it’s a classic so, yes read it. It is a great book but does take a little bit to get into, hence the 4 ou of 5 stars 🙂 )

Genre: Literature, Fiction, Victorian Literature, Classics, Gothic Fiction

Memorable lines/quotes:

. . .suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.

In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong.

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