“Great Expectations” is a stand-out Dickens: rich in wisdom, love and astonishing set pieces. It’s also full of great quotations. Here are a few.
Great Expectations: the story
I read Great Expectations for the first time aged 63. It was so good I thought “I’ll read all of Dickens”. This was a mistake (although I persevere: I’m up to David Copperfield). Great Expectations is a stand-out. The plot, the vivid characters, and the blow-your-socks-off set pieces, are wonderful. Want to know about the nature of love, and obsession? Look no further. Want to avoid conspiracy theories? There’s a recipe here. I’ll avoid spoilers: there are plenty of summaries of the plot elsewhere, if you need them.
For me, three elements of Great Expectations stand out:
(i) life is hard: much of Dickens is about this. But Great Expectations has hard lives in spades. The first-person narrator and hero, Pip, grows up under an extraordinarily cruel regime (see quotes below). Grinding poverty surrounds him.
(ii) kindness counts: for me the scenes with Wemmick, a clerk, and his ancient, deaf father, “the Aged”, are unforgettable. Wemmick’s strict division between life and work, to which I refer in my book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy, (links in bold italics are to other posts on this blog) is praiseworthy, too.
(iii) writers can develop: Dickens wrote some duds. Opinions differ of course. I found The Pickwick Papers and Barnaby Rudge outstanding (perhaps because of low expectations) and Martin Chuzzlewit impenetrable. Great Expectations was Dickens’ 13th novel, and his penultimate completed work. It’s a cracker.
Some of the themes of the book are contemporary, such as his depiction of the tragic, elderly Miss Haversham as the victim of a marriage swindler. I also like the way Dickens casually dispenses wisdom throughout Great Expectations. A few examples are below, together with passages I particularly enjoyed.
Pip, Estella and Miss Haversham. Note the caption bottom left
Great Expectations: Life is Hard
Is life a walk in the park? Not for Dickens. Here are some examples:
- [Pip describes his sister’s attitude to him as a child] As to me, I think my sister must have had some general idea that I was a young offender whom an Accoucheur Policeman had taken up (on my birthday) and delivered over to her, to be dealt with according to the outraged majesty of the law. I was always treated as if I had insisted on being born in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality, and against the dissuading arguments of my best friends.
- [On London life:] ‘You may get cheated, robbed, and murdered, in London. But there are plenty of people anywhere, who’ll do that for you.’ [This reminds me of my grandmother’s excellent response when I belittled some achievement: ‘Don’t run yourself down, lad. Plenty of other people’ll do that for you.’]
- [On the impossibility of changing your character] ‘He says, no varnish can hide the grain of the wood; and that the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself.’
- [On partings – very sad] ‘Pip, near old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together…’
Pip’s relationship with the beautiful, cruel Estella (no spoilers!) runs through the book. Key message: love, or obsession, ain’t easy.
Miss Haversham gives Pip two tips on love. In my view, neither is very helpful. But sadly, both can depict accurately how love (sometimes) is:
- ‘Love her, love her, love her! If she favours you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces – and as it gets older and stronger it will tear deeper – love her, love her!’
- ‘I’ll tell you,’ said she, in the same hurried passionate whisper, ‘what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter – as I did!’
Pip recognises Estella’s cruelty. He does not know what the future holds, but he imagines her as a machine of vengeance on all men:
- I saw in this, wretched though it made me, and bitter the sense of dependence, even of degradation, that it awakened – I saw in this, that Estella was set to wreak Miss Havisham’s revenge on men, and that she was not to be given to me until she had gratified it for a term. I saw in this, a reason for her being beforehand assigned to me. Sending her out to attract and torment and do mischief, Miss Havisham sent her with the malicious assurance that she was beyond the reach of all admirers, and that all who staked upon that cast were secured to lose. I saw in this, that I, too, was tormented by a perversion of ingenuity, even while the prize was reserved for me.
On getting by in London
Pip’s description of surviving on no money in London also sounds somewhat contemporary:
- We spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us. We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintance were in the same condition. There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did. To the best of my belief, our case was in the last aspect a rather common one.
Great Expectations: Wemmick and the Aged
The trials of elderly people often move me. The way the clerk Wemmick cares for his ancient father, “The Aged”, brought a lump to my throat. Here are two examples. As the Aged is deaf, all he ever says to his son, in response to any query, is ‘All right John, all right.’
- [The Aged reads the newspaper] Wemmick explained to me while the Aged got his spectacles out, that this was according to custom, and that it gave the old gentleman infinite satisfaction to read the news aloud. ‘I won’t offer an apology,” said Wemmick, “for he isn’t capable of many pleasures—are you, Aged P.?’ ‘All right, John, all right,” returned the old man, seeing himself spoken to. ‘Only tip him a nod every now and then when he looks off his paper,’ said Wemmick, ‘and he’ll be as happy as a king. We are all attention, Aged One…’ As [the Aged] wanted the candles close to him, and as he was always on the verge of putting either his head or the newspaper into them, he required as much watching as a powder-mill. But Wemmick was equally untiring and gentle in his vigilance, and the Aged read on, quite unconscious of his many rescues. Whenever he looked at us, we all expressed the greatest interest and amazement, and nodded until he resumed again.
- [The Aged eats breakfast] he [Wemmick] took the toasting fork and sausage… and set forth the Aged’s breakfast neatly on a little tray. Previous to placing it before him, he went into the Aged’s room with a clean white cloth, and tied the same under the old gentleman’s chin, and propped him up, and put his night-cap on one side, and gave him quite a rakish air. Then, he placed his breakfast before him with great care, and said, ‘All right, ain’t you, Aged P.?’ To which the cheerful Aged replied, ‘All right John, my boy, all right!’ As there seemed to be a tacit understanding that the Aged was not in a presentable state, and was therefore to be considered invisible, I made a pretence of being in complete ignorance of these proceedings.
Great Expectations on Conspiracy Theories
Pip believes for much of the book that Miss Haversham is his benefactor. Mr Jaggers, a lawyer, comments:
- ‘Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.’
This is excellent advice for conspiracy theorists everywhere. I plan to write more about conspiracy theories soon, including the role of the world’s most secretive espionage organisation, the Welsh Secret Service.
Great Expectations is full of rich descriptive writing. In some Dickens novels, this can get all too much. Not in Great Expectations. On the contrary, the descriptive passages are powerful, evocative and timely. They are too many to include here; but I did enjoy the setting for the wonderful, mud-soaked climax to the book:
- For now the last of the fleet of ships was round the last low point we had headed; and the last green barge, straw-laden, with a brown sail, had followed; and some ballast-lighters, shaped like a child’s first rude imitation of a boat, lay low in the mud; and a little squat shoal-lighthouse on open piles, stood crippled in the mud on stilts and crutches; and slimy stakes stuck out of the mud, and slimy stones stuck out of the mud, and red landmarks and tidemarks stuck out of the mud, and an old landing-stage and an old roofless building slipped into the mud, and all about us was stagnation and mud.