Matt's Reviews > Great Expectations

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
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Jan 04, 2009

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bookshelves: classic-novels

Admittedly, I can be a bit dismissive of the classics. By which I mean that many of my reviews resemble a drive-by shooting. This annoys some people, if measured by the responses I’m still getting to my torching of Moby Dick.

Even though I should expect some blowback, I still get a little defensive. I mean, no one wants to be called a “horrendous” person just because he or she didn’t like an overlong, self-indulgent, self-important “epic” about a douche-y peg leg and a stupid whale.

I’m no philistine. I console myself with the belief that I have relatively decent taste. For instance, I don’t listen to Nickelback; I read the New Yorker; and I haven’t seen an Adam Sandler film in theaters since Punch-Drunk Love. Hating Melville does not make me a backwater provincial, drunk on Boone’s Farm, Ken Follett novels, and the cinema of Rob Schneider.

Indeed, I have two principled reasons for not liking many certified classics. Strike that. I have one paranoid reason, and one semi-principled reason.

The paranoid first.

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to read so many so-called classics? From the endless torments of Dostoyevsky to the prodigious length of Tolstoy to the impenetrability or weirdness of Joyce, Faulkner or Pynchon, the world’s great novels seem needlessly excruciating.

I think it’s a conspiracy. A conspiracy of English majors and literature majors and critics all over the globe. These individuals form an elitist guild; like all guilds and licensing bodies, their goal is to erect barriers to entry. In this case, the barriers to entry are Finnegan’s Wake and In Search of Lost Time. This snooty establishment has elevated the most dense, inscrutable works to exalted status, ensuring that the lower classes stay where they belong: in the checkout aisle with Weekly World News and Op Center novels.

Isn’t it possible that the only reasons the classics are classic is because “they” tell us they’re classic? What if they are wrong? More frightening, what if I’m right? Isn’t it possible that all the “greatest” novels in history actually suck? Am I the only one who thinks it possible that true greatness lies within Twilight? I am? Okay, moving on.

My principled objection to various classic novels is that I love reading, and have loved to read from an early age (I also loved to complain from an early age). To that end, classics are the worst thing to ever happen to literature, with the exception of Dan Brown. Every drug dealer and fast-food marketer knows that you have to hook kids early in life. Forcing students to consume classics too soon is akin to the neighborhood dope peddler handing out asparagus and raw spinach. The problem is worst in high schools, where English teachers seem intent on strangling any nascent literary enjoyment in the crib. At a fragile time in a young person’s life, a heaping dose of Homer (not Simpson) can be enough to break a reading habit for life.

At least, that was my experience. I first came across Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations when it was assigned my freshman year of high school. It was a confusing time, caught between lingering childhood (I still had toys in my room) and emerging adulthood (by the end of the year I’d get my drivers’ license). Even though I’d been a voracious reader, it had always been on my own terms. When my teacher tried to shove Dickens down my throat, I started to lose interest in the written word, and gain interest in the girls on the cheerleading chess team.

Thankfully, I regained my joy of reading, but it wasn’t until I graduated from law school. At that time, I decided to go back and read all the stuff that was assigned in high school, that I’d either skimmed over or ignored completely. Great Expectations was one of the first classics to which I returned. Returned with a shudder, I might add.

First off, it wasn’t as bad as I remembered. Heck, I liked it even. So there. Save your hate mail. I do not come here to condemn Dickens, merely to damn him with faint praise.

In many ways, Great Expectations is prototypical Dickens: it is big and sprawling; it is told in the first person by a narrator who often seems resoundingly dull; it is peopled with over-eccentric supporting characters with unlikely names; and its labyrinthine structure and unspooling digressions defy ordinary plot resolutions. This is not a book that is getting to a sole point; rather, it’s more the tale of a boy’s life, with few details withheld. It also limps to an unsatisfactory ending (one of two endings, actually, since Dickens couldn’t make up his mind) that brings to mind the hastily reshot finale to the Jennifer Aniston/Vince Vaughn movie, The Break-Up.

The central character, the first person narrator, is an orphan (surprise!) named Pip. He lives with his mean sister and saintly husband, Joe (the simplest named of all Dickens’ creations). This small, unhappy family (Pip’s sister is forever peeved at the burden of taking care of her younger brother) live in the marshes, vividly described by Dickens as a cold, creeping, lunar landscape, where prisoners rot in offshore prison hulks, and cannons boom to raise the drowned.

It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs, hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade. On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy, and the marsh-mist was so thick that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village – a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there – was invisible to me until I was quite close under it. Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped, it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks.

Pip’s conscience is oppressed because of his Christmastime meeting with an escaped convict named Magwitch. Pip helps Magwitch out of his shackles, and steals him a pie and some brandy. Later, Magwitch is recaptured, though Pip remains fearful that his role in the attempted escape will be discovered.

Later, young Pip is taken to the home of the wealthy old Miss Havisham, to play with her adopted daughter, Estella. Miss Havisham, of course, is one of Dickens’ most famous creations. She was left at the altar as a younger woman, and now whiles away her days in her crumbling wedding dress, all the clocks in her house stopped at 8:40. Miss Havisham’s sole delight seems to be in Estella’s cruel treatment of poor Pip. Nevertheless, Pip falls in love with Estella.

Eventually, Miss Havisham pays Joe for Pip’s services, and Pip returns to the marshes as a blacksmithing apprentice. Once, Pip found Joe’s profession to be honorable. Now, however, after all of Estella’s scornful jibes, Pip finds the work beneath his dignity. This begins the long period of insufferable Pip, who will constantly struggle to rise above his station, while simultaneously racking up debts and alienating the people who truly love him.

At some point, Pip is approached my Mr. Jaggers, a cunning lawyer with many clients who end up at the end of a noose (he also has a compulsive propensity towards hand-washing). Jaggers informs Pip that he has a benefactor, and that this benefactor has “great expectations” for Pip. To receive his money, Pip is told he must travel to London, become a gentleman, and retain his name. Pip does so, believing all the while that his benefactor is Miss Havisham.

If there is a spine to this book, a central narrative thread, it is Pip’s pursuit of the lovely, acidic Estella. To this end, Pip acts poorly in society, goes in hock to his creditors, and spars with Bentley Drummle for Estella’s affections. Of course, this being a Dickens novel, there is a lot more swirling about.

Everywhere you look, there are colorful satellite characters who seem all the more lively for orbiting Pip. (Though unlikeable at times, Pip is mostly dull. Mainly, I attribute this to the first-person narrative. It is easy to look out onto the world, and harder to look inward. Thus, Pip is better at dramatizing the people he meets than in understanding himself). One of the typical Dickensian eccentrics Pip encounters is John Wemmick, a clerk for Mr. Jaggers. Wemmick lives in a house modeled after a castle and has a father, “The Aged P,” who has an affinity for firing off a cannon. There is also Herbert Pocket, who becomes friends with Pip, even though their relationship begins with near-fisticuffs. Pocket comes from a huge, dysfunctional family, that Dickens describes with apparent glee.

Though Great Expectations is not as long as David Copperfield or Bleak House, it sprawls enough to cause confusion. Character lists may become necessary. Of course, Dickens hates randomness, and it is worth bearing in mind that most of the people you meet, even the secondary personages, will tie back into the main story. In Dickens’ London, everybody knows everybody else, and all are ruled by the Gods of Coincidence.

Great Expectations involves a bit of a twist. I won’t assume you know the substance of this twist, the way Pip assumes the identity of his benefactor, so I will not spoil it. (If it is possible to spoil something published in 1861).

I feel like I have a hit-and-miss relationship with Dickens’ work. Usually, I’m a fan of big, messy epics. The bigger and messier the better. However, with regards to Dickens, I’ve found that I like his shorter, more economical stories (A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol) to his bursting-at-the-seams behemoths.

I think this has something to do with payoff. Usually, when you read a novel, it moves towards some sort of climax, a set piece of action or emotional upheaval and resolution. With Dickens, though, you are moving towards a lesson. He was a great moralizer and critic, and he used his novels as a canvas on which to make his points.

Great Expectations is no exception. It is a homily directed at a Victorian England stratified by class and family background, where station was defined even more by lineage than by wealth. Against this backdrop, young Pip goes out into the world, abandons his family and faithful old Joe, makes horribly inaccurate judgments about people, and finally learns that there is no place like home.

That’s all well and good, but not much of a reward for the days or weeks you devote to Great Expectations, especially when you can learn the same thing after two hours of The Wizard of Oz.

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02/03/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

How about a spoiler alert!

Matt I think the statute of limitations ran out after 100 years and 15 movies. But, I didn't tell you what happened to Magwitch...I'll leave that wonderful surprise for your enjoyment.

message 3: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer oh matt, its only because you haven't finished tale of two cities yet.
and yes i agree....i feel like i know this book without even read it

message 4: by Jon (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jon Michael "Great Expectations is prototypical Dickens: resoundingly lame central character; over-eccentric supporting characters; a labyrinth of a plot; endless digressions; and a crappy ending."

I agree with everything except the bit about the crappy ending. This is actually one of Dickens's greatest endings . . . subtly re-written (a few times) so as not to let you know what the real ending is. Are they together, or aren't they? A closer look tells you that it's impossible to determine! I love the ambiguity.

Matt Jon wrote: ""Great Expectations is prototypical Dickens: resoundingly lame central character; over-eccentric supporting characters; a labyrinth of a plot; endless digressions; and a crappy ending."

I agree wi..."


I think a lot of my disappointment with the ending comes from the fact that I struggled to maintain interest in everything leading up to it. Thus, when I got to the final pages, I needed something a bit more. This is less a literary critique than my own psychology at play.

Usually I'm a great fan of ambiguity, since it more resembles life. But I guess I didn't sense that Dickens was going for studied ambiguity, in the same way David Chase did with the last scene in The Sopranos. To me, it felt like a wishy-washy ambiguity, as though Dickens just didn't know how to close his masterpiece.

But I think you have a better grasp of Great Expectations than I do. I'll admit, I didn't give it a closer look. I read it more out of an obligation to my past self, the self that refused to read the book in high school like I was supposed to.

message 6: by Jon (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jon Michael Ha-ha! Well that is totally cool -- no worries. Your "crappy ending" comment just gave me the chance to riff a little bit.

Dickens isn't a 5-star for everyone and I totally get that . . . but I do think a lot of the reason people shy away from him precisely has to do with that point you make about your "past self." I think kids get exposed to Dickens too early (in high school) and it sets a bad taste in their mouths that literally lasts a lifetime. It's also a matter of "kids" these days (and from our generation) not really being up to the snuff of Dickens because of modern distractions. It's hard to read a 900-page novel these days, no doubt about it!

Katie Thank God I'm not the only one. If this review didn't include the word 'Twilight', I'd already be painting my picket sign 'I'm not a big fan of most classics' or something catchy and non-committal like that, and joining you.

Kaeleah I disagree with you for the most part, however I'm on the verge of a marriage proposal due to your amazingly articulate, beautiful, and cleverly written review. Thank you for a most enjoyable few moments of reading this review!

Dana I was going to read your review, but the prodigious length seemed needlessly excruciating.

message 10: by Ruth (new) - added it

Ruth I love this book, but I certainly appreciate your candor. If Dickens weren't so funny in his inexhaustible prose, his novels would be deadly-dull, but there's the point. The prose is brilliant and like some, I enjoy losing myself in the words. I also love Shakespeare, so I guess there's no accounting for taste. :)

message 11: by Sara (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sara I did like Great Expectations and your review made me laugh. I am going to have to read your review of Moby Dick. Since I have never read it, I doubt you could offend me. Your one sentence comment about it here is hysterical.

Arturo It's true the book is much better than the review!

message 13: by Somerandom (new)

Somerandom I completely agree about the conspiracy theory. Those evil lit snobs! Well, they will not keep out this rapscallion. I shall devour all the classics I can so as to represent the Riff Raff in their stupid Guild. *evil laugh*

message 14: by Matt (new) - rated it 3 stars

Matt Somerandom wrote: "I completely agree about the conspiracy theory. Those evil lit snobs! Well, they will not keep out this rapscallion. I shall devour all the classics I can so as to represent the Riff Raff in their ..."

A sleeper agent! I like it! You'll be the literary version of Homeland.

message 15: by Somerandom (new)

Somerandom Matt wrote: "Somerandom wrote: "I completely agree about the conspiracy theory. Those evil lit snobs! Well, they will not keep out this rapscallion. I shall devour all the classics I can so as to represent the ..."


Rebecca Allen The novel being written in first person doesn't make it 'prototypical Dickens' - the only other novel he writes completely in first person is David Copperfield.

And I'm pretty sure 'lower classes' (whatever that means) can enjoy classic literature... :S

Eliot As a high school English teacher, writer, and reader I agree with both your reasons for typically not liking classics. But still, I would like to tease out some nuances that will perhaps add some perspective to those two points.

You argue that classics are no good because a) English majors conspire to have an elitist club that excludes others, and b) just because a book is difficult to read doesn't make it brilliant/excellent books can be easy to read and accessible to the masses.

As a young teacher of literature (I've only been at it for a few years), one of my biggest goals is to get most of my students to have one or two "aha" reading experiences that will resonate into adulthood. If this happens, and a novel connects deeply with a kid before they finish school, that is really the only reason I see them continuing to pursue an active reading life throughout adulthood. I am constantly lending books and suggesting books to my students. Diverse books, contemporary fiction, nonfiction, science, short stories, poetry, etc.

Sometimes their aha moments come from reading classics in class, and other times, they come from reading YA lit, like John Green's stuff. However they got that intense connection with a book is fine with me. Without it, they will never pick up books on their own. I firmly feel that there is a book out there for every person. More English teachers should have this goal in mind as they teach. I only have this mindset because I was taught to be able to do this by my literacy education professors in college.

Also, classics outside of the 20th century have never been my thing. Overly difficult novels from anytime put me off. I am partial to the concise, impressionistic, modern novel, not epic behemoths from the 19th century and backwards. (Perhaps, my first important reading experience was Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls). Yet, as I have read more and more of what I have wanted to, and as a reader read increasingly more difficult works throughout college and afterward, I found myself ready to look back to some of the classics. Because of this, I am reading Great Expectations now. That's obviously how I saw your review.

And, as a qualifier, with the vast amount of literature out there, "classics" as a term for books everyone should read, will soon go away, due to sheer volume. And no English major who immediately begins to talk about Dostoevsky without first openly asking, "What do you like to read?" is the philistine. Those people are hiding in their imaginary, elitist clubs and are loved by no one in real life.

Also, I feel that as a culture we are coming to terms with the fact that important classics are perhaps not well written at all, and are propped up with social merit, innovative merit, or some other highfalutin' reason. Think, Uncle Tom's Cabin or Frankenstein. (I've taught both of those.) I think awareness of this is a movement away from bias in selecting books for curriculum.

To clarify my point: If a person reads a book that connects with them, and they are thus motivated to keep reading more and more difficult or various books, and every few books, they connect deeply with one, they will eventually work up to connecting with and loving difficult classics. This doesn't necessarily make them a pretentious asshole or show off. It just means a person's past reading experiences dictate their future reading experiences.

I agree that your two complaints are true some of the time, but I also think that a person can have a deep connection to a difficult, classic novel without being a stilted, pretentious ass.

message 18: by Somerandom (new)

Somerandom Eliot wrote: "As a high school English teacher, writer, and reader I agree with both your reasons for typically not liking classics. But still, I would like to tease out some nuances that will perhaps add some p..."

I do believe, good sir, that the idea that only snooty elitists will be able to enjoy classics was very tongue in cheek quip about those select few who gush over every piece of literature from the past. Probably just a funny way of saying, most classics are verbose.

message 19: by Paula (new) - added it

Paula oh so true. well, all the stuff about classics anyway. I was too lazy to read what might be considered a verbose review of a book that totally disappointed (as I find most classics do)

Kathy Your review makes me want to finish this.....I was about to give up!

message 21: by Somerandom (last edited Jul 22, 2014 11:05PM) (new)

Somerandom Paula wrote: "oh so true. well, all the stuff about classics anyway. I was too lazy to read what might be considered a verbose review of a book that totally disappointed (as I find most classics do)"

Ahh, but verboseness is merely a more abstract English and can serve as a wallowing pit of sorts. To swim in the words of Dickens is but a step to take if you wish to bask in the perverseness/dirtiness that is Chaucer and Shakespeare. Now I am someone who is exceedingly lazy, but even so that is a tidbit too tasty to ignore.

message 22: by Henry (last edited Apr 04, 2015 07:52AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Henry Le Nav I love your reviews. You have this amazing ability to describe exactly what I feel about a book better than I could describe it.

I love the conspiracy theory. You are absolutely correct the classics and stuff like Beowulf, Shakespeare, and poetry are definitely the keys to a club that wanted those of my ilk to remain firmly in the camp that regarded the works of Ian Fleming as high art and the sound track to Goldfinger as an orchestral masterpiece. This stuff also exists to give Jeopardy players (and Alex with the wisdom of the ages through his magical earpiece) this grandiose intelligence. These people can tell you the color of Othello's bedroom but often have no idea what a quark is, none-the-less I am sufficiently cowed to realize what stupid bastard I am when these folks answer arcane questions about Broadway plays that I have never heard of. That and the fact that I am pretty sure that the producers are shaving out time slices between the end of the question and the pressing of the signaling button, and maybe between the signal button and the answer (take the number of questions on Jeopardy, 60, and multiply them by 500 milliseconds and by jove you got yourself time for another 30 second commercial) has me convinced that I am ready for the home.

But here is the thing, that conspiracy is not limited to the classics and English majors. You are obviously a clever guy (you graduated from law school) but I faced these very same cabals in math, music, and foreign languages. Why was problem 1 a + a = _____ and problem 3 a little harder, and so forth up to problem 13 which then was something on the order of sin(a) + log(3a) - 6 (cos(13a/7) + a^3-sqr(a/3)=________. Yep I followed the problems fine up to problem 9, then 11 got kind of hard, and 13 was written in Chinese. I had a math teacher at community U tell me that my presence in this institution was denying a more deserving student a spot and that I should immediately quit college and join the military. Well gee if I am that stupid, I probably should have got a draft deferment--this moron is going to get someone killed.

In 7th grade, the agent for the cabal in music gave the class a 5 minute prediction of my future life in the gutter or prison based on my inability to properly identify a G clef. She was almost right, my wife saved me from the gutter. Prison was a bit ambitious for me. It wasn't until I took a music appreciation class (because it was cake) in college, that I realized that I do have a love for some classical music. I didn't have to carry a tune singing such hits as the Ash Grove or Fifteen Years on The Eire Canal, or know the difference between a half note and quarter note. This is Beethoven's 5th. This is Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade. Yes cake, but also enjoyable.

In 10th grade the agent from Spanish said “From now on this class will be conducted only in Espanol.” It was the only sentence that I understood for the entire year.

Anyhow when I was in junior high and high school, I was forced to read Great Expectations 137 times. Oh wait that part of my life only spanned 6 years. Only 6! Wow, it seemed much longer. OK maybe I only read it three times. It seemed every year we read Great Expectation yet again. Yes it saved us from Silas Marner or Dostoyevsky but still at that age Great Expectations would bad one time around.

Having arrived at the threshold of the golden (plated) years, I am feeling the first cool breezes of my mortality blowing on my neck, and decided now that I had a Kindle Fire that can narrate an Audible book and display the text in a Kindle book simultaneously (Amazon calls it immersion reading and they often cut substantial discounts on Audible books if you buy the Kindle book first especially on the classics), that along with all the other crap I read I should throw in a few classics. So I tried Jane Eyre. Grand success. With the narration and reading at the same time, I found that after a short adjustment to the fussy language, hey you can actually enjoy these books! So OK, let’s try Great Expectations. Jane Eyre was a paragon of brevity and clarity in comparison. But still with the narration, and a huge adjustment for fussy and murky language not bad.

I have often read that Dickens was paid by the word, I believe this. Reading a Dickens novel is something like taking a cab from Washington Square in Manhattan to Central Park and you find yourself riding about Brooklyn and Queens. Yeah you are really out of your way, but wow, did you get a tour of the city.

Well one nice thing about reading the classics as an adult, you don't have to write a theme paper about it.

Great review Matt, as always. Oh yes, I agree entirely that the statute of limitations for spoilers on any book that you can buy for 99 cents at Amazon has probably expired last century.

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