am 27. April 2010
Unfortunately, monotheistic religions, for some reason or other, seem to be quite reluctant when it comes to giving the pig its due, irrespective of all the crunchy potential of this bountiful creature in the form of fried bacon or roast pork. Mr. Wopsle, to whom we are indebted for the quotation above, in this vein, deems it quite appropriate to ponder on the dangers of a young boy's being pampered and degenerating towards ingratitude and gross sensuality, while he himself is actually partaking of a dish of fine hog roast, and Uncle Pumblechook, this servile hypocrite, dutifully backs him up - in both enterprises. This Christmas dinner is one of the finest comic scenes in Charles Dickens's novel "Great Expectations" (1861).
Dickens was already a well-established author and editor at the time of writing this novel, and for all his fame and popularity likewise had experienced some fears of his old star being about to wane, what with Thackery's appealing to the genteel readers and with social problems also being treated by the Brontës, George Eliot and Mrs. Gaskell. The happy-go-lucky days of Pickwick, Nickleby and Little Nell were long over. When sales of Dickens's magazine "All the Year Round" were dropping alarmingly, due to the public's lack of interest in the serialization of a novel by Charles Lever, the Inimitable himself stepped into the breach with "Great Expectations", a novel that showed a new Dickensian quality - that of drawing life-like, full-dimensional characters instead of mere caricatures.
The story centres around the orphan boy Pip, who grows up in his virago sister's household on the marshes near a town that is easily recognizable as Rochester. One day, this young boy is threatened into helping an escaped convict, and from this day on his existence changes, which is, first of all, noticeable in his awakening sense of guilt. Some time later, he is taken to the secluded place of Miss Havisham, a bitter old lady who was jilted in her youth and who raises her beautiful ward, Estella, in the spirit of taking revenge on the male sex by making her break everybody's heart. Pip soon falls in love with this cruel and haughty girl. When he suddenly learns that he has an unknown benefactor and that he is to move to London and become a gentleman, the case is clear to him: Miss Havisham must have singled him out to become a worthy husband for Estella. Very quickly, Pip's character changes, and soon he thinks himself above the company of Joe Gargery, a simple blacksmith and his foster-father, and Biddy, the only childhood friends he had. One day, however, the truth about his benefactor's identity is disclosed, and all of a sudden he finds himself in a whirlwind of remorse, danger and guilt.
Although in some respects "Great Expectations" is similar to "David Copperfield", one of my least-favoured novels by Dickens, I would consider this work of fiction as one of the Inimitable's finest achievements. There is a lot of humour, especially in the first third of the book, which thrives on Dickens's childhood memories, and it is peopled with all sorts of memorable caricatures, such as brazen Uncle Pumblechook, hapless Mr. Wopsle, the walnut-shell faced Sarah Pocket, and the audacious Trabb's boy. Yet, there are also more complex characters: Miss Havisham may be a freak, but behind the façade of madness there is deep suffering; Estella may be cool and cold-hearted, but she is the victim of a cruel education; Mr. Jaggers, the seemingly unfeeling lawyer, may be a jaundiced man, but not altogether an evil one; there may be a business-like Wemmick, but there is also a private-life one, and let's not forget about the touching death scene of Mrs. Joe Gargery, as recounted by Biddy. And there is Pip, the first-person narrator, who is warped by his promising prospects, and who has to re-learn how to behave with decency and kindness.
This, to me, seems to be the major idea of "Great Expectations": It does not take a title, nor money, nor just manners to make a gentleman - as can be seen from the example of Pip's rival for Estella, Bentley Drummle, who actually has no manners, because he has no heart -, but it takes the potential for affection, sympathy, and friendship to entitle you to this epithet. Pip's moral rise becomes most obvious in his decision to provide for his friend Herbert and in his change of feelings for his unexpected benefactor.
Unlike "A Tale of Two Cities", this brilliant tale is fired with all the sparks of Dickens's unique imagination, which is even capable of bringing to life the casts of the faces of two convicts that serve as sinister ornaments in Jaggers's London offices and of giving a waterside man "a slushy voice, as if much mud had washed into his throat".
All in all, "Great Expectations" shows Dickens at his best, and may be recommended as a good first-read to anyone interested in getting to know this non-pareil author.