© 1861 Charles Dickens
A chance encounter with a desperate and threatening convict in the dark marshes near his home, followed by an inexplicable invitation to a reclusive spinster’s home, creates for young Pip an unexpected adolescence. Pip is an orphan, a boy who lives with his weary and frequently abusive sister and her ironmonger-with-a-heart-of-gold husband, Joe. The two events are not as random as they appear, with connections that will be exposed throughout this story of Pip’s young life as he grows into a twenty-something with a lot of mistakes behind him. More overtly pivotal is a third event, the arrival of a lawyer who announces to Pip that someone, somewhere, has taken an interest in him with the intention of making him into a gentleman. There is more to being gentle, however, than having money.
When I think of Dickens, I think of dirt — of miserable hovels, filthy laborers, dark streets filled with muck and offal, grimy oil lamps whose meager light masks even more despairing conditions. Great Expectations provides that amply, though not in the places to be expected. One of the more harrowing settings is the interior of a great house, Satis, which has been closed to the light and left to decay after a woman’s heartbreak. When Pip meets the woman, Miss Havisham, she is much aged, more through anguish than time. She is a woman utterly consumed by her grief, literally living in it: jilted by a fiance decades ago, she continues to wear a tattered bridal dress and lives in a room featuring the rotting remnant of her bridal feast. She proves to be a pivotal figure for Pip, not because she is the author of his (mis)fortune, but because she introduces him to someone who will be: her adopted daughter, Estella. Estella she has raised to be the ruin of men, a siren whose rocky core breaks their hearts like flimsy ships. Pip, is literally starstruck and will spend the entire book pining for her — accepting a mysterious fortune and reforming his manners and expectations to please her. For her, he will leave his sister and dear brother-in-law Joe behind; he will forget them entirely, ashamed of their tiny house and the dirty forge, their rough hands and woeful habit of referring to knaves as jacks within the card deck.
For all his being enraptured by Estella — who, to her credit, does attempt to warn him off repeatedly — Pip’s eyes are not so clouded that he doesn’t come to realize the mistakes he is making. Eventually the person who has been providing him this mysterious fortune appears, and there are complications — creditors and men waiting at the gallows, desperate attempts at escape and plans foiled. Pip will have to be rescued by some of the people he has left behind, and this time is properly ashamed — not of them, but of his own cretinous behavior. The ending doesn’t have the resolution I would expect — a man rescued, the girl gotten — but it’s truer for that, given that every thing has its cost. Great Expectations was an utterly riveting story. I approached it with dread, having started it last year and then fallen off the track, but this year I couldn’t put it down. I was ever surprised by Dickens’ humor. I expect his work to be Very Serious dramas about the plight of orphans and the poor and such, but there’s giggle-bits everywhere, from the characters to the narration. There’s even a fart joke. (For shame, Dickens!) One bit of whimsy is a character directly and consistently referring to his senile father as The Aged Parent. Expectations brims over with remarkable characters, most notably the haunted Havisham and the extraordinary Magwitch, Although I still have my sentimental attachment to A Christmas Carol, Expectations definitely deserves its status as Dickens’ best. Well over a century and a half after its publication, the story still resonates.