Tuesday, 23 May 2000

Charles Dickens: Great Expectations (1861)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 508

Great Expectations is one of Dickens' shortest and best known novels, nine-tenths of it is also one of his best. The elements that made Dickens famous are all here with the exception (to a great extent) of social commentary. A young boy grows up in an atmospheric environment (the bleaker parts of the Kent countryside); he becomes involved with strange grotesque characters. It is perhaps rather more aimless than most of Dickens' novels; rather than achieving happiness through his own exertions, Pip has little to do except to be idle and expensive once adopted by an unknown benefactor.

The important character in the book is not its nominal hero, but one of the grotesques, who are not usually allowed more than a cameo role by Dickens. Miss Havisham dominates most of the book, by her patronage of Pip (real and imagined) and Pip's love for her protegé Estella. It is from the point of her death that Dickens seems to lose interest in the novel, wrapping the whole thing up in a few unsatisfying chapters. She is such a wonderful character that Dickens' fascination with her is easy to understand. Twisted by having been left at the altar, she has kept her house exactly as it was on the day of the wedding, with years of decay turning Satis House into a Gothic mausoleum, even the wedding breakfast being allowed to rot where it sits. She has brought up Estella to be the means of her revenge on the male sex - fascinating but heartless.

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