Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Reading Challenge: A book from Oprah’s book club
This was a reading challenge item that stumped me for a while. I mean, have you seen Oprah’s book club list? If you’re going to be in her book club you’d better be a fan of family dramas/melodramas, or, creepily enough, kids’ books by Bill Cosby. There were a few on the list I’d read before, but most of the ones I hadn’t looked like a slog. Or I would have had to wait 9 months for at the library.
But then it occurred to me that I can do Dickens. Some people might find Dickens more challenging than Anita Shreve or Chris Bohjalian, but not everyone was raised in a family of anglophiles, watching Masterpiece Theater if we watched TV at all. Dickens is long-winded as only a Victorian novelist can be long-winded (it turns out he was not actually paid by the word, which is an urban legend that makes a lot of sense viewed from this century), but he speaks a language I was raised with. I’ve read a decent amount of Dickens, but it turns out I’ve actually never read Great Expectations. Also, bonus, it was available for free and I could read it on my phone.
I don’t think there’s anything I could possibly say about this book that hasn’t been said a million times before. It’s iconic. High school students by the millions have been assigned it. Pip and Magwitch may not be household names, but I think we can all agree Miss Havisham is floating in the cultural ether. That may also be why, at least in recent years, she’s been portrayed by a big-name actress while leads Pip and Estella are roles given to young unknowns or lesser-knowns. Miss Havisham, creepy, creepy Miss Havisham, you are famous.
So, like I said, I couldn’t possibly add anything to the cultural narrative around this book. But I can tell you why I liked it. Dickens was a guy who generally wrote his heroes, and especially his heroines, to be pure and selfless and obedient and uncomplicated. This is a huge pity because he did such a great job writing people who are flawed. The most interesting characters, the ones we remember, are the Miss Havishams, the Bill Sykeses, the Lady Dedlocks, the Sidney Cartons, and of course, with Christmas coming up, I have to mention Ebeneezer Scrooge.
I love the Muppet Christmas Carol more than words can say.
Anywho, this is a roundabout way of saying that I liked Great Expectations for its darkness. Pip is such a pompous little twit – that this is mainly the fault of the adults around him is clear, but it’s a reason, not an excuse – and he learns some hard lessons and falls a very, very long way before he comes out at the end. Estella, the beautiful and cold, also learns her lessons, but throughout the book has significantly more insight than Pip into why she is the way she is. She also doesn’t suffer the standard fate of complicated Dickens women and actually survives the book, so that’s a plus. And there are some delightful secondary characters: Wemmick and his Aged, for example, haven’t quite hit the mainstream, but I enjoyed them a lot and admired Wemmick’s skillful if drastic self-care routine. As far as the plot goes, sure, it relies heavily on coincidence (the convict is Estella’s father! The housekeeper is her mother! Miss Havisham has the same lawyer as the convict! NOT TO MENTION ORLICK…), but, you know, Dickens. It was a different time. Every era has its narrative conventions.
Now I think of it, I would happily welcome the return of the stupid coincidence if it meant we could do away with the gritty reboot.
After finishing the book I’m naturally curious to see one of the numerous adaptations (I saw the 1999 BBC adaptation back when it first aired, but as much as I’ve always enjoyed Justine Waddell she is all I remember about that version). I also felt, hey, this WOULD be an interesting story to adapt for contemporary times, but then I watched a preview for that 1998 version and changed my mind. The idea’s good, but the insistence on casting Ethan Hawke in things, not so much. Also 1990s Gwyneth Paltrow was beautiful but had this noodle-like quality that I can never get over. There are at least two more recent versions, though, and one or both of them may be worth a watch.
So we’ll see if I decide to venture into the film versions of this story, but now I’m just glad I read the original. Thanks, Oprah.
Recommended pairing: Oskar Blues Old Chub has a nice Dickensian sound to it, doesn’t it? Plus, Scottish Ale, very good for cold weather.