Great Expectations (Review)

Labels: Great Works

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Great Expectations
Charles Dickens, 1860
560 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
November 2006

Poor boy. With a name like Pip, no wonder this novel's hero dreams of grandiosity.

The title refers to the large inheritance a wealthy young man expects to receive one day, ensuring a life of gentlemanly leisure. But Pip hails from the lower classes so has no such "expectations"— until one day, one mysteriously drops into his lap.

Broadly, the story follows 7-year-old Pip, orphaned and living with his sister and her blacksmith husband in a Kent village. This is some of the funniest writing in the book. But Pip's contentment is shattered when he visits wealthy Miss Havisham and becomes enamored of her adopted daughter, Estella.

From that point on, Pip feels shame for his lowly status and becomes obsessed with winning Estella. But Estella, haughty, even cruel, is unattainable—the cold, distant "star" in Pip's life, the single brilliant point to which he directs all his actions.

Ultimately, Pip comes to learn that a person's true worth has nothing to do with wealth and status and everything to do with loyalty and inner goodness. Like Dicken's David Copperfield, this is a coming-of-age story (a bildungsroman), narrated by an older, wiser man who traces the maturation of his younger self.

Great Expectations is populated with starkly funny characters, the most famous of which is Miss Havisham, often parodied in other works—both book and film. Vile and hilarious, Miss Havisham was jilted at the altar years ago. In angry protest, she has remained in her now-tattered wedding gown, wearing only a single shoe (she had been just about to slip on the second shoe when she got word her groom had run off). The wedding breakfast sits decaying on the table, and the clocks forever read 8:40. Miss Havisham represents one of literature's most powerful emblems of aristocratic decay and corruption—a class trapped in time, unwilling to move forward.

Dickens wrote two endings for the book, changing his original to make the conclusion more pleasing to his audience. Most editions now include both versions, and a good case can be made for either one. In fact, here's a good discussion topic: which ending do you prefer and why?

See our Reading Guide for Great Expectations.

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