Given my recent emphasis on Victorian Literature, I don’t think it would surprise you to know I’ve enjoyed all the Charles Dickens novels I’ve read thus far. A Christmas Carol (discussed here) is one I have read regularly during the holidays since I was a teenager, and while I didn’t love the other Christmas novellas, my recent readings of Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities were both enjoyable experiences, although the later was not a favorite.
But from the very beginning, when a young boy in a graveyard meets a stranger in irons one Christmas Eve, I was hooked on Great Expectations (first published 1860-1861). From that first scene, it began to be a new favorite novel. I found that I wanted to read slower so the unfolding story would be prolonged and thus the intense enjoyment of the unknown would be extended. That didn’t quite happen: I couldn’t wait to keep reading and I read the book quickly.
As with Dickens’ other novels, the plot of Great Expectations revolves around conveniences. From the perspective of the poor young orphan Pip, Dickens follows his experiences as he comes into money and becomes a “gentleman.” Characters return when least expected and everything ties together nicely in the end. But such conveniences make a tidy novel, and I loved how in Great Expectations I knew that nothing was to be taken for granted. It was not just well crafted but completely enjoyable.
I was quite interested by the role of money in Victorian England, and since Great Expectations dealt with a poor boy who becomes rich, it was especially apparent in this novel. As with the other Victorian books I read this summer, there was a large economic disparity among the people. For the poor, 25 pounds was a fortune. Some only made 50 pounds in a year. On the other hand, for the rich, five hundred pounds was easily spent without too much guilt, for it was readily available (to some extent). Victorian England, then, seemed full of inequalities. Pip’s experiences carefully illustrated those differences.
As a coming-of-age story, Great Expectations at times frustrated me. Even though I could understand Pip’s reactions, I didn’t want to like him, for example, as he forgot his simple but dear brother-in-law Joe Gargery, who had cared for him during the hard times. It was impossible not to like Pip, though, for he was a universal “everyman” making choices that may be similar to those I would have made, faults and all. All comes full circle, and Pip learns from mistakes. Great Expectations is fully satisfying. I was tempted to begin again immediately upon finishing, but I’ve decided to wait a while first.
Author Lloyd Jones obviously enjoys Charles Dickens and the novel Great Expectations in particular. But his novel Mister Pip (published 2006) even more celebrates the power of the written word and story in our everyday life. Matilda is a teenager on a small forgotten Pacific island that is ravaged by Civil War. Pop Eye (aka Mr Watts), the last white man on the island, steps in to teach the school and does so by reading the children Great Expectations every day. As the children on the island immerse themselves in the foreign world of Victorian London, they find that Pip’s story in a distant and unknown world helps them cope through the horrors of their daily life.
The situations the islanders face are horrific: one should be aware that the book contains brutality and rape in it, albeit tactfully written about (if such subjects are actually able to be carefully approached, I think he did so). Yet Pip’s coming-of-age story was a comfort to the children in the school, and when life got too hard for these children who had nothing, they could mentally escape to Victorian London and ponder Pip’s plight. The Mister Pip of the title could refer to their teacher (Mr Watts) or Matilda and the other children. He was their “everyman”
If the novel has a fault, it is that it ends rather abruptly. I was not satisfied with the last fifty pages of Matilda’s story, as Lloyd Jones parallels her story to Pip’s. But as I mentioned, the majority of the book focused on the power of story, and I loved that. If you likewise appreciate the power of story in helping one find peace, you may enjoy Mister Pip. You should read Great Expectations first, however, as Mister Pip is full of Dickens’s plot details.
I enjoyed Mister Pip for the most part, but I won’t be returning to it. No, when I next feel the craving, I want to be taken away to Victorian London in the pages of Dickens’s masterpiece: Great Expectations. Just like Matilda, I loved it.