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 latter 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 evolves 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 in 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 his mistakes. Great Expectations is fully satisfying. I was tempted to begin again immediately upon finishing, but I’ve decided to wait a while first.