Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations | [Charles Dickens]Summary: A Classic novel about wanting what is not good for you.

For some reason that I can’t really explain, I always have felt I did not like Charles Dickens.  But the only two books that I can remember reading of Dickens (Great Expectations and The Tale of Two Cities) I liked. Maybe it is like feeling like you do not like a food, but never actually trying it.

Like many classics, I was first exposed to Great Expectations as an abridged children’s book.  I am pretty sure I read at least one additional abridgement in high school or college (not for school but pleasure) but I think this is the first time I have read the whole book.

With so many versions of the story in my head (I have seen at least one if not two of the movies in addition to probably two abridged versions), the basic story is not a surprise.  Simon Vance (as always) did an admirable job narrating the audiobook.  And like many classics, I think it could have easily been cut by at least a third without a problem.  But according to Wikipedia, Dickens originally intended it to be twice as long, but his publisher restrained him. (Thank goodness).

The basic story is familiar.  Pip helps a convict escape as a young child.  And he is asked to come play with a girl and her deranged (but rich) adopted mother, Miss Havisham.  Later, Pip is approached by a lawyer and told a benefactor is going to make him into a gentleman, but he can not know the benefactor until the benefactor reveals themselves to him.  Pip assumes it is the crazy rich woman and goes to London leaving his kindly brother in law that is raising him (and his now incapacitated but cruel sister) behind with nary a thought.

With lots of money but not a not a lot of sense, Pip lives the high life with a good friend.  He is still in love with the girl, Estella, who was always beautiful but heartless.  As he ages he is influenced by a cast of characters, some good and some not as good.  Eventually his benefactor reveals himself as the escaped convict, and not Miss Havisham as he had always assumed.  His hopes are dashed.  Both because he is ashamed of his benefactor and because he had always assumed that Miss Havisham had desired that he and Estella were to be married as part of him being remade into a gentleman.

The problem with the convict coming back is that he is still wanted and through many threads coming together, there are people around Pip that know the convict and want to see him face execution.

In many ways this is a morality play similar to Les Miserable.  The convict has made good, has changed his ways, has helped to raise a child to make up for his past wrongs.  It is also a coming of age story that seems to draw on the prodigal son and early romance stories, warning the reader to be content with their station and not seek after what they cannot have.

This is a classic of the best sort however.  It is a true story of being thankful for the simple things in life (or else everything else will fall down around your ears.)  I don’t remember reading many classic books with so many threads that seemed to all come together in the end.  Maybe that was more common than I am aware but it is definitely one of the things I either didn’t remember from previous versions or were edited out of the abridgements.

I have seen the 1998 movie with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke and it deserves its low ratings.  I looked around for a free way to watch the 2013 version, but couldn’t find it.  I did watch part of a 2013 stage version.  But it was dark in ways that I am not sure is true to the story (although it is technically true to the story.)  I gave up after about 30 minutes.

The 1946 version is available on youtube and it is both true to the story and seemed to keep the spirit of the work and was quite well done (and can be seen free) but it did play with the ending a bit.  More problematic was that it squeezed the timeline of the story so that it felt like things happened one after another instead of the years between some of the scenes.  And that made the movie feel a bit less weighty than the book.

And it always seems that movies try to play with the content of books and somehow seem to make the stories less important.  Maybe it is the nature of cinema, but it is a rare movie that is better than its book.

Great Expectations Purchase Links: Free Kindle Edition, $0.99 Audible Audiobook (with purchase of free kindle edition), 1946 Movie (youtube)

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