Review: Great Expectations (Part 1)

13 01 2008

I have a confession to make. I have a graduate English degree and I have never – repeat never – read anything by Charles Dickens.

I don’t know why it make me feel ashamed to admit it. It just seems wrong that not one, not two, but three English departments let me escape their clutches without reading a single work by Dickens. There are other writers I feel like I should have read, but Mr. Dickens looms large above them.

It’s not that I haven’t been exposed to Dickens. I’ve watch several adaptations and loved every one, particularly Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House, and there are at least five of his books sitting on the bookshelf, but I’ve never chosen to pick one up.

That changed with the “My Year of Reading Dangerously” challenge. January’s book is Great Expectations and I stated before I was really looking forward to it as my first exposure to Dickens (in the written form) and also because of my recent reading of Mr. Pip.

I’m going to complete the review in sections – one for each of the major parts. I finished Part One a week ago, but with a wisdom tooth being pulled and prep for my new teaching position, the review had fallen by the way-side. But better late than never.

What surprised me most was how quickly things got started. I know the basic plot from the 1998 movie – though I must admit it isn’t a real favourite of mine – but I thought I would settle more into Pip’s world before the action got going. But no, a couple of pages I was right in the middle of Pip’s encounter with the convict.

I’ve wondered several times as I’ve been reading whether my knowledge of the plot has ruined this element of the book. I wonder if I would have been able to figure out the secret behind Pip’s windfall and benefactor. But I’m getting ahead of myself, that seems more suited to thoughts on Part Two of the novel.

I felt initially that I had found a twin soul in Pip, particularly when he reflects on his bondage to Joe and his work and how the instant it happens he longs for something more, how the moment he is locked in, he begins to wish it could be otherwise. And perhaps it was that initial connection that made me feel so disappointed in the way he then treats Joe and Biddy, and my hope that he can redeem himself and overcome his “shame of home.”

It was the scenes with Miss Havisham when the book really came alive for me though, in the decrepited, aging old mansion – it and she trapped in the past. And Estella. I’m not quite sure what I think of Estella, but I am most fascinated by the relationship and bond between her and Miss Haversham and the type of female community – however destructive it might be to them both – that they form together than by any other relationship in the novel. And going back to that female community or bond for a moment, I am curious about why Pip is admitted or allowed to witness it. And I was struck by this from Estella and Miss Havisham’s first conversation about Pip:

“With this boy! Why he is a common labouring boy!”

I thought I overhead Miss Havisham answer – only it seemed so unlikely – “Well? You can break his heart.” (58)

More thoughts to come soon on Part Two.

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