“We need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are … overlying our hard hearts.”
-Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Although Dickens was a prolific writer throughout his life and produced some of English literature’s most beloved novels, Great Expectations is arguably the greatest of Dickens’s works simply because it gives a solid survey of Dickens’s literary trademarks: biting satire and treatment of Victorian social issues. While the last Dickensian novel that I reviewed, A Tale of Two Cities, was an allegory disguised as a tale of the French Revolution, Great Expectations is a Bildungsroman (coming-of-age story) disguised as an analysis of Victorian society. As a social critic, Dickens yearned to give a voice for the poor and often did so in the form of literature. Naturally, the depiction of some of the characters will leave some readers emotionally disturbed, just because of Dickens’s shocking insights of Victorian society.
The story centers around Philip Pirrip, nicknamed “Pip”, a orphaned boy who is born into a working-class family in an English village and raised by his sister and her husband, Joe, the village blacksmith. After a terrifying experience with a convict in a graveyard, he finds himself with the crazy and embittered Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella, with whom he falls in love. Pip’s life continues as normal until he receives a fortune from a secret benefactor, and he decides to move to London to seek a better life. He cultivates expectations for a life that enables him to leave his impoverished background and mingle with the upper class. As Pip struggles to integrate with the upper class and is tormented by Estella, he begins to understand the truth about himself.
Although I’ve mentioned this already, I’ll say it again: Dickens has crafted a shocking analysis of Victorian society. I’m not kidding one bit. For example, the imbalanced class structure really took me aback because, while the majority of the population of mid-nineteenth century England consisted of the working class, its members were often social outcasts and often subject to exploitation due to their lack of wealth. It was the aristocrats and upper middle class that owned the majority of the wealth, and if you were not wealthy, then you were essentially a social reject. Thus, Dickens astonishingly captures the materialism of Victorian England. Pip’s unexpected rise from poor to affluent is a symbolism of our expectations and how they might initially fail, but will eventually succeed.
I would recommend this book to people who like British literature, social justice, unexpected plot twists, and classics. I read the Barnes and Noble Classics edition, which contains an excellent introduction by Radhika Jones that expounds on the historical context and plot, and notes that do a good job in elucidating parts of the text when necessary while not being overly grandiloquent.