2012 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of British novelist Charles Dickens, one of the best loved writers of all time. To celebrate the event - as well as to give myself an excuse to delve into some really fine literature - I decided to revisit one of his novels. The one that I chose was Great Expectations, a book that I had read in high school approximately fifty years ago. Re-reading Great Expectations was, as I knew it would be, truly a treat!
Charles Dickens had a knack for creating memorable characters. Ebeneezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim were all products of his fertile imagination, as were David Copperfield, Uriah Heep, Oliver Twist, Fagin, and the Artful Dodger. His three most remarkable characters in Great Expectations are Pip, the central figure, Magwich, a hard-luck type who spends most of his life in jail, and Miss Havisham, an eccentric old lady for whom time is stuck on the day that she was left standing alone at the altar.
Pip has two significant encounters as a very young boy when he is living with his shrewish adult sister and her husband, Joe, the village blacksmith. The first is with an escaped convict, later identified as Magwich, who comes across Pip in a marshy cemetery where the lad is visiting the graves of his parents. The convict convinces Pip, primarily through fear, to return home and get him some food and a file so that he can rid himself of his manacles.
The second encounter is shortly after that when Pip is selected to visit in Miss Havisham's home and to socialize with her pretty adopted daughter, Estella. The townspeople know Miss Havisham is strange, though none are ever permitted in to see her. The fact that Pip is allowed to gain access to the house and to visit with the old recluse gives him a certain amount of standing within the community. Over the next couple of years he spends many hours with Miss Havisham and Estella - and comes to have feelings for the young girl.
(Miss Havisham lives in her old family home where she was to have been married years earlier. The groom didn't show, and she is still wearing her wedding dress, though it is now yellowed and ragged. The table in the dining room supports what is left of the rotted wedding cake which has fed generations of rodents. She has had all of the windows in the house boarded up so that she never sees daylight, and all of the clocks were stopped at the time planned for the wedding. And although Miss Havisham is quite creepy, she and Pip form a tight bond with one another.)
Pip's plan in life is to become apprenticed to his brother-in-law, Joe, and to become a blacksmith. While Pip's adult sister, Mrs. Joe, is hard to like, Joe is the epitome of kindness and is a both a good parent figure and a good friend to Pip.
Pip enters into the apprenticeship with Joe, but he also works at becoming educated in the event that he is one day in a position to win the hand of Estella. But before he gets too far down either path, he is confronted with a new situation. A lawyer from London comes to the village and informs Pip that he has come into some great expectations. A benefactor who desires to remain anonymous for the time being, has set aside a great deal of money to educate Pip and turn him into a gentleman. Pip is transported to London where he can be under more direct supervision of the lawyer, and he is given a room in the household of one of Miss Havisham's relatives.
Great Expectations is, to a large extent, a morality tale. A young person who has grown up very poor suddenly has plenty of money. How does he handle it, and what lessons does he learn about life and friendship in the process?
As with all things Dickens, there are numerous sub-plots in this novel, and all kinds of coincidental relationships that tie the characters together in strange ways back through the years. And almost all of the characters have some degree of like-ability. As I finished the novel, I realized that most of the people I encountered within its pages had become friends of mine. That aspect alone made it well worth the time that I invested in working my way through its many pages
Great Expectations, as with most works of Charles Dickens, is a very satisfying read. It is comfort food for the soul.