Sunday, March 29, 2009

Not so Great Expectations – Great Expectations

It’s strange how differently Charles Dickens is viewed. Some people find that his work is the very definition of LITERATURE. Others think that he is moralizing, over the top and over-rated. I’ve even heard some people refer to him as the Frank Capra of novels (this coming from people who dislike Capra). Where do I stand?

Well I’ve only read two things by Mr. Dickens that I remember. My freshmen year in high schoool was comprised of reading “Great Expectations” and in my freshman year in University I read “Hard Times”. Ironically “Hard Times” is exactly how I’d describe the experience of reading both novels. I remember watching a couple of versions of “Great Expectations” to help me get a handle on what the story was about.

I also vividly remembered the names of the characters: Pip, Joe, Magwitch, Miss Havisham and Estella. I remembered the basics of the plot, where Pip met the convict, helped him out. Then he met mad old Miss Havisham, and fell in love with Estella. Then he was given a huge amount of money and assumed it was given to him by Havisham, so he could grow up to be worthy of the haughty Estella. After that things got a bit fuzzy.

Well since I have been revisiting some novels I had been forced to read in my youth and found myself enjoying them, I decided to pick up “Great Expectations” again. This might have had something to do with it being December and I had seen three different versions of “A Christmas Carol” but that can be open to debate. Either way I sought out the book and started in.

I was surprised in equal measure at the things I remembered and the plot elements I had forgotten. It made it an interesting read to say the least. Did I enjoy it? I think I did. It took a little while to get into Dicken’s style, and much of it had to do with the style of the times. But he did something intriguing that actually added to the experience.

The novel is narrated by an older and wiser Pip. He tells us of his youth and is basically explaining how he became the man he is now. The funny thing is, we never get a clear scene with Pip as he is now. In fact the only way you can glean anything of his present day mind set is by his response to the memories of his youth. From this we can see that man telling the story is quite different from the arrogant youth of the story.

We end up with a complete journey for Pip but in a unique way. His actions dictate his character (as occurs in all good fiction) but the response of the older Pip define the man’s character. It was interesting and was very effective. As a reader, when Pip behaves like an ass, the older Pip will often declare younger Pip to be an ass and express shame at his actions. You continue the story to reach the point where Pip realizes that his actions aren’t the actions of a gentleman but the actions of a jerk. Only after Pip loses it everything does he realize what it means to be a gentleman.

As for the two endings, I think I prefer the revised ending. I know, blasphemy, but hear me out. Dickens doesn’t give Pip a happy ending, just the possibility of one. Him and Estella are very changed people, and their meeting at the end, even if it is a bit convenient is fitting. The original ending was rather abrupt and not as satisfying. Perhaps it was more realistic (a woman like Estella would get remarried) but in the end I think that for the novel the new ending offers Pip a small nugget of hope that his old dreams aren’t completely gone.

What do you think of Dickens? What do you think of Great Expectations? How about the endings?

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