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The Book Club

Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations

1. Literature lessons and “Great Expectations. Back in High School and College, I was a literature student for six years; however, not only was “Great Expectations” my first interaction with a classic Charles Dickens text, the lessons I had with my literature teacher were also quite revolutionary. I am a sucker for plots, especially storylines that are packed with unexpected twists and turns, or are proliferated by thrilling cliff-hangers and climaxes. Naturally, prior to the “Great Expectations” experience, I primarily read thrillers, detective and crime fiction. The vast length of the novel, coupled by the enjoyable lessons with my teacher, opened my eyes to the vast characterisation of books, the assortment of minor-major themes, literary influences of texts et cetera. These revelations have had changed the way I read and interpret stories; and though my amateur perspectives pale in comparison to many critical commentaries and analyses, “Great Expectations” has inspired me to be more inquisitive and meticulous in my reading.

2. Significance of the narrative styles. Throughout the story, Pip is conveying the point of view of his younger self as a matured narrator; though he refrains from passing judgements about himself or the other characters. Respectively, he is merciless in exposing his faults, by allowing them to appear by the honesty of his narration rather than being overtly critical; and also invites the reader to evaluate the other characters based on their deeds and rhetoric. The impressions formed by the reader are convincing because they are born out of the interpretation of the words and actions of specific individuals. As well as presenting the child’s view of things, the adult narrator allows adult observations about the young Pip’s situation – a “framed” experience – such as the observation as to how going to church “must have been a moving spectacle for compassionate minds”.

3. Reading the bildungsroman. The backbone of the novel traces Pip’s learning journey from boyhood to adulthood, which simultaneously translates into a moral pilgrimage for Pip in which he eventually comes full circle. This learning experience is observed as Pip is initiated into adulthood through knowledge and experience – meeting Magwitch, interactions with Estella and Miss Havisham at Satis House, threat of homelessness, poorly-managed financial conditions – in which understanding arrives after the dropping of preconceptions and the destruction of a false sense of security and superiority. Throughout the journey Pip is constantly travelling and moving – a representation of his inconsistent psychological states – as he manages his expectations, ambitions and desires.

4. The shadow of no parting. “I took her hand in mine and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw the shadow of no parting from her”.

5. Love and relationships. Love – and the absence of it – is presented in a multitude of forms and relationships. Noble, unconditional love is exemplified by Joe, who treats Mrs. Joe and Pip with tremendous care and concern regardless of the lack of reciprocation and snobbery of the counterparts respectively. Romantic infatuation and obsession is exercised by Pip in his relentless pursuit of Estella; though his love is unrequited and Pip is left horrifically inconsolable soon after she mentions her intention to marry Drummle. On the sidelines, Wemmick displays great filial piety towards his Aged P, Pumblechook reflects a monetary love and consciousness that results in obsession over wealth and materialism, while Sarah Pocket and Camilia – as flatterers – are excruciatingly sycophantic and pandering in the presence of Miss Havisham.

6. Social commentary on wealth, property and social class. This is the basic premise: that the outward marks of class and wealth may prove to be mere façades, and conceal moral strengths or failings. Dickens, through the novel, shows that many markers of social class – speech, dress sense, manners, and education – are external; and contends that conscience and affection are to be valued above erudition and social standing. Joe and Biddy are moral righteous and content with their lives; in contrast, beneath the veneer of education, Drummle is stupid and brutal, while Compeyson resorts to crime for wealth, and has poor conduct in his interactions and disposition.

7. Matthew Pocket. “No man who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was … a true gentleman in manner”.

8. The multiplicity of crime and vice. Given the prevalence of crime, crime and vice are not merely reserved for the lower classes; law-breaking instances in the novel at different tiers of society reflect the fact that crime cannot be simply allocated to the lowest tiers alone. Compeyson illustrates this most clearly. Dickens also distinguishes between crimes of need and crimes of greed: questioning whether it is right to condemn an individual because of the former – such as Pip stealing from Mrs. Joe to feed Magwitch, and Magwitch taking food from Pip – and how the latter can be inspired by unrealistic or unjustified expectations. There is also a superficial standard of morality, facilitated by a broken judicial system: the courts sentencing thirty-two people at once, Mike trying to use a false witness, Jaggers having to cover up for Molly, judges being ostentatious and verbose, deceived by false notions of Compeyson’s “gentility” et cetera.

9. Pip’s association with criminality and wealth. Pip is constantly interacting with crime – his exposure to Little Britain, uneasiness when sharing a coach with two criminals – are can never seem to escape his links with criminality. Of course, given that his benefactor Magwitch is a convict, he technically never shakes off any association with crime. Ironically, even though Pip wants to shrug off these associations – beyond the vis-à-vis encounters or engagements – the notions of guilt continually play up in his mind, with constant reminders of his “crime” against Mrs. Joe for Magwitch.

10. Vengeance. Orlick epitomises violence, and engages in revenge most physically. Blaming everyone but himself for his own circumstances; he attacks Mrs. Joe, and asserts that Pip is responsible for his plight, which explains his intentions to attack Pip. Magwitch uses Pip as a pawn – through the notion of “buying” a gentleman – and seeks to exact revenge on Compeyson, and also on the larger society that has restricted and condemned him. Last but not least, Miss Havisham’s perverse pursuit of vengeance is directed towards Compeyson for his financial trickery and her unrequited love; therefore, using Estella to exact her plans. Satis House is a physical representation of her state of mind: shrouded within an atmosphere of gloom and bitterness.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


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