Great Expectations (1860-61)
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When his magazine, All the Year Round, began failing due to an unpopular serial, Dickens was forced to begin publishing installments of a story of his own. The resulting work, Great Expectations, was published weekly from December 1, 1860 to August 3, 1861. This was his second semi-autobiographical work, but where David Copperfield was a confident expression of faith in middle class values, Great Expectations offers a bleaker view of whether those values will lead to happiness. In fact, Dickens own marriage had just come to an end after many unhappy years. Indeed he had recently changed the name of the magazine from the more bucolic Household Words. Despite, or because, of this ambivalence, Great Expectations became one of his greatest achievements.
Pip, a boy of the marshes, is being "raised by hand" by his shrieking harridan of an older sister and her seemingly doltish husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery. One day, while visiting his parents' gravesite, Pip is accosted by an escaped convict who demands that he bring him a file and some "wittles". When the convict, Abel Magwitch, is later captured, he accepts the blame for stealing the file and food before being carted back to prison.
Shortly thereafter, Pip is invited up to Miss Havisham's manor house to play with her beautiful ward Estella. Miss Havisham's life came to a halt when she was jilted at the altar, all clocks are stopped at the hour of her betrayal, the feast lies rotting on tables & she wanders about in the decaying wedding gown. Estella is to be the instrument of her revenge upon men.
Eventually, "Great Expectations" are settled upon Pip when a secret benefactor sets up a trust in his name and sends him to London to be educated and become a gentleman. Pip assumes, and Havisham allows him to believe, that she is his benefactress and that he is being elevated to a position that will make him worthy of Estella.
As Pip rises in society, he leaves Joe behind, despite the many kindnesses Joe had shown him growing up. He becomes a shallow arrogant middle class climber. So he is stunned when he discovers that he is actually benefiting from the secret wealth of Magwitch, who made a fortune in Australia after being transported. Moreover, Magwitch's unlawful return to England puts him and Pip in danger. Meanwhile, Estella has married another, a horrible man who Pip despises. Eventually, with Magwitch's recapture and death in prison and with his fortune gone, Pip ends up in debtors prison, but Joe redeems his debts and brings him home. Pip realizes that Magwitch was a more devoted friend to him than he ever was to Joe and with this realization Pip becomes, finally, a whole and decent human being.
Originally, Dickens wrote a conclusion that made it clear that Pip and Estella will never be together, that Estella is finally too devoid of heart to love. But at the urging of others, he changed the ending and left it more open ended, with the possibility that Estella too has learned and grown from her experiences and her wretched marriages.
This is the work of a mature novelist at the height of his powers. It has everything you could ask for in a novel: central characters who actually change and grow over the course of the story, becoming better people in the end; a plot laden with mystery and irony; amusing secondary characters; you name it, it's in here. I would rank it with A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield among the very best novels of the worlds greatest novelist.
-REVIEW : of 'Savage Reprisals: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks' by Peter Gay (Lorraine Adams, Washington Post)
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