Book Report: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1861, ?)

I got this book in the Reader’s Digest purty edition instead of the Walter J. Black Classics Club/Classic Editions (as is Oliver Twist and some of the other Dickens I have). Hence, instead of $1 or $4.95 I would have paid for it, I paid $30 or so (plus shipping and handling). There was a phase I was going through when I thought it would be neat to have matching editions of books in my collection, before I came to my senses and started amassing matching editions that only cost $1.00.

At first, I thought I would like this book much better than Oliver Twist for two reasons: first, the book uses a double-effect first person narrator. Now, to those of you not up on those terms, it means that the voice telling the story is an I (I did, I said). The double-effect means that the voice is telling a story from the past, so the events of the past convey not only what happened and what the narrator thought of them as they happened, but the greater wisdom of interpretation from a later time. This allows some offhand foreshadowing as well as a certain wryness.

Secondly, with a first person narrator, I figured that flaw I found in Oliver Twist, that things happened to Oliver, a passive participant in his own story, wouldn’t happen. Well, therein I was incorrect. For although things happened to Oliver, in Great Expectations, Pip spends a lot of time doing nothing.

For a quick synopsis: A young orphan, raised by his sister and her blacksmith husband, finds an escaped convict in the graveyard where his parents are buried (the child’s, not the convict’s). Forced to help the convict, the orphan brings him a file and some victuals. The convict is captured the next day, but the child never lets on he helped the convict. After time passes, the child (Pip) grows a bit and is selected to visit a reclusive wealthy woman who has stopped her clocks at the time she was jilted by a con man some years ago. Pip meets her ward as well, a young woman who is attractive but cold. Apparently, the woman is raising the child to be a man-eater to exact revenge on the gender. Suddenly, the woman’s attorney–and a criminal defender of some reknown–comes forward to tell Pip he has “great expectations”–that is, someone has given him an allowance for education and he might come into some property when he turns 21. Pip turns from an earnest, lower class fellow into a shiftless upper class snob, continues to pursue the beautiful but cold Estella, and waits to learn the name and nature of his benefactor.

So, ultimately, while Oliver Twist had a lot of things just happen to Oliver, Great Expectations has a first person narrator who does little but kill time. Overall, the book was too long building with a lot of paragraphs spent on the things Pip did while passing the time, but the nut of the story could have been told in 200 pages. This is the nature of Victorian literature, I guess, filled with passages and “comic” moments that really aren’t that funny to a modern audience.

Worth your time if you’re into literature, but there are better things to read.

Books mentioned in this review:

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