(If I'm going to assume people know who wrote Dune, I should do no less for this much greater novel.)
I think now that the version of Great Expectations which I read in the ninth grade must have been abridged, as it appeared in our literature textbook along with a number of short stories and poems, and it's not a brief book--not that long as Dickens novels go, but substantial. I also wonder whether it was simplified for us, because there are many passages that would be difficult for most fifteen-year-olds. Nor do I recall the confusion I think I would have experienced in trying to make sense of the locations in and near London which Dickens assumes are known to his readers. But maybe I've just forgotten that.
I do remember the principal characters--the orphaned boy Pip; his shrew of a sister who has grudgingly taken him in, along with her good-hearted husband Joe; the convict Magwich; the half-crazed and vengeful Miss Havisham and her young ward Estella. And I remember the basics of the story. Above all I remember the cold beauty Estella and Pip's hopeless obsessive love for her. I don't know about the average fifteen-year-old, but I at that age was ever ready for and usually involved in some intense infatuation. Pip's condition spoke to my own.
I doubt that I missed the irony of the title. But I also doubt that I fully savored it, because I would not have known that it was a conventional phrase with a more specific meaning than I would have realized. Apparently it referred to the expectation of a substantial inheritance or other gift of money and/or property, and of course would not have had for me the connotations that it did for those accustomed to its everyday use. If there were today (and maybe there is) a novel called Doing Well about a person or family with a lot of money and as much trouble, the title would have a resonance for us which it might not have a century from now, or to anyone who for cultural reasons did not recognize the financial implications of the phrase. (I've heard it said of the Philadelphia Quakers that "they came to America to do good, and they did well.")
But I didn't need that nuance to feel the shock of the difference between what Pip expected and what he actually received. If you know the story you know that the irony twists around again to make the collapse of Pip's expectations the making of him as a man. At the height of his brief ascent, he seems to be turning into an insufferable popinjay. I really didn't remember how he dealt with his benefactor after he learned the truth, and was pleased to find that he rose to the occasion, at great cost to himself.
Great Expectations was right around a hundred years old when I first read it. Now we are both sixty years older, and I've just re-read it for the first time. I like it more now than I did then--perhaps with less intensity, but certainly with more respect. Pip's lunatic quasi-love for Estella no longer touches me as it did, except as a memory of my own youth. More interesting to me now is the Estella who appears in the last few pages, humbled by suffering. And still more interesting is the Estella she might have become: if Pip had married her, would he have found, fifteen or twenty years later, that he had married the temperamental twin of his sister? Or would she have become a solid woman, as Pip became a solid man, a woman whom he would not have loved less as her beauty faded?
Dickens, as you may know, wrote two endings, one happy and one unhappy. The latter was his original intention, but he was talked out of it by Edward Bulwer-Lytton and wrote another, which was the one published. Personally I would like to have them combined. The happy one has a meeting and a substantial conversation between Pip and Estella, and a promise that they will never part; the unhappy one has only a brief encounter, and a parting that seems almost deathlike. I like the conversation in the happy one, in part for the insight it gives into the development of the two people. But a happy ending stains the sadder-but-wiser purity of the condition in which we leave them.
The two endings have in common a memorable figure: the possibility that Estella now understands (in the happy ending), or will someday understand (in the unhappy one), "what [Pip's] heart used to be." Dickens must have thought that was worth keeping, and he was right.
The 19th century was the great age of both the symphony and the novel, the age which fully defined and perfected them. The latter has fared better than the former since then (or has it?--I'll have to think about that), and Dickens's best work might serve as the exemplar. Yes, Great Expectations, like some other Dickens novels, is often sentimental and often relies on improbable coincidences. But it's a great story, and although it doesn't deal explicitly or directly with the big questions (as, for instance, Dostoevsky's work does), they are very much alive in the plot and characters. There's a strong argument that they should only or mainly be found there, but there are many exceptions. Dostoevsky would not be a great novelist if they were only explicit, and not also implicit; that is, not only also fully embodied.