Miles Coverdale, Bob Dylan, and The Foot of Pride
A Wild Bach Composition

Great Expectations

(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.


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Great Expectations is my favorite Dickens novel, and you touch on lots of good stuff here! I did not read it until my 30s, and have since read it two more times. It seems to be just the right size, whereas books like Bleak House and David Copperfield (that are also great) are more of a commitment. Yes, Magwich, Joe and Pip stand out to me as fantastic characters; and then the women fare not as well, though his aunt is quite enjoyable in most all of her scenes! Miss Havisham and Estella are so strange. I need to stop watching films/TV remakes of this book. Seems like every few years another one is trotted out for consideration, and is as dull as the last.

I don't recall an aunt...are you thinking of his sister? That "fine figure of a woman"? Who occasionally Rampages? I think Miss Havisham is a very, very memorable character. Her reaction to being jilted is crazy but in a perverse way sort of impressive.

Another character I liked: Also Georgiana. :-)

I had no idea until I looked that there have been so many dramatizations.

I think I've seen the 1949 one but offhand can't recall any others. I don't think Gillian Anderson is very good in these British roles that she's taken post-X-Files. When I saw that Olivia Colman is in that most recent one, I was hopeful, but the one review I read was discouraging.

Yes, of course, sister. She being so much older than him in the book had me confused.
I'm not sure I think Gillian Anderson has been good in any role. LOL!

I was a big fan of the X Files. Also in the end a disappointed one, as most were. Gillian Anderson’s part in that was one of those fortuitous combinations of actor and character that often turn out to be a one-shot thing, making the actor look more gifted than she actually was. That’s pretty much true of Duchovny too. Anderson as Margaret Thatcher was awful.

I read Great Expectations when I was a sophomore in high school, and I hated it so much that I have never read it again, although, for the most part I love Dickens. Of course, at that time, the only classic literature that I was interested was written by Austen or the Brontes, so GE just didn't have what I was looking for. I should probably read it again.

I think that David Copperfield is one of the greatest explorations of marriage and family that has ever been written. I like the long ones.


Why did you hate GE so much?

I read Wuthering Heights in college (I think). It didn’t make a big impression.

I just wanted a love story. 😆 I was 14/15.

I never loved Wuthering Heights, and I dislike it now . I do still like Jane Eyre and The Tennant of Wildfell Hall.


Great Expectations is a love story! Just not with a happy ending. Or for that matter beginning or middle.

I read both David Copperfield and Wuthering Heights fairly recently, Jane Eyre somewhat longer ago but as an adult, and liked all three a lot. I really want to read Bleak House next, but decided that I should read Wordsworth's Prelude instead, as I've already read BH once, though long ago.

Thinking about your remark about David C made me realize I remember vignettes from it much more than the overall story. I think I will go refresh my memory with a synopsis. But I remember that it also includes a sad love story, though not as sad as Pip's.

Have I mentioned on this blog how much I disliked Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver? I almost didn't finish it, but then Margo convinced me that I should. At any rate, the main reason for my dislike was how much I love David Copperfield, and I would wager that the majority of the people who have been praising this book for over a year now, and awarding it the Pulitzer Prize, have not read the source material. But other than just that, I found the main character to be a joyless slug. Everyone else I know that has read it can't say enough good things! I remain baffled.

I could see a teen-age girl not loving Great Expectations. The main male characters are all interesting and fun; the main female characters are either crazy (Miss Havisham), a shrew (Pip's sister), or a heartbreaker (Estella).

Your last comment made me think of the minor female characters, of whom several are very likable, which then led me to think of how many minor or less-major characters there are. A *lot*, though I don’t think of this as one of Dickens’s big sprawling cast-of-thousands books. And some are very vividly portrayed. Like Wemmick—look at all the care with which he and his peculiar household are drawn. Really, is there anyone comparable to Dickens in that respect? I’m not well-read enough to know.

You know, Stu, I am not one of those women who really cares about this women vs. men characters thing, and I was even more so in 1965. Seems to me like currently these women would be well-liked because they have a lot of agency.

Mac, a 15 year old girl is not looking for sad love stories. I mean, they have to be sad in middle of the book, but they have to end all lovey-dovey and happily ever after.

I will say, though that I won't vouch for what 21st century girls like.

I didn't read DC when I was 15. I was probably in my mid-30s before I read a lot of Dickens, and I am not sure how I would have liked it. There is a very sad love story in David Copperfield, but there is some redemption there, too, and David ends up in the best possible way.


“…not looking for sad love stories.”

Oh, I know. That’s really what I was saying.

“…currently these women would be well-liked because they have a lot of agency.”

I feel very confident that there is feminist criticism saying that sort of thing.

Re Demon Copperhead: my wife read it and her reaction wasn't so much love or hate as that the culture portrayed and the life of the protagonist were so very very dismal. She wasn't comparing it to Dickens though as she's not even sure she's read David Copperfield --if she has it was long ago.

G.E. was the first Dickens novel I ever read (somehow I had missed A Tale of Two Cities in high school). I was probably in my late 20's. Didn't like it much except for the humorous bits, but then re-read it six or seven years later and liked it a lot more, and have been reading Dickens ever since. I'm probably due for another re-read, but there are a couple I haven't read yet that I want to tackle first -- Bleak House is next on the list.

I don't think I've ever watched any of the Dickens dramatizations except for Martin Chuzzlewit, which I liked very much, and several versions of the Christmas Carol.

If my fifty-year-old memory is reliable, I strongly recommend Bleak House.

We talked about the 2005 version with Gillian Anderson quit a bit here. I am pretty sure everyone liked it. I guess all those comments are gone.


I kind of halfway remember that conversation. I definitely saw it, and I think I liked it pretty well. Possibly some reservations about Gillian Anderson. Yes, those comments are gone, alas.

Gillian Anderson did a pretty good job in “The House of Mirth”. I think largely because she didn’t do her horrible British accent in that.

A short clip:

I read Great Expectations in my early 20s, I think. I really didn't care for it, because I just couldn't cope with how bonkers Miss Haversham and Estella were.

Like Janet, I didn't care for Wuthering Heights either.

I strongly disliked Wuthering Heights. I'd read several books in which the main character reads WH and swoons over the irresistible Heathcliff, but I found him totally repellent.
I was also very disappointed by the Pickwick Papers, which I expected to be funny based on how the March sisters talked about it in Little Women. My favourite of the Dickens I've read is Nicholas Nickleby, probably because right after I read it I watched the excellent long BBC dramatization.

I don't think I've read a Dickens novel yet that I disliked and wouldn't read again. I love Pickwick -- have read it at least twice, maybe 3x. I know a priest who reads it every January! Sets the tone for the New Year, he says.

I've had many people recommend the BBC Bleak House adaptation, but I've never watched it because I've wanted to read the book first.

My recommended practice is to always read the book first. Unless of course you’re not that interested. I violated that with The Old Curiosity Shop so am less…curious about the book than I might have been.

I haven’t read Pickwick. I started reading it on a Kindle in one of those half-baked free editions, found it hard to get into and gave it up. I really don’t like reading that way. I’ll eventually have a go at it with a real book.

I wonder if there’s a correlation between women who love Wuthering Heights and women who have unhappy marriages. Charlotte Brontë wonders in her comments on WH whether it’s moral to create such a creature.

Marianne, I’m glad to hear what you say about Gillian Anderson’s English accent. I think it’s horrible but someone from the UK once told me it was fine.

I’ve never read Chuzzlewit or Nickelby. One of these days…but Bleak House again first.

It's been probably 30 years since I read Great Expectations (I started it again maybe a dozen years ago but didn't get very far). You can't forget Miss Havisham, but I've recently found myself thinking about Wemmick. As I said, it's been a long time, but if I remember correctly, he came across as very business-like and mercenary (portable property!), but was quite eccentric (or even romantic) in his personal life. I'm not sure whether he represented how modern life splits people in two or whether he was an example of putting up with the outside world and living your real life at home.

Your memory is correct about Wemmick. Whether Dickens meant it as a case study in modern alienation or just an interesting portrait, I wouldn’t venture to guess.

Gillian Anderson -- yes, I have a friend from England who has no complaints about her accent. I don't think I've seen her in anything where she's had to do it so I can't comment.

Very odd to me. It just seems distinctly strained and somewhat off to me. I’d be interested in your opinion if you see one of those adaptations.

I had an interesting experience today. On Twitter Anthony Esolen tried to talk me out of reading A Tale of Two Cities. (Suggesting more Dickensian Dickens books instead).

What were his reasons? I read Tale of Two Cities when I was around twenty or so and liked it. And it gave us two well-known quotations ("best of times..." and "far far better thing I do"). And Madame DeFarge (I think that was her name).

It started with him posting about Hard Times. I jumped into the discussion and said I'd like to reread it, but I need to read A Tale of Two Cities first. He responded that I should read David Copperfield (which I've read twice and should read again) or Bleak House or Nicholas Nickleby - more typical Dickens. It's probably good advice, but I've got it in my head that I need to read A Tale of Two Cities. I told him, "I'm gonna read it and you can't stop me."

That's the spirit. :-)

In general I would say it's better to give higher priority to the ones I haven't read over re-reading the ones I have. I don't mean books in general, just classics. But I don't necessarily follow my own advice. I'm pretty sure you won't be making poor use of your time by reading Tale of Two Cities.

To go off on a tangent, I am looking forward to Professor Esolen's new translation of St. Augustin's Confessions - coming out later this month.

Esolen's commentary on the Johannine Prologue is excellent. I bought a copy for my priest, as he is doing a Bible study on John's Gospel.

I've heard other folks say that A Tale of Two Cities should be lower on the totem pole than it is when considering Dickens' novels. I think this is due to its being so commonly read in high school formerly and thus was the first of his novels a lot of people were exposed to. But many Dickens scholars seem to think that it's not the best gateway into his work.

You could certainly say that A Tale of Two Cities is the least Dickensian of his works, but since I haven't read them all I'm not prepared to say that. I also read it in high school, so too long ago to really comment on. I think Janet has read all of Dickens, so she can probably make a very informed comment on this.

The fact that much of it takes place in France makes it automatically less Dickensian.

"But many Dickens scholars seem to think that it's not the best gateway into his work." I'm sure they're right. But I don't think readers really need a "gateway" in the sense that, for instance, they might for Faulkner, or Dostoevsky. Of all great novelists, he must be the most easily enjoyed. If anyone asked me where to start with Dickens, I'd naturally offer suggest my favorites, but I would also add "just start reading."

Re Augustine: I regret to say that I started the Confessions many years ago (forty at least) but got bogged down or distracted or something about halfway through and never went back. I should do that. Esolen's translation will probably be a good one.

Well, Stu made me curious, so I looked at a list of CD's novels, and I am sure I have read 8, and probably 9. I may have read others, but I don't know for sure whether I read them, or just saw the miniseries, so maybe I have read 3/5 of the novels.

I have read Tale of Two Cities, and not in high school, but long ago. I have never given the first thought as to whether it is Dickensian.

Maclin, I am really impressed that you made it halfway through the Confessions. I haven't gotten anywhere near that far, not because I didn't want to keep on, but something more interesting, and probably more worldly got my attention.


I think "more worldly" would probably be a more honest expression of what I mean by "distracted or something." :-/

I read the Confessions many years ago. Back when I actually read books instead of talking about reading books. And when I wasn’t quite as easily distracted by more worldly things. I’ve toyed with rereading it over the years but didn’t know which translation to read (I wasn’t too fussy the first time). I took the upcoming translation as a sign. So maybe I’ll read it sometime in the next year.

Sounds like a sign to me. :-) I have no idea what translation I half-read. Something that was available in paperback in the late '70s.

I have The Concessions sitting on my desk right now with a bunch of Sally's poetry. I think I will wait for Esolen's since I though his Divine Comedy was great.


~~I don't think readers really need a "gateway" in the sense that, for instance, they might for Faulkner, or Dostoevsky.~~

Agreed. I think the idea is that since ToTC is rather atypical it's not necessarily the best place to start. But of course it's better to start there than to read no Dickens at all. Since I'm reading the novels in order, and am up to Bleak House, I will get to it in a bit, Lord willing.

It would be a shame if someone read no Dickens other than TOTC. He would definitely miss something of the essence of Dickens's work.

Has anybody read Chesterton's book on Dickens? After I read GE I was thinking of reading it, but I think I should have read more of Dickens before doing that.

I read the Chesterton book, Mac. It is the only thing I have read by him and I found it quite odd and interesting at the same time. Almost like he is not discussing the books themselves sometimes. I bought it for my reading device and I think it was quite inexpensive.

Ha. That’s GKC for you—odd and interesting.

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