Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Brian G Turner

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I remember reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens in English class when I was 14 years old, and really enjoying it - it was literature! And who could forget a character like Miss Haversham?

So, looking for some comfort reading I picked it up recently expecting to fondly return to an interesting story. Instead I've found myself very disappointed and have given up on it.

The first problem is the language - it's so clumsy it's not easy to read. It's not so much that it's unnecessarily verbose as much as sentences and paragraphs and especially dialogue are all badly structured. I can forgive that in a book that on it's way to being 200 years old.

What I can't forgive is that there's no actual story here. It's just a series of caricatures. It was acceptable at first, and Miss Haversham is certainly memorable. But as the book goes on each one that follows vies to be more incredulous than the last. And I've realized that's all this book is, no real story, just a list of characters intended to be ridiculous. I've put the book down after Pip spends the day with the legal assistant who has a mini-castle in the back garden of his London home, and lets off a cannon each evening for his aged and deaf father.

Much about the book seems to rest on the final twist on who Pip's benefactor is, but without reaching that section I struggle to make sense of it - Pip gave him a snack, that's all, and in return Magwitch sets Pip up as a gentleman for life. What an expensive snack that was! It's not as if Magwitch even enjoyed his liberty from the prison ship - he was captured the next morning, and Pip was one of the party.

So I guess I'll have to part with Mr Dickens for a while and enjoy my childhood memory of this book instead.
 
Recommend Jack Maggs by Peter Carey, as an antidote to GE.
 
Well, this forum is all about opinions, and thank goodness we don’t all agree about every book, but I have to say I disagree with every aspect of your review, Brian. Great Expectations is extremely well written, beautifully structured, layered, complex, and in possession of a terrific plot. And rather than having caricatures (they are well drawn and full to be caricatures), I think GE has some of Dickens greatest eccentric characters. Most readers and literary critics over the last 162 years would tend to side with me, I think.
 
Great Expectations is one of my favourite reads of Charles Dickens. Brilliant plot and story.
It was the June book for our readers group.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. There are some overly long sections but the short pages on my Kindle made those manageable because I felt I was making progress.

I'd first read it at school and forgotten the humour in the first few chapters.
 
It's often difficult to judge Dicken's work, as we read it differently to how it was originally intended.

Originally, instalments of his stories could be spread over an extended period of time, leaving readers eagerly awaiting the next chapter.

Reading his stories as novels in some ways is like watching the Saturday morning serials as a movie; they aren't/weren't designed to be enjoyed that way.

Personally I think that Dickens prioritised characters over stories, often giving them names that reflected their traits. This is important in a serial format, as it makes them memorable, with readers able to identify with the heroes and villains.
 
And rather than having caricatures (they are well drawn and full to be caricatures), I think GE has some of Dickens greatest eccentric characters.
That's the issue - no character is effectively normal - every character you meet seems to be competing to be more extreme than the others. And the story felt like it was simply Pip drifting into the company of each of these caricatures before moving on to the next, hence why I've stopped.

Perhaps Dickens is simply trying to hold up a mirror to the extremes of society he encountered, or heard of, but I struggle to see it trying to achieve anything else.
 
That's the issue - no character is effectively normal - every character you meet seems to be competing to be more extreme than the others. And the story felt like it was simply Pip drifting into the company of each of these caricatures before moving on to the next, hence why I've stopped.

Perhaps Dickens is simply trying to hold up a mirror to the extremes of society he encountered, or heard of, but I struggle to see it trying to achieve anything else.



Wasn't this just Dicken's style though? Outlandish, grotesque and caricaturised characters often with names that are synonymous with their deeds or traits.

As well as for entertainment value, and a means of poking fun at different professions and figures of authority or title (often lawyers) it not only often helps 'normalise' the protagonist in a world gone mad; a (slightly) less fantastical version of Alice in Wonderland. It also helps to highlight their struggle against the harshness, inequalities and plain unfairness that most people had to endure in Victorian England.

I think that his style is either one you can get on with, or not. Personally I prefer the televised serials (not movies) of his books, with Martin Chuzzlewit and Pickwick Papers being favourites.

Great Expectations is for me one of his more disappointing stories, and surprising that it has had so many (too many) adaptations, when other more worthy tales have had far fewer
 
Perhaps Dickens is simply trying to hold up a mirror to the extremes of society he encountered, or heard of, but I struggle to see it trying to achieve anything else.
I’m sure it tries (succeeds) to achieve much more than just that. At the very least, surely it’s a morality tale that explores the inadvisability of chasing ambition at the expense of shedding your roots. But it also offers imagery and scenes so striking and memorable that they have gone down in history as literary touchstones. And each extreme character has a purpose and offers a way for Dickens to delve into the theme of what makes us tick, and give life meaning. For instance, I find the split character Wemmick and his Aged P and his cannons delightful - he reminds us that behind the drudgery that makes up the necessities of living, we need to reserve space for life, fun and love to balance out the evils of the ‘modern world’.
 
I adore Wemmick (in his private persona), his castle, his marriage to Miss Skiffins (Hello, here's Miss Skiffins. Let's have a wedding!) and of course the Aged P.

There are things in our lives that others might look on as frivolous, or odd, or silly, but that nourish our souls. Wemmick has found what he needs to serve as counterbalance for his grim professional life -- and more power to him, say I!
 
Personally, I try to find new books to read . So many times have I tried to reread books from my youth , only to struggle to find my memory of them ' I have tied to reread Mervyn Peake's Gormanghast, it went from , one of the best books ever , to , one of the most tedious books ever. Dickins was a marvellously skilled writer; however, the books were published as serials and made a less successful complete novels. He targeted his readers very carefully. Most of his work was set about fifty years earlier, something we can't see. Nostalgic, comic , and sad were vital ingredients for Victorian readers . The other problem with Dickins is that nearly all of his books have been reinvented and televised. It is the televised versions that most people are familiar with making the origins a bit dated and hard work.
 
He targeted his readers very carefully.
He really didn’t - he was an early practitioner of writing for the masses - he sold to all and sundry, the more the merrier, with no focus on anyone in particular, I believe.

Most of his work was set about fifty years earlier, something we can't see.
Not sure this is true. He wrote two historical novels (Barnaby Rudge and ToTC), but otherwise mostly write of his times or close to it. If they were set a couple of decades back from the exact current time, that should hardly make any difference to us at all in 2023.

The other problem with Dickins is that nearly all of his books have been reinvented and televised. It is the televised versions that most people are familiar with making the origins a bit dated and hard work.
This isn’t a criticism of Dickens though, is it? It’s criticizing a lack of patience and engagement from the modern audience. Perhaps I benefit from having watched only one filmed or televised Dickens work in my life - and that’s the classic John Mills version of Great Expectations. I quite liked it, though it’s not a patch on the book of course.
 
He really didn’t - he was an early practitioner of writing for the masses - he sold to all and sundry, the more the merrier, with no focus on anyone in particular, I believe.


Not sure this is true. He wrote two historical novels (Barnaby Rudge and ToTC), but otherwise mostly write of his times or close to it. If they were set a couple of decades back from the exact current time, that should hardly make any difference to us at all in 2023.


This isn’t a criticism of Dickens though, is it? It’s criticizing a lack of patience and engagement from the modern audience. Perhaps I benefit from having watched only one filmed or televised Dickens work in my life - and that’s the classic John Mills version of Great Expectations. I quite liked it, though it’s not a patch on the book of course.
By Dickens I've read

1. Tale of Two Cities
2. Oliver Twist
3. A Christmas Carol
4. Great Expectations


All of which I liked.
 
He really didn’t - he was an early practitioner of writing for the masses - he sold to all and sundry, the more the merrier, with no focus on anyone in particular, I believe.


Not sure this is true. He wrote two historical novels (Barnaby Rudge and ToTC), but otherwise mostly write of his times or close to it. If they were set a couple of decades back from the exact current time, that should hardly make any difference to us at all in 2023.


This isn’t a criticism of Dickens though, is it? It’s criticizing a lack of patience and engagement from the modern audience. Perhaps I benefit from having watched only one filmed or televised Dickens work in my life - and that’s the classic John Mills version of Great Expectations. I quite liked it, though it’s not a patch on the book of course.
Dickins published his stories in instillments . Dickins not only needed to appeal to readers that would buy cheap weekly fiction and publications, like Household Worlds, but also he need to keep them reading it .
Most of Dickins inspiration comes from his own childhood. Dickins worked in a blacking factory ,and one of his friends was Bob Fagin. His father was sent to Marshalsea debtors prison , as in Little Dorrit as examples. When Dickins was publishing stories, London was undergoing big changes .In 1807 Pall Mall was the first street to be lit by gas , twenty years later all of central London had Steet lighting .In 1839, the London to Croydon railway opened and was extend to Brighton in 1841 The first London underground railway opened in 1863.
Dickins world was in the past .
 
Dickins published his stories in instillments . Dickins not only needed to appeal to readers that would buy cheap weekly fiction and publications, like Household Worlds, but also he need to keep them reading it .
Most of Dickins inspiration comes from his own childhood. Dickins worked in a blacking factory ,and one of his friends was Bob Fagin. His father was sent to Marshalsea debtors prison , as in Little Dorrit as examples. When Dickins was publishing stories, London was undergoing big changes .In 1807 Pall Mall was the first street to be lit by gas , twenty years later all of central London had Steet lighting .In 1839, the London to Croydon railway opened and was extend to Brighton in 1841 The first London underground railway opened in 1863.
Dickins world was in the past .
Yes I know all that, but I’m not sure how Dickens avoiding mention of the new railway network affects our enjoyment of Great Expectations. The somewhat timeless feel of his novels, not acknowledging Victorian technical developments, make the novels more accessible and engrossing to my mind. I fail to see how it could put anyone off. He did refer to gas-lit streets, however.
 
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