Unfinished Business

“A finished person is a boring person.” Anna Quindlen

Book review: Great Expectations

Book: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Date finished: 8/15/2010

Review: When I was in high school, Great Expectations was one of the books we had to read in English class. And in high school (as it is now), I was one of those people who try to complete all assignments to the best of her ability. All these years, I believed I had read Great Expectations. And now, after re-reading it these last few months, I’m convinced of one thing: I read the Cliff Notes.

What I think actually happened is that Great Expectations is long and convoluted and knowing the due date was nearing and I was nowhere near finished, I consulted the Cliff Notes. I think this because I remember the first half of the book so clearly. It’s the end and all the most important stuff I seem to have forgotten!

Great Expectations is basically the story of Pip, who is being raised by his slightly (or more than slightly) shrewish sister and her gentle, noble but simple husband, Joe. One Christmas Eve, Pip encounters a convict out in the marshes who asks for food and a file. The young Pip brings him the goods, but later the convict and another escapee are captured.

A little later, Pip becomes connected to Miss Havisham, an old crazy lady who is undeniably rich. A family friend takes him to her house once a week or so to play and hang out and there he meets her adopted daughter, Estella. Miss Havisham was jilted at the altar in her youth and instead of going on, she has left everything in her house the way it was on that day. The wedding cake sits moldering on a table; she wears her dress and sits at her vanity; the clocks are all stopped at the moment of her betrayal. Miss Havisham is raising Estella to hate men and enact her revenge on the gender as a whole, and poor, poor Pip falls inexpicably in love with the beautiful young girl.

At some point, Pip receives his “great expectations,” in that some anonymous person has given money to Pip so that he can become a gentleman. Pip is taken to London and tutored by a relative of Miss Havisham, becomes great friends with Herbert (another relative of Miss Havisham), and grows up. He kind of turns his back on his poor family (his sister is injured and eventually passes away) and seems to think that success and finding his place in some upper social class is the secret to living a good life. He always assumes Miss Havisham is his benefactor and that she intends for him to marry Estella at some point. Meanwhile, he lives his life to the fullest, spending his money, going deeply into debt and helping (anonymously) his friend Herbert establish himself in the business so that he can marry the girl he loves at some point.

But then, Pip’s bubble is burst. Things are not as they had appeared and realizing this first shocks and angers Pip, then changes him—for the better. I won’t reveal everything that happened and ruin the novel for those of you who haven’t read it, but Pip learns the shocking lesson we’ve all wanted him to learn for awhile: that social status isn’t the end-all-be-all. That working hard and doing your best no matter what you make has a reward of its own. That being a gentleman isn’t about class or status or money, but being a man of honor, a noble man, a kind man, a man who forgives, loves, and works hard. A man like Joe who he had basically turned his back on.

I will say this: Great Expectations wasn’t my favorite book of all time. It’s long and hard to read and took me MONTHS to finish because I kept putting it down and picking up other things. But I see why it is considered a great novel and one of the books everyone should read. I probably won’t read it again anytime soon, but I do hope that the lessons Pip learned stay lodged in my heart.

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