Since last years’ reading project (the goal was to read 12 Classics in 12 months) was both a success and such great fun, I decided to do it again and read 12 Classics this year – one each month. I chose twelve Classics that had already been waiting for me on my bookshelf, of which six are Classics written in German, as well as six written in English. Those Classics have been titled as such over the course of a few centuries and vary greatly in terms of length, date of publication and genre.
In May, I read the third English (and altogether fifth) Classic this year: ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens. Almost half a year ago I read ‘Oliver Twist’, and grew so fond of Dickens’ witty writing style, that I knew I needed to put one of his books on my list for the 12 Classics to read in 2019. So let’s dive into the review for this gothic ‘Bildungsroman’, which was first published 1861.
C H A R L E S D I C K E N S – G R E A T E X P E C T A T I O N S
“Love her, love her, love her! If she favors you, love her. If she wounds you. love her. If she tears your heart to pieces – and as it gets older and stronger it will tear deeper – love her, love her, love her!”
Charles Dickens | Great Expectations | p. 287
With its more than five hundred pages, ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens is pretty lengthy, and I got tired a lot of the time while reading it – although I enjoyed it. I finished it just in the nick of time, at the end of this month, and was glad to have read it.
‘Great Expectations’ is the story of young Pip, who was orphaned very early in his life. His older sister took him in, and together with her husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery, they live in a small town near the marshes. Through the years, both Pip and Joe are being bullied by Pip’s sister, and Pip has quite a bleak outlook on his life. That changes, when he is approached by a gentleman who reveals that Pip has Great Expectations because he has come into some property by an unknown benefactor. Pip secretly believes this secret benefactor to be Mrs. Havisham, a withered lady whom he regularly attends to in her mansion. And this lady, Mrs. Havisham, has an adopted daughter, Estella, whom Pip falls in love with. But life with Great Expectations as a gentleman isn’t always as shiny as it seems…
“You must know,” said Estella, condescending to me as a brilliant and beautiful woman might, “that I have no heart.” – p. 285
This story has so much to offer! For one, it is considered as Gothic Fiction – and you probably know how much I love that genre with all its haunted mansions and ghostly protagonists and its spooky atmosphere. And we’ve got plenty of that in ‘Great Expectations’. Mrs. Havisham for example has the appearance of some ghost haunting her own house and is one of my favorite protagonists of the story. Not because she is wise or a nice person – on the contrary! Mrs. Havisham had her heart broken when she was young and has been left by her lover on her wedding day. Since that day she withers away in her old, ragged wedding dress, hoping to stop time by clinging to the remains of what was once supposed to be her bright future. In her waywardness, she teaches her adopted daughter Estella never to love anyone, but to be loved by everyone and to break their hearts in return. Mrs. Havisham is such a complex protagonist, utterly believable and tragic. I loved the whole atmosphere that surrounded her in a dark house where time seems to stand still.
“I’ll tell you,” said she, in the same hurried passionate whisper, “what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter – as I did!” – p. 288
‘Great Expectations’ is also considered to be a bildungsroman, or a story of Coming-of-Age. Young Pip, whose voice tells the story in retrospect, is growing from a bullied and ill-treated orphan in the countryside to a gentleman living in the city, who slowly, but surely loses his way. How he evolves through all of this, and still somehow remains to be a decent human being when it really matters, has been absolutely stunning to read. Throughout the story, I was touched by the vast range of Charles Dickens’ writing style. One moment, it is dark and spooky, then soft and tender, and at various parts there’s the dry humour I fell in love with when I first read ‘Oliver Twist’. Although it sometimes had its lengths, those lengths made sense at the end of the novel, when everything is revealed and brought to a very satisfying close that made me like Charles Dickens even more.
That she had done a grievous thing in taking an impressionable child to mould into the form that her wild resentment, spurned affection, and wounded pride found vengeance in, I knew full well. But that, in shutting out the light of the day, she had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences; that, her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker, I knew equally well. – p. 474
But what’s most fascinating to me is how Charles Dickens succeeded in writing a story full of mystery and suspense, with a structure that works without revealing important aspects that occur later on. Especially, since ‘Great Expectations’ was published in 1860 as a serial novel in a literature magazine called ‘All The Year Round’ (which was founded and owned by Charles Dickens, by the way), one chapter at a time. One year later, those chapters were published as a book. It still amazes me how he managed that.
If you read between the lines and dig a little deeper, you are able to find so many aspects referring to the socio-cultural context in which ‘Great Expectations’ came into existence – which I absolutely adore. Social order, class, the influence of money on the human being, poverty, crime, lost love and an ambition to climb the social ladder – it all comes to play in this story – including a subtle hint of Charles Dickens own opinion to the matter at hand.
There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did. To the best of my belief, our case was in the last aspect a rather common one. – p. 328f.
If you’ve lost your heart to Gothic Fiction or are willing to try a Classic that is exquisitely complex and eerily beautiful, then you should definitely give this one a try – even if its story is told over more than five hundred pages.
Author: Charles Dickens
Title: Great Expectations
Press: Hyde Park Editions, produced by Atlantic Publishing
Year of publication: 1861 [this edition: 2015]
Genre: [Classic | Bildungsroman | Gothic Fiction]
Übersicht der 12 Klassiker im Jahr 2019:
Januar: Aldous Huxley – Brave New World
Februar: Hermann Hesse – Siddhartha
März: Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale
April: Stefan Zweig – Sternstunden der Menschheit
Mai: Charles Dickens – Great Expectations
Juni: Theodor Fontane – Irrungen, Wirrungen
Juli: Jules Verne – Around the World in Eighty Days
August: Max Frisch – Homo Faber
September: Bill Bryson – A Short History of Everything
Oktober: Thomas Mann – Mario und der Zauberer
November: Henry James – The Portrait of a Lady [abgebrochen]
Dezember: E.T.A. Hoffmann – Nussknacker und Mausekönig