What’s so great about Great Expectations?

For this article, I’ll be abandoning the usual Rooktopia trope of toys, movies, and cartoons. I’ll be talking about literature. If this isn’t your cup of tea, I’m going to have the latest “Webcomic Overlook” up soon. However, thanks to a wild tagent posted on The Comics Curmugeon, I feel that it is my duty to post about one of my favorite works of literature.

Back when I was in the 8th grade, we had two novels were were supposed to read. The first was Outsiders, the story of teen angst that was eventually turned into the Brat Pack movie. The second was less appealing… visually, anyway. It was a rather thick paperback with a monochrome red cover and a tiny picture of some classic artwork. In other words: budget classic literature. Worse, it looked like the book was written by one “Charles Dickens.” Now, I wasn’t against reading classic literature. In those days, that was my favorite genre. Yet, a year or two previously, I’d read Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” and found it a real snoozer.

Well, after some encourgement from my teacher, I dug into the novel and ended up liking it. The action was sometimes difficult to follow, especially toward the end when the story switch to Magwitch being pursued by Compeyson. But the story had genuine suspense, and the characters were highly intruiging. The most memorable was Miss Havisham, an obsessed spinster who haunted her own home wearing the wedding dress she was never married in. But also of interest was Estella, her icy adopted daughter that she had raised to be the manifestation of her hatred toward all men.

Great Expectations boasts a large ensemble cast, typical of a Charles Dickens novel. Each character has their story and agendas, and most of the time these cross paths with those of other characters. There are so many different facets that I overlooked many of these on the first reading and didn’t catch them until later readings or viewings of the movie adaptations. These include things like “Aged P.” and Pip’s manipulations to ensure Herbert Pocket received an allowance from Miss Havisham.

I won’t analyze this in too much depth. However, I love the novel due to two strong “chill” scenes. Oh, there were many other wonderful scenes: the opening setting with Pip in the cemetary, Pip and Herbert’s fight at Havisham’s residence, and the scene at Jagger’s office where Pip looks at the deathmasks. Yet, these two are the ones that stayed with me. While reading them, image me taking a break right after to catch my breath after absorbing the intensity of the prose. (Passages are courtesy of literature.org.)

  • 1. Miss Havisham’s plan for Estella to be the bane of men works all too well. Her original patsy, Pip, has been spurned by Estella, and she gradually comes to the following realization.

    `O Miss Havisham,’ said I, `I can do it now. There have been sore mistakes; and my life has been a blind and thankless one; and I want forgiveness and direction far too much, to be bitter with you.

    She turned her face to me for the first time since she had averted it, and, to my amazement, I may even add to my terror, dropped on her knees at my feet; with her folded hands raised to me in the manner in which, when her poor heart was young and fresh and whole, they must often have been raised to heaven from her mother’s side.

    To see her with her white hair and her worn face kneeling at my feet, gave me a shock through all my frame. I entreated her to rise, and got my arms about her to help her up; but she only pressed that hand of mine which was nearest to her grasp, and hung her head over it and wept. I had never seen her shed a tear before, and, in the hope that the relief might do her good, I bent over her with- out speaking. She was not kneeling now, but was down upon the ground.

    `O!’ she cried, despairingly. `What have I donel What have I done!’

    `If you mean, Miss Havisham, what have you done to injure me, let me answer. Very little. I should have loved her under any cir- cumstances. — Is she married ?’

    `Yes.’

    It was a needless question, for a new desolation in the desolate house had told me so.

    `What have I done! What have I done!’ She wrung her hands, and crushed her white hair, and returned to this cry over and over again. `What have I done!’

    I knew not how to answer, or how to comfort her. 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 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 ap- pointed order of their Maker; I knew equally well. And could I look upon her without compassion, seeing her punishment in the ruin she was, in her profound unfitness for this earth on which she was placed, in the vanity of sorrow which had become a master mania, like the vanity of penitence, the vanity of remorse, the vanity of unworthiness, and other monstrous vanities that have been curses in this world?

    `Until you spoke to her the other day, and until I saw in you a looking-glass that showed me what I once felt myself, I did not know what I had done. What have I done! What have I done!’ And so again, twenty, fifty times over, What had she done!

  • 2. The final scene was problematic for Dickens. He wanted to end the story on a sort of a downer, yet his publisher insisted that readers wanted an uplifting ending. Dickens came to a compromise: he deliberately wrote the ending to be vauge, so that it could be interpreted as either a happy ending or a sad ending. To me, it’s the best written ending in all literature:

    `We are friends,’ said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench.

    `And will continue friends apart,’ said Estella.

    I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

  • I loved the story so much that I bought two movie versions of the novel.

    The first was the 1946 movie directed by David Lean.

    Great Expectations, 1946

    Pros: The movie moved at a brisk pace, surprising given the novel’s thickness, yet on viewing it never felt that Mr. Lean left anything out. Sir Alec “Obi Wan Kenobi” Guinness, in his first acting role, played Herbert Pocket, Pip’s roommate. Martita Hunt plays what is the definitive Miss Havisham. The black and white cinematography also adds to the admosphere: it feels both old and incredibly moody. The movie won 2 Oscars for Best Art Direction and Cinematography. It was also nominated for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Writing.

    Cons: John Mills was way too old to be playing older Pip. He looked older than Joe Gargery, is surrogate father. Also, the movie comes with an ending happier than the one in the book. This isn’t too much of a problem, since Estella in thie movie is less of an ice queen than the one in the novel. Yet, the ending is filled with so much joy that it seems out of place given the dark, somber events that happened earlier in the film.

    The other movie I have is the 1999 BBC production.

    Great Expectations, BBC

    Pros: The movie covered several things that were missed in the David Lean movie, such as the fight with Orlick. Ioan Gruffudd looks like the part of Pip, and Justine Waddell was ice cold, like Estella should be. The ending, while not perfect, attempts to retain the ambiguity in the original novel. The countryside scenes are colorful and pastoral; the London scenes are bleak and polluted. The movie was nominated for the Outstanding Miniseries Emmy. Bonus cookie points: Since the cast boasts Ioan Gruffudd, Iam McDiarmid (Jaggers), and Bernard Hill (Abel Magwitch), that means that we have Mr. Fantastic, Emperor Palpatine, and King Theoden in the same movie. Score!

    Cons: The movie does drag, and it is much too somber. Even before Pip becomes disillusioned, he already looks like he lacks passion. There were some cringe-worthy scenes, mainly between Pip and Estella, where I had to turn the volume down to keep myself from chronic scoffing. Finally, the song “Ol’ Clem” was played too much. The movie relied on symbolic gestures, such as a deck of cards, to get the point across when it didn’t need to. “Ol’ Clem” was the greatest offender. The overuse of the song to pull at the heartstrings made me want to hurl.

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    4 thoughts on “What’s so great about Great Expectations?

    1. I’m pretty sure both movies mention the names of the characters, if that’s what you’re talking about. The 1946 movie does drop many plot elements for the sake of time, though, so you’ll hear hide nor hair of Orlick.

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