I selected this late novel by Dickens from Harold Bloom’s list of novels in his book How to Read. The list begins with Don Quixote and includes several French and Russian novels of various lengths, along with works by Faulkner and Thomas Pynchon.
Great Expectations was a good choice. It’s text is not as dense as A Tale of Two Cities, and there’s a refreshing lack of those contrived Dickensian names (“Scrooge”, “Wackford Squeers”). Great Expectations does, however, showcase Dickens’ pet themes, namely class disparity, poverty, and the questionable application of justice in early Victorian England.
The story is about Pip, the short name of Phillip Prirrip. Pip is an orphan raised by his abusive sister and her kindly husband. In the beginning, he helps an escaped convict by sneaking him food one Christmas Eve. The convict is later arrested, and Pip forgets the incident. He is eventually apprenticed to his brother-in-law, a blacksmith, and resigns himself to a life at the forge. A mysterious benefactor sends for Pip and offers to have his solicitor, Mr. Jaggers, raise him in exchange for giving Pip a small fortune. The benefactor wishes Pip to “become a gentleman.”
Pip’s life is one of idle luxury with no foreseeable plan. But he is a gentleman, and that is what is expected of Pip. Over time, Pip feels an enormous amount of guilt over leaving his brother-in-law, who showed him more kindness than the society types Pip encounters. He also feels a growing sense of alienation from Estella, the coldly beautiful girl from his childhood. In the end, when Pip discovers the identity of his benefactor, he wonders if his entire life since leaving Kent was a lie.
Great Expectations would be the template for later novels such as Twain’s The Gilded Age, much of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. David Simon’s television work, particularly The Wire and Treme are compared to Dickens work. However, Simon pulls from a different zeitgeist than Dickens, though there are many parallels – the anger at poverty and class inequality in particular.
Before reading this, I might have picked A Tale of Two Cities as Dickens’s contribution to Bloom’s list. However, Great Expectations sums up Dickens’s philosophy on class, morality, and justice.