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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Is it to be wondered at if my thoughts were dazed, as my eyes were, when I came out into the natural light from the misty yellow rooms?

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Halloa! Our main character in Great Expectations is Philip Pirrip, aka Pip. His parents are both deceased at the beginning of the story, and he is being brought up "by hand" by his older sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, and her husband, Joe. Joe is a blacksmith who runs his own forge, and the family is a common laboring family. Pip is meant to become the apprentice for Joe, and Mrs. Joe is well-meaning, but an aggressive and sometimes violent surrogate parent. Joe sticks up for Pip, and the two are great friends. In the beginning of the book, Pip is at the graveyard staring at his parents' graves, and he comes upon a convict who has escaped from the "hulks", or prison ships. The convict scares Pip into offering to bring him back a file and some "wittles". Pip brings these items the next day, but Pip's convict discovers that another convict has also escaped, and he attacks that convict, risking his own re-imprisonment to ensure that the other convict doesn't get away. Both convicts are re-captured as Pip and Joe and several other neighbors watch. Pip's aid to the convict is not revealed.

Life returns to normal until Pip is asked to visit Miss Havisham, a very wealthy neighborhood lady. He goes to play with her, and she is UBER bizarre. Ready for the description? She lives in a house that is lit only by candles. She doesn't see the light of day because she spends most of her time in a room with no windows. She's wearing her tattered to-be wedding dress and still sports her wedding veil and dried flowers in her hair. She's ancient. She's wearing one shoe and the other shoe is sitting on a table; it has clearly never been worn. And all of her clocks are stopped at twenty minutes to nine.

Miss Havisham has an adopted daughter, Estella, who - well, how should I describe her? Has a HEART OF STONE. No really.

Pip, of course, is GAGA for Estella (what do you wear to cause a gaga at ze go-go? a toga full of long beautiful hair!). Estella enjoys torturing Pip emotionally. Miss Havisham likes to watch. This goes on for a great deal of time, after which Miss Havisham eventually gives Pip enough money to become apprenticed to Joe. Pip, however, is no longer satisfied with his life as a laborer, and Estella has made him ashamed of his status and who he is. (GO, ESTELLA! you rock.)

Yes, I recognize this is a long plot summary, but HELLO, haven't you missed these? Moving on.

Pip is going about his business, pining for Estella and wishing he were rich, and then, BLAM! He gets rich. A weird random man approaches him and tells him that someone has decided he is going to make Pip a gentleman. Pip assumes it is Miss Havisham, and he happily deserts Joe and heads off to London. (PS - I forgot to mention that Pip's sister is brutally attacked and suffers severe brain damage. And then dies a little while after. We "don't know" who did it. (AHEM.))

Pip makes friends with a man named Herbert Pocket, a relative of Miss Havisham, and they live well beyond their means for a while in an apartment in London. Pip pines after Estella, befriends his intense lawyer (Mr. Jaggers)'s assistant Wemmick (who has 2 personalities - one at work in London and one at home in Walworth) and waits for his assumed benefactress, Miss Havisham, to tell him that she wants him to marry Estella. Meanwhile, no one has confirmed that Miss Havisham is his benefactress, and Estella has given him ZERO indication that she is capable of any kind of non-alien, human affection. Pip doesn't seem to mind.

CUE THE CONVICT. One day, completely out of the blue, Pip's convict, who turns out to be named Abel Magwitch, appears at Pip's door and reveals that he is Pip's mysterious benefactor. Pip is HORRIFIED. Not only are his hopes dashed of meeting Estella, he played with a CRAZY lady for nothing, and he is now attached intimately to a dangerous criminal. To add salt to the wound, Magwitch reveals to Pip that he is has been exiled to Australia, and faces death if he is caught in England. Pip has to decide what to do with Magwitch, so he disguises him and hides him at Herbert's girlfriend Clara's house, with the intention of escaping to a foreign country with him at the opportune moment.

HOWEVER, of course the situation is complicated by the fact that Pip goes back to visit Miss Havisham to tell her that it was very cruel of her to let him believe she was his benefactress, and she, presumably in a rage because Estella is getting married to a loser (Bentley Drummle) and leaving her alone, promptly manages to light herself on fire. Pip helps her roll herself out, getting some pretty serious arm burns in the process. Miss Havisham is permanently laid up in her fave room (the creepy room described previously) and eventually kicks it on the table.

Pip is rather flustered by this whole situation, but he returns to London and is getting ready to make his escape with Magwitch when he gets a mysterious note saying he should come back to the moors near his house if he wants to save his "uncle Provis", which is what they've been calling Magwitch. He goes alone (STUPID) and it turns out to be a message from Orlick, who, BIG SURPRISE, we find out is the disgruntled ex-employee of Joe who attacked Pip's sister earlier in the book. Orlick is getting ready to kill Pip, apparently just because he hates him and has resented Pip's rise to wealth, (and manages to seriously mess up his burned arms even more) when Herbert and their friend Startop intervene, having followed Pip from London.

Whew! Still with me? I'll speed it up. In a nutshell, we find out that Magwitch is Estella's father (HAHA!) and her mother is Mr. Jaggers' housekeeper (RANDOM!) and Estella's marriage ends badly and then she gets married again and that one doesn't go so well either. Magwitch is identified during their escape attempt by Compeyson, who turns out to have been the other convict from the beginning of the story. Turns out Compeyson was the man who broke Miss Havisham's heart (on her wedding day, at 20 minutes to nine, GET IT?) and Magwitch was working for him. They were basically into a lot of bad things, scheming and cheating people and the like, but Compeyson was in cahoots with Miss Havisham's brother, who went CRAZY after they tried to cheat her out of her money, and Compeyson made it seem like Magwitch was to blame for everything, when he was really just the grunt man. Magwitch lunges at Compeyson, Compeyson drowns, Magwitch is seriously injured, he goes to jail, and Pip visits him often and eventually Magwitch dies in jail. Pip turns around and ends up really loving Magwitch, and feeling bad for being such an ass toward Joe and Biddy (who I didn't introduce but was basically like a platonic friend of Pip's). Herbert gets a decent job as clerk and then a partner in a shipping house (which has been secretly subsidized by Pip, first by his own money, and then by Miss Havisham at Pip's request) and eventually marries Clara, his long-time gf. Herbert offers Pip a job at his house, now that Pip is destitute (all of Magwitch's money went to the state when he was jailed). Joe comes back to take care of Pip after Magwitch dies, because Pip falls very ill and then goes into debt. Joe pays all of Pip's debts, and just as Pip and he are getting back to the way things used to be, Pip is better, and Joe disappears. Pip follows him back to his old stomping grounds and decides he should just marry Biddy, because even though he doesn't love her, she's a good common girl with a good heart, but when he gets there, it is Joe and Biddy's wedding day, and Pip realizes he's being a dummy, and he celebrates with them. They have a son and name him Pip, and the book ends with Pip walking with little Pip and bumping into Estella, who is still cold, but seems a bit more like she has a real heart instead of one made of stone. They are both mostly miserable. HOORAY!
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

So, I know what you're thinking. BEST BOOK EVER, right? Oddly enough, this is actually one of my favorite books. Okay, so it might have taken me six odd months to read it this time around, but I took the GREs and the LSATs, worked full-time, and applied to grad school. It's still an excellent book. Allow me to tell you the parts I like best.

-When Pip goes home from meeting Magwitch and attempts to steal "wittles" for him in secret, he shoves a piece of buttered bread down his pants. Joe, shocked by how quickly Pip has consumed this slice, accuses Pip of "bolting", and though he is apologetic that Pip will get in trouble with Mrs. Joe, he says, "manners is manners, but still your elth's your elth." The ensuing description of the lump of buttered bread sliding down Pip's pant leg is delightful.

-Pip is placed on display at various points in his childhood as the only child in his sister's group of friends. During one of the very awkward dinners he is forced to sit through, Joe gives Pip gravy each time he feels Pip is being verbally abused by the crowd. At one point, Dickens claims Joe pours Pip a half a pint. Excellent example of Dickensian wry humor - Joe offers Pip gravy about six more times during the meal.

-In a discussion of reading and writing, Joe's limited abilities are revealed. When Pip asks him how he spells Gargery, Joe promptly replies, "I don't spell it at all." He says he's "uncommon fond of reading", and happily points out that he can find a J, an O, and a J-O, JO in any piece of writing. This leads to one of my favorite lines in the whole book, "I derived from this last, that Joe's education, like Steam, was in its infancy." I know some people can't get behind him and accuse him of being verbose because he was getting paid by the word, but Dickens is a wordsmith, truly. His sentences may be long and his descriptions in-depth, but each word and phrase carries weight and wit.

-When Pip first returns from visiting Miss Havisham, he embellishes wildly, perhaps to hide the true bizarreness of his visit. He describes them as playing flags, waving swords wildly, and suggests that if he had been prodded further, he would have included a balloon in the yard and a bear in the brewery next door. Amusingly enough, the true story was probably twice as odd as his tale, but when he fesses up to Joe, Joe is extremely disappointed. I love the way Joe pleads with Pip: "But at least there was dogs, Pip? Come Pip, if there warn't no weal-cutlets, at least there was dogs?" Pip responds, "No, Joe." Joe replies, "A dog? A puppy? Come?" He discusses with Pip why Pip would feel compelled to lie, and then adds in, "which reminds me to hope that there were a flag, perhaps?" And Dickens inserts in a parenthesis of Joe's next line, "I'm sorry there weren't a flag, Pip." Brilliant.

-Miss Havisham asks Joe to come to Satis House to make Pip his official apprentice, but Joe is too uncomfortable to address Miss Havisham, so during the whole interview, he addresses Pip when he answers Miss Havisham's questions. Example - when Miss Havisham asks, "Has the boy ever made any objection; does he like the trade?", Joe replies, "Which it is well beknown to yourself, Pip, that it were the wish of your own hart." Pip finds this to be (a) embarassing and (b) extremely frustrating, but it makes for an amazing comic interaction.

-Herbert Pocket, a relative of Miss Havisham, becomes Pip's roommate when he moves to London. Herbert is a kind, true friend, and from the beginning, is willing to help Pip to adjust to high society. This is hilariously portrayed in their first meal together, during which Pip asks him to point out any inappropriate table manners so that he can learn to correct them. Herbert doesn't like Pip's name (Philip) and thinks it too reminiscent of a book about a school boy, so he names Pip Handel, after a Handel piece about a blacksmith. In the process of discussing Miss Havisham and beginning the meal, Herbert points out, "Let me introduce the topic, Handel, by mentioning that in London it is not the custom to put the knife in the mouth - for fear of accidents - and that while the fork is reserved for that use, it is not put further in than necessary." Dickens has a marvelous way of packing seemingly banal conversations with a dry humor. My other favorite line here is when Herbert interrupts his story to mention to Pip that a "dinner napkin will not go into a tumbler."

-Wemmick, the assistant to Mr. Jaggers, Pip's lawyer and guardian while in London, is one of the best characters in the book. He is extremely strict and straightforward with the clientele at the law firm, but when Pip manages to crack Wemmick's hard exterior, he finds out that Wemmick is a totally different person at his home in Walworth. He lives in a bizarre house with a drawbridge and a small moat, and he lives with his father, whom he refers to as the "Aged Parent", or sometimes simply, the "aged P". Dickens' description of the scene where Pip first meets the aged P is hilarious. Wemmick asks Pip to oblige the aged P by nodding, as he is exceedingly deaf.

"You're as proud of it as Punch; ain't you, Aged?" said Wemmick, contemplating the old man, with his hard face really softened; "there's a nod for you': giving him a tremendous one; "there's another for you; giving him a still more tremendous one; "you like that, don't you? If you're not tired, Mr. Pip - though I know it's tiring to strangers - will you tip him one more? You can't think how it pleases him."

Wemmick also shoots off a sort of cannon that he nicknames the Stinger, and calls this the Aged's nightly treat. Pip describes this as it happens for the first time, "Upon this, the Aged - who I believe would have been blown out of his arm-chair but for holding on by the elbows - cried out exultingly, "He's fired! I heerd him!" and I (Pip) nodded at the gentleman until it is no figure of speech to declare that I absolutely could not see him."

-Joe and Pip frequently refer to adventures they will have by saying "What larks" - this theme recurs throughout the novel, even after Pip begins to ignore Joe. When Joe comes to visit Pip (and Pip ends up feeling embarassed and ashamed of Joe - SAD!) Joe asks Biddy to write a letter to Pip announcing his arrival, and the post script reads, "P.S. He wishes me most particular to write what larks. He says you will understand. I hope and do not doubt it will be agreeable to see him even though a gentleman, for you had ever a good heart, and he is a worthy worthy man. I have read him all excepting only the last little sentence, and he wishes me most particular to write again what larks."  This phrase is a delightful representation of Joe and Pip's playful connection, and it appears in circumstances where Pip is mistreating Joe, but also later on in the book when Pip realizes how mean his treatment toward Joe has been. It acts as a sort of code for their relationship and its potential. This letter also captures both Biddy's good heart (for she gives Pip more credit than he deserves at this point in the novel) and Joe's playful innocence and charm.

-When Pip confronts Miss Havisham after finding out that she is not his benefactress, he asks, "But when I fell into the mistake that I have so long remained in, at least you led me on?" She replies, "Yes. I let you go on." Pip demands, "Was that kind?" To which Miss Havisham replies, in a wrath, "who am I, for God's sake, that I should be kind?" This interaction really sums up her feelings of total absolution from responsibility toward Pip or Estella. Her own abuse and heartbreak have ruined her ability to empathize or, perhaps, feel anything at all.

-When Pip comes back to visit Miss Havisham after Estella has gotten married, Miss Havisham, in an odd change of heart, begs his forgiveness for her ill treatment of him. She doesn't really apologize for being so cruel and hard-hearted, but she explains that in the beginning, she hoped only to save Estella from misery, but in the process, she "stole Estella's heart away and put ice in its place." Pip responds "better, to have left her a natural heart, even to bruised or broken." This is the last conversation Pip has with Miss Havisham before she lights herself on fire.

-Pip has strict orders from Wemmick never to discuss his Walworth personality with Mr. Jaggers, nor ever to let on that Wemmick has a whole different life at home. However, in a fit of frustration at Mr. Jaggers boxing him out of the reasoning behind Magwitch granting Pip his "great expectations", Pip reveals to Jaggers that Wemmick has a pleasant home and an aged parent and innocent, cheerful habits at home. Jaggers responds in a shocked voice, "What's all this? You with an old father, and you with pleasant and playful ways?" Wemmick replies, "Well? If I don't bring 'em here, what does it matter?" A hilarious moment of each man re-evaluating the other occurs, after which Wemmick snaps at a blubbering client and tells him to stop "spluttering like a bad pen." He demands that the man leave the office, crying, "I'll have no feelings here. Get out!" It's a wonderful denouement to the storyline of Wemmick leading a double life.

-In the end, Pip loses his money, and realizes, in many ways, that Joe and Magwitch have been truer "gentlemen" than he ever was. When Magwitch dies, he feels affectionate, grateful, and generous, which is a huge turnaround from when Magwitch appeared on Pip's doorstep and Pip was tempted to throw him out on the street. He sums it up by saying, "I only saw in him a much better man that I had been to Joe."

-Wemmick tricks Pip into being a witness for his wedding after Pip has fallen into a deep depression after Magwitch's death. Wemmick grabs a fishing rod and asks Pip to go for a walk. Pip finds this odd once he realizes they are not going fishing, but Wemmick exclaims with surprise, "Halloa! Here's a church! Let's go in!" He proceeds to lead Pip through the wedding, following this line up with others like, "Halloa! Here's a couple of pair of gloves! Let's put 'em on!" and "Halloa! Here's Miss Skiffins! Let's have a wedding." and "Halloa! Here's a ring." The description of the Aged P's role in the day is as follows:

"The responsibility of giving the lady away devolved upon the Aged, which led to the clergyman's being unintentionally scandalized, and it happened thus. When he said, "Who giveth this woman to be married to this man? the old gentleman, not in the least knowing what point of the ceremony we had arrived at, stood most amiably beaming at the ten commandments. Upon which, the clergyman said again, WHO giveth this woman to be married to this man? The old gentleman being still in a state of most estimable consciousness, the bridegroom cried out in his accustomed voice, "Now Aged P. you know; who giveth?" To which the Aged replied with great briskness, before saying that he gave, "All right, John, all right, my boy!"

-The ending is intriguing, and sort of confusing. I'm not sure where we're supposed to assume Pip has ended up on his roller coaster of emotions toward Estella. He isn't totally miserable, in that he has a job working with Herbert, and Herbert is truly delightful, but he still pines for Estella, and in some ways his heart is never complete without her. My version of the book includes an alternate ending that Dickens wrote upon the suggestion of his fellow novelist who thought that the original ending was too dreary. In that one, Estella and Pip bump into each other during one last visit to Satis House, and she is still miserable, but she hopes that she and Pip can be friends, and she expresses openly that suffering has taught her what Pip's heart used to feel, and she is sorry for that. They still leave each other, but this time as friends, and Dickens remarks on the fact that she leaves with no accompanying shadow of a companion. I'm not sure if that's supposed to suggest that maybe she and Pip will end up getting together, or if that's just to reinforce the idea that she will always be alone. I think all told, I like the original ending better.

-The title of the post comes from the following line of thought that Pip expresses in reflecting on the time he spent at Satis House: "What could I become with these surroundings? How could my character fail to be influenced by them? Is it to be wondered at if my thoughts were dazed, as my eyes were, when I came out into the natural light from the misty yellow rooms?" While I'm sure that Miss Havisham's presence could not fail to influence such impressionable minds as those of Pip and Estella, I feel like the effect it has on Pip is remarkable in that it overpowers the positive effects of such relationships as that of Joe, Biddy, Herbert, and eventually Magwitch. It takes Pip most of the book to wash away the smudge that Miss Havisham leaves on his soul, and his attachment to Estella, though not Miss Havisham's fault, leaves him ultimately miserable because Estella has been turned into a heartless ice queen by Miss Havisham. If we really played the blame game out, though, Miss Havisham was who she was because of Compeyson, who was aided by Arthur Havisham and Magwitch, which brings us full circle, as Magwitch made Pip a gentleman and also eventually taught him compassion and love. Tada! Vicious cycle!

This book never ceases to fascinate me, in that I don't particularly like Pip, Estella, or Miss Havisham throughout the novel, and I think it's brilliant that Dickens manages to write a novel about three people I dislike and make me understand and empathize with them. The humor is equally brilliant, and unparalleled in any other book I've read so far. All told, I have no difficulty understanding this one's rating as a classic.

Deeper I go into the land of Dickens, off to Paris in the midst of a revolution.


  1. Just one question: How can Joe get married to Biddy if he's already married to Mrs. Joe? What happened to Mrs. Joe?

  2. Mrs. Joe died. I think I mentioned it in the plot summary. Sorry if I didn't! She suffered a traumatic brain injury when Orlick attacked her in the beginning of the book, and she dies around the middle of the book.