The Story’s the Thing: Great Expectations and First Impressions
Some people from my generation tend to have a disliking for books we were supposed to read for class, even though many of the copies of those books are never leafed through at all. However, I do think everybody has at least one of those books, no matter how much they love reading and literature in general. I am the least proud of my literary exploits in 8th grade, when we were literally “forced” to read A Christmas Carol. We had all seen the different versions of the movie a billion times and, since it was Christmastime, we were being bombarded with them all over again. Kind of needless to say, the class hated it.
Still, I wasn’t done with Dickens. A few months later, I decided that my first impressions of him may have been misleading, so I picked up The Pickwick Papers from the school library. This was one of the worst decisions of my life, because it made me avoid Dickens for almost the entirety of high school. That is, until I decided to go to a film fest screening of the brand-new Great Expectations. I did it because of the amazing cast, but left the theatre with an unimaginable affection for the characters and the story.
After this curious incident, I surprisingly decided to read Great Expectations over Christmas break, but I couldn’t hold off for so long and I already finished the book. For anyone who hasn’t read it or seen any of the many dramatized versions, it’s about two things: the relationships between the individual and society, and between two individuals. The second type is too often and too vastly affected by the first and that’s where both the drama and the humor arise from.
The main character, Pip, (portrayed by the lovely Jeremy Irvine in the 2012 film version – as I said, I was there for the cast, mostly…) has “great expectations” in the beginning of the book. His earliest ambition is to become a gentleman – under the influence of men’s image in high society – in order to win Estella, a wonderfully beautiful, but cold girl he has fallen in love with (the incredible Holliday Grainger), where we see the connection between individual characters. Unarguably, the love story is a main plotline and Pip always follows the advice of Miss Havisham (the wondrous Helena Bonham Carter), who appears as a sort of macabre fairy godmother to Pip and encourages him (in a speech that sort of frightens me) to:
“Love her, love her, love her! If she favours 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!”
However, romance is not my strong side, so I claim that the story is about something else, with love rather as a sort of backdrop. Great Expectations is about societal norms and, yes, you guessed it, expectations. The book looks at society’s influence on the individual both as positive and, in a much larger part, negative. When one gets lost in a society he doesn’t belong to, like Pip does, he might lose other things as well, and generally the consequences are bad for him, no matter if they’re physical and material (as in getting beat up and losing all your money… well) or mental and emotional.
However, typically in the fairy tale manner and quite like the Dickens I know from A Christmas Carol, the ‘Once upon a time’ ends in ‘And they lived happily ever after.’ The happy ending of the novel makes everything seem not so bad, and simply as challenges before Pip gets to the good part he has been yearning for for so long. However, to me the most valuable bits are the bits of conflict and the pieces of insurmountable strains that are set along Pip’s tumultuous path. So even if the end is a happy one, I much prefer the parts that come before it, when he understands that society is not as good as he thought it was and he has to relearn the laws of London society he thought were as simple as becoming a ‘gentleman’. But London’s definition and Pip’s are too different notions to have anything to do with the same word.
[End of spoilers]
Speaking of London, as Joseph Conrad would say, ‘and this also has been one of the dark places of the Earth.’ Not only in the sense that the modern London we know and love is ratty, dirty, both figuratively and quite literally, and very ‘dark’, but also everything in the Dickens universe is shadowy – the characters, their actions, their values. The world of the city and of the book is mostly seen after sundown. The characters hide in the shadows and are distorted images of themselves. This is another one of the things that is so precious about the book – that one has to learn that things aren’t always what they seem, so the trust one gives away needs to be handled carefully.
What can I say about Great Expectations? It taught me a lot about first impressions and how they can be misleading. First impressions of people, perhaps, but mostly about books. In the end, it turns out I’m not always right, as frightening as that sounds…
Have you ever changed your opinion on a book or author completely? Tell us in the comments!