Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Review: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Arguably my favorite novel is Great Expectations, authored by Charles Dickens. It is the remarkable story of a young boy from a very humble background who is ushered into the high society. The novel follows the story of the boy, named "Pip", as he embarks on this journey.

In many ways, there is nothing special about Pip. He does not have superhuman powers, nor jaw-dropping charisma and wealth. Instead, the Pip we are introduced to in the beginning is very much an ordinary product of his times: orphaned at a young age, brought up by his sister "by the hand", and who enjoys the company of his friends. Pip aspires to follow in the footsteps of his kind brother-in-law, Joe, who is is a local blacksmith. Yet certain events quickly unfold that ultimately propel him into another life altogether -- the life of a "gentleman".

The immediate change we see in Pip when he first hears of his "great expectations" is his attitude to those around him. In reality, this change in attitude from a humble/naive boy is set in motion in Pip's encounter with a beautiful girl named Estella. (We assume Estella is very beautiful because that is how Pip always refers to her). But there is a noticeable problem -- Estella is the daughter of a wealthy lady while Pip is the complete opposite. The class barrier between the two is made more glaring through Estella's cruelty toward Pip in the beginning.

Plot summary aside, Dickens masterfully crafts Great Expectations like a mystery novel: Pip is simply "handed" the opportunity to rise above his circumstances. It is enthralling because Pip's reaction to this good fortune resembles someone who has won the lottery. He is confused yet overjoyed, optimistic but also saddened to leave behind his friends and family. There would be many complications to his journey in becoming a gentleman -- including a heart-rending episode in which the relationship between him and Estella climaxes.

From this novel's perspective, I can see similarities with other famous and/or contemporary works of fiction. The recently discussed Memoirs of a Geisha comes to mind: as the child Chiyo is similarly conferred "expectations" in the form of an opportunity to become a geisha. The romance between Pip and Estella is also reflected in other works such as Pride and Prejudice, as well as The Great Gatsby. [Perhaps not very much at all...just came to mind.]

As it is perhaps my favorite novel, there are multiple reasons that explain my affinity to the novel. All these reasons pertain, in one way or another, to the way I identify with Pip's experiences.

1. I identify with Pip's childhood. After having moved around various countries during my childhood, I sometimes wonder what things would have been like had I stayed in my country of birth (China). What would my life look like now? Amongst other things, my prospects are certainly brighter than otherwise. But it makes me wonder sometimes

2. I identify with Pip's expectations. Having growing up as male heir in a Chinese household, I was always expected to honor my family through my achievements (the movie Mulan captured this obsession with honor very well...). These expectations are raised further as I have a much younger brother, who looks up to me. Similar to Pip, I was bestowed these expectations and am sorta bound to strive to fulfill them.

3. I identify with Pip's sentiments toward Estella. Inasmuch as I try to deny or forget, I often still find myself thinking about Mandy and how we seem to belong. Pip's description of how he felt toward Estella is identical to how I feel toward Mandy. I simply cannot phrase the sentiment better than Pip does in chapter 29:

"Estella was the inspiration of [his dream to restore the desolate house and marrying her], and the heart of it, of course. But, though she had taken such strong possession of me, though my fancy and my hope were so set upon her, though her influence on my boyish life and character had been all-powerful, I did not, even that romantic morning, invest her with any attributes save those she possessed. I mention this in this place, of a fixed purpose, because it is the clue by which I am to be followed into my poor labyrinth. According to my experience, the conventional notion of a lover cannot be always true. The unqualified truth is, that when I loved Estella with the love of a man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible. Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be. Once for all; I loved her none the less because I knew it, and it had no more influence in restraining me, than if I had devoutly believed her to be human perfection."

In retrospect, the 3 reasons I just provided rarely existed together. This is to say they came in stages during my life -- when I was younger, I identified more with the child Pip, and now I identify more with the older Pip. Maybe this flexibility of identity is what makes Great Expectations (one of?) my favorite novels of all time.


  1. Must be an enjoyable read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

  2. Thanks for the feedback! It's not my favorite book without a reason. Glad to know there's at least one reader :)