Lingua Mea Vita


BBC Book Challenge — Great Expectations

I will pretty much do anything Oprah tells me to do. I guess in my case, I’m lucky she asked me (and her other millions of viewers) to read Charles Dickens books rather than pimp my young body out for oodles of cash. But Oprah wouldn’t ask me to do the latter. Oprah loves.

Since both A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations happen to be on the BBC Book Challenge list, I figured I’d tackle one of them for my next book-to-read.

And ladies and gents, there is a reason why Charles Dickens is uber-famous.

Great Expectations is incredibly readable! Well, dur, yeah, it’s readable…it’s a book. I mean that Great Expectations is an easy read, in terms of flow and language, even by today’s English standards. For those intimidated by the looming cloud of “Dickens language” should have no fear. Take it slow at first, you’ll get used to the language really quickly to realize that “w” is pronouced like “v” and that this book has more plot twists than a Kevin Spacey movie.

So needless to say, major spoilers in the plot summary.

SUMMARY (a rather long one):

We meet six-year-old Pip. We learn that he is an orphan, he lives with his brother-in-law, Joe and his sister, Mrs. Joe. We also learn that Joe is mild-mannered and Mrs. Joe is a raging…witch. I learn that there is no way this story is told through the voice of a six-year-old, despite it being in first person.

Pip is lounging around in a cemetery, visiting his dead parents when he comes across a big, scary hulk of a man. He tells Pip to get “wittles and a file” or he’s going to sick “the young man” on him. Pip, like any child, is afraid of anything he doesn’t know so just the prospect of the “young man” is enough to get him go back home, steal some food from his mean sister and a file from his blacksmith brother in law.

Later, Pip feels guilty for stealing the food that his sister planned to serve for Christmas dinner (though he can’t stand anyone invited to dinner, with the exception of Joe). She notices the food is missing at the same time the police show up at the door, asking for help in investigating the whereabouts of some convicts. Joe, one of the dinner guests, Mr. Wopsle, and Pip (for some reason) all go out to investigate. The convict is revealed to be the hulking man who demanded the wittles and the file. He takes the blame for stealing the food from Pip’s sister and the file from Joe and his taken away.

After this, Uncle Pumblechook (another one of the dinner guests) takes Pip to Miss Havisham, the old, wealthy, town nutjob who sits in the dark in an old wedding dress and veil. Miss Havisham has an adoptive daughter, Estella, who is very pretty, but very mean. And despite Estella mocking him to no end, Pip decides that he’s in love with her.

Miss Havisham invites Joe to see her at Satis House (her mansion of sorts). Joe reveals to his wife that Miss Havisham paid him 25 pounds (which is apparently, a ton o’money back then) and she no longer needs Pip. So Pip starts to work with Joe, along with Orlick, the king of the temper tantrum.

After some time, Joe gives Pip a half-day off to see Miss Havisham, and of course, Orlick, thinking like a child, decides that it’s only fair if he gets one too. When Joe refuses, they get into a fight and Joe fires Orlick. When Pip comes home, he sees that his sister has been beaten and the audience is lead to believe that Orlick is behind it, though the police in the book don’t confirm it.

Biddy, Pip’s childhood friend, moves in with Pip, Joe and his sister, taking on the responsibility of Mrs. Joe’s nurse. Biddy has the hots for Pip, but he, after all this time, despite her never really being kind of him, is still carrying a torch for Estella. He then receives a large sum of money from an unnamed benefactor. The conditions? He has to move to London, buy new clothes, and become a gentleman.

And of course, Pip wastes the money and his sister dies.

Pip also thinks that Miss Havisham is the person behind the money and that she wants him and Estella to marry.

(Pay attention now, this is where the plot starts to twist)

  1. Turns out, Miss Havisham isn’t the benefactor. She didn’t ever want Pip to marry Estella. Estella marries a Bentley Drummle, a man that pip doesn’t even like.
  2. The benefactor is a man named Abel Magwitch, who reveals himself to be the hulking, “wittles and a file” man from the cemetery. He became rich after he escaped the clutches of the police in Australia
  3. Turns out, Abel Magwitch is Estella’s biological father.

Pip and Magwitch plan to leave the country, but before that can happen Pip is nearly beaten to death by Orlick. After that, Magwitch is arrested and dies in prison. All of his money is surrendered to the government, so Pip is left broke and in debt.

Joe kindly pays off Pip’s debts without him knowing. Once he finds out, he goes back to the village to thank Joe and propose to Biddy. Turns out, Biddy and Joe are getting married. Whoops!

So Pip leaves the country, becomes wealthy, and pays Joe back eventually! That is that!

WHY IS THIS BOOK RELEVANT?

I read somewhere (probably Oprah’s website) that Charles Dickens was the first “celebrity”. People from all over read his books and lauded him for his extraordinary talent. Charles Dickens is still kind of a celebrity to this day, his work is considered the gold standard in literature. As it should, the plot elements of Great Expectations can be easily molded in modern America (as it was in the 1998 movie with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow).

But outside of being the first celebrity, Charles Dickens ushered in writing in the first person (which is probably why I found it so easy to read, most literature these days seems to be written in the first person). Dickens also introduced the use of the plot twist long before M. Night Shyamalan.

All in all, Charles Dickens was the innovator. He made literature personal by basing his characters and plots off his life experiences and he kept readers engaged with the plot twists. Somehow, 150 years ago, Charles Dickens created the formula for the modern novel.

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