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The lasting appeal of Great Expectations

The third season of the Oxford World’s Classics Reading Group has now come to a close, but the fun isn’t over yet. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst will be answering your Dickens questions LIVE on Twitter on Friday 25th September at 3pm GMT (11am EST). Tweet your questions to @owc_oxford with the #OWCReads hashtag and Robert will answer them on Friday.

According to George Orwell, the biggest problem with Dickens is that he simply doesn’t know when to stop. Every sentence seems to be on the point of curling into a joke; characters are forever spawning a host of eccentric offspring. “His imagination overwhelms everything”, Orwell sniffed, “like a kind of weed”. That is hardly an accusation that could be leveled against Great Expectations. If some of Dickens’s novels sprawl luxuriously across hundreds of pages, this one is as trim as a whippet. Touch any part of it and the whole structure quivers into life.

In Chapter 1, for example, Pip recalls watching Magwitch pick his way through the graveyard brambles, “as if he were eluding the hands of the dead people, stretching up cautiously out of their graves, to get a twist upon his ankle and pull him in”. Not until the final chapters do we realize why Pip is so haunted by the convict’s apparent reluctance to stay above ground, but already the novel’s key narrative method has been established. To open Great Expectations is to enter a world in which events are often caught only out of the corner of the narrator’s eye. It is a novel of hints and glimpses, of bodies disappearing behind corners, and leaving only their shadows behind. Whichever of Dickens’s two endings is chosen, it’s hard to finish the last page without thinking of how much remains to be said.

Of course, none of this occurred to me when I first read Great Expectations as a child. Growing up in the 1980s, this story of class mobility and get-rich-quick ambition resonated with all the force of a modern parable. The revelation that there was another story behind the one I was enjoying was as much a shock to me as it is to Pip, but that only increased my admiration for a novelist who treats his plot rather as Jaggers treats Miss Havisham in her wheelchair, using one hand to push her ahead while putting “the other in his trousers-pocket as if the pocket were full of secrets”. I suspect that’s one reason why Great Expectations is such a popular novel. Readers grow up with it. It’s probably also why so many of them sympathise with Pip, whose narrative voice involves the perspective of a wide-eyed child coming up against that of his wiser, sadder adult self. Anyone who first reads the story as a child and returns to it in later years is likely to feel a similar mixture of nostalgia and relief.

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Antique camera by condesign. CCo Public domain via Pixabay.

But it isn’t only individual readers who have grown up with Great Expectations, our culture has too. Dickens once claimed that David Copperfield was his ‘favourite child’, and that Great Expectations was a close second. It’s no coincidence that both novels are about how easily children can be warped or damaged, but of the two it is the shorter, sharper Great Expectations that has aged better. Few works of fiction have enjoyed such a lively creative aftermath. Peter Carey has rewritten it in Jack Maggs. Television shows from The Twilight Zone to South Park have echoed it in ways that range from loving homage to finger-poking parody. Even the title has come to settle in the public consciousness, with video dating agencies like ‘Great Expectations Services for Singles’ and shops like ‘Grape Expectations’ (wine) or ‘Baked Expectations’ (cakes). It’s hard not to be fond of a novel that so perfectly reflects its author’s restless, rummaging imagination.

But why would anyone want to read the novel today? Inevitably there are as many reasons as there are readers, and I hope that some lively discussions will emerge from OUP’s decision to choose Great Expectations as their big summer read. For some people, this is a novel about the fact that we never fully leave our childhood behind. For others, it is one of the most realistic love stories ever written, in which the many feelings associated with love – joy, hope, disappointment, regret, despair – mingle on the page without ever reaching a clear conclusion. For others still, this is a novel full of images that stick in the memory like burrs, from Pip crying in the graveyard to the ghastly appearance of Miss Havisham. Indeed, perhaps it is appropriate that this is one of the few novels written by Dickens that includes a plural noun in its title, because the longer you spend with this brilliantly compact work of fiction, the more you start to realise that it is in fact many novels in one.

Featured image: Leather shoes by Antranias. CCo Public domain via Pixabay.

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