Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Victorian coming-of-age
Published: 1 December 1860 – 3 August 1861, All the Year Round (weekly) & Harper’s Weekly (monthly)
Pages (Chapman & Hall Edition, 1862): 554
Other Works: A Christmas Carol, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist
Picked by Joshua Rothe (Stitched Crosses series; Shadow of the Stars series)
Great Expectations might be one of the greatest stories either never read (because it was imposed during high school literature) or greatly misunderstood/misinterpreted (based on the inadequacies of visual adaptations).
It is not a ‘rags-to-riches’ story. Nor is it in any way a vehicle of criticism primarily against the upper class, or a stick stirring the pot of class warfare; Dickens is careful to place heroes and villains in all stations presented, because his is other purposes.
Great Expectations is about original sin, which works through covetousness and ambition to corrupt temporal wealth and success — be it by hard labour or inherited. The poisonous fruit usually produced is vengeance, thanklessness, contempt, a scything tongue. Dickens is clear: we are slaves to sin, it is part of our very nature from birth. The story shows this truth as iniquity bears itself out in every choice the characters make — even when they think they are making a choice for good.
It is also about crippling guilt under the law, natural and created. The story illustrates profoundly and often what St. Paul writes about in Romans 3:9-20 — “None is righteous, no, not one… through the law comes knowledge of sin.” But it is also about repentance and the forgiveness of sins: repentance and forgiveness saturates this story, and also the good fruit it bears. Where there is no recognition of sin, no contrition that one is a sinner and has sinned against those one loves, no forgiveness or the humility to seek it, destruction follows.
The story also illustrates vividly true love — not just the romantic kind between man and woman, but the deep love and loyalty between friends, the formidable bond of love between members of family. Where this love does not exist or is rejected, death and hate and cruelty is shown rushing to fill the void.
Also not to be lost in everything is the importance of vocation. Pip desires from the very first pages to be a blacksmith, like his dear brother-in-law and teacher, Joe. It is only when Pip is infatuated with a forbidden fruit (Estella), and given wealth, that he engages in reckless abandon to achieve what the world defines as ‘great expectations’. It is when Pip replaces truth for falsehood, to be someone he is not and part of a world that was never meant to be his calling, that he becomes blind to the reality that he is (with others) but a pawn in someone else’s wicked schemes.
All-in-all, Great Expectations is a superb presentation of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son; it is a sobering cautionary tale; it is a tale with a solemn victory — not of the kind that comes with fanfares and parades, but of the soul and heart.
Great Expectations is a story worth every minute you are willing to give it, even if it takes weeks and months to get through its chapters.