Guilt and desire, money and the nature of capitalism are pervasive themes in Dickens’ magnificent novel. Pip’s expectation, before his expectations, is that he will be shown to have already committed a crime…The orphan Pip’s terrifying encounter with an escaped convict on the Kent marshes, and his mysterious summons to the house of Miss Havisham and her cold, beautiful ward, Estella, form the prelude to his ‘great expectations’. How Pip comes into a fortune, what he does with it, and what he discovers through his secret benefactor are the ingredients of his struggle for moral redemption.
Great Expectations is a classic that needs little introduction. Pip narrates the story of his great expectations, from the blacksmith forge to the promise of success and prosperity in London due to the generosity of an unknown benefactor. Sadly, Pip’s expectations come to nothing as the fortune slips through his fingers, but Dickens introduces us to a wonderful array of characters including the proud but beautiful Estella, the reclusive and vengeful Miss Havisham, and the threatening but generous convict, Magwitch.
My favourite character though is Joe, Pip’s brother-in-law and father figure. Joe is illiterate, considered simple and backward by many, yet is kind, honest and throughout all maintains his sense of integrity. Despite the lofty words uttered by those deemed to be his social betters, it is from Joe’s lips that we hear true words of wisdom. After Pip confesses to fabricating the truth about life at Miss Havisham’s, Joe gives Pip some excellent advice about what it really means to be “oncommon.”
“Lies is lies…Don’t you tell no more of ‘em, Pip. That ain’t the way to get out of being common, old chap…You are oncommon in some things. You’re oncommon small. Likewise, you’re a oncommon scholar…If you can’t get to be oncommon through going straight, you’ll never get to do it through going crooked. So don’t tell no more on ‘em, Pip, and live well and die happy.”
One of the themes of Great Expectations is the limited opportunities for women, especially from the poorer classes and those with abusive husbands. Not only were their lives miserable with no legal recourse, but it limited the educational opportunities for their children too. Joe is an example of this and it influences the way he takes the mistreatment from his wife, Pip’s sister, Mrs Joe. Though she treats Joe with contempt and harshness, he never retaliates. At first we might think him weak and foolish, but as Joe explains…
“I see so much in my poor mother, of a woman drudging and slaving and breaking her honest hart and never getting no peace in her mortal days, that I’m dead afeerd of going wrong in the way of not doing what’s right by a woman, and I’d fur rather of the two go wrong the t’other way, and be a little ill-conwenienced myself.”
Joe has such a beautiful, kind and humble heart and it is such a joy that he lives to experience a simple but peaceful and happy life by the end of the novel. Pip’s great expectations may have come to nothing, but his character arc is also most satisfying. He learns to appreciate the things that really matter in life and the tender scenes between Pip and the dying Magwitch are my favourite part of the book.
Pip is not the only one to be buoyed with the hope of great expectations. It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were gazing with great expectation into this coming year. Standing on the threshold of the 2020s, we had expectations of celebrating events with family friends, travelling to new places, and fulfilling academic and employment goals. Who could have predicted that we would spend much of our year in isolation, practising stringent hygiene and social distancing, and seeing our own great expectations evaporate into thin air. Some of us have had a particularly difficult year, losing family members, employment and struggling with mental health.
One of my great expectations for the year was the reading of many books. At the beginning of the year this goal looked a little challenging but definitely achievable. But now, at the beginning of October, I am looking at that great expectation, pictured in the background of Great Expectations above, and realising I am going to have to do some serious reading if that expectation is ever going to be fulfilled by the end of 2020.
2020 didn’t quite turn out the way that I expected. The anxiety of the unknown, the upheaval of routines and the stress of having family at home have been very disruptive. It has also been quite exhausting, physically, mentally and emotionally. I have often felt out of sorts and unmotivated. With just a few weeks to go, the end of this study semester can’t come soon enough. I, for one, will be quite happy to see the end of this year.
We all might have had grander hopes, dreams and expectations for this year. Perhaps we dreamed of a society that welcomed and supported the stranger, the disabled, the elderly and the poor, of leaders that demonstrated integrity, compassion, respect and led by example, and of a kinder, more generous and equitable world. While Covid 19 has grabbed the major headlines this year and important issues such as climate change, reconciliation and world peace seem to have been pushed into the shadows, there is still always hope. We have hope that a vaccine will soon be a reality. We have hope that life will slowly return to a new, maybe even better, kind of normal. And we can still hope that we will see our great expectations fulfilled in our lifetime.