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Great Expectations - Book Review

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Published March 6th 2013
Charles Dickens engineers an elaborate, and sometimes convenient, adventure for two vital characters in Great Expectations. This review is riddled with spoilers so for those who have never read this classic from 1861, continue at your own peril.

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Pip, an underclass boy with very little expected of him, by chance meets a convict by the name of Abel Magwitch. Little does Pip know but his life is about to take an unexpected turn.

The chronological events that follow in Dickens' narrative (at least where Pip and Magwitch are concerned) employ both romance and realism conventions. 'Romance' ties in with the characters' desires and motivations whereas 'realism' refers to the illusion of reality and those elements which support it.

From the very beginning of Great Expectations, the convict, Magwitch, ceases an opportunity to gain an advantage in a realistically portrayed 1800s England by threatening a very young Pip to bring him a file and food (Dickens 1861, p.7). It can be said that in Magwitch's point-of-view, Pip is, at least figuratively speaking, a docile body that is exploited. This idea is no doubt inspired by a fantasy or a dream of Magwitch's to bestow Pip with social mobility and thus live his life vicariously through the young boy. The convict immediately plots his grand and fantastical schemes by biding his time in a logical fashion.

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Pip, on the other hand, is motivated by very real, and believable, fears. At the graveyard during Pip's first encounter with the convict, he would have been traumatised when Magwitch said: 'You fail, or you go from my words in any partickler, no matter how small it is, and your heart and your liver will be tore out, roasted and ate' (Dickens 1861, p.8).

Pip is so paranoid as a result of his social conditioning (think Foucault's Panopticon where everyone is essentially being watched) that he expects to be busted at any moment by the authority for associating with an undesirable criminal.

It is important to recognise Pip's journey from simpleton to gentleman. His mentor and friend, Herbert Pocket, helps forge a new identity more becoming of a young man of higher social class. For example: '... merely breaking off, my dear Handel [Pip], to remark that a dinner-napkin will not go into a tumbler' (Dickens 1861, p.174).

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We can understand Pip's willingness to conform to what is socially acceptable and appropriate at the dinner table because he is motivated to impress those at the Satis House.

The fantasy narrative [Pip] has constructed for himself, as Miss Havisham's heir, destined to marry Estella is perpetuated by subtle deception. The following conversation between Miss Havisham demonstrates this:

Ay, ay! said she, looking at the discomfited and envious Sarah with delight. 'I have seen Mr Jaggers. I have heard about it, Pip.
So you go to-morrow?'
'Yes, Miss Havisham.'
'And you are adopted by a rich person?'
'Yes, Miss Havisham.'
'Not named?'
'No, Miss Havisham.'
'And Mr Jaggers is made your guardian?'
'Yes, Miss Havisham.' (Dickens 1861, p.154)

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However, Pip's romantic line of reasoning is distorted when Magwitch reveals himself as Pip's true benefactor, to Pip's sheer horror.

'I could not have spoken one word, though it had been to save my life. I stood, with a hand on the chair-back and a hand on my breast, where I seemed to be suffocating—I stood so, looking wildly at him, until I grasped at the chair, when the room began to surge and turn. He caught me, drew me to the sofa, put me up against the cushions, and bent on one knee before me: bringing the face that I now well remembered, and that I shuddered at, very near to mine.
"Yes, Pip, dear boy, I've made a gentleman on you! It's me [Magwitch] wot has done it!"' (Dickens 1861, p.307).

Prior to this astounding revelation, Pip was deceived by his own lust and wishful thinking that Miss Havisham was his benefactress and that she was grooming him to marry Estella.

Abel Magwitch, under the guise of Provis, physically pressures Pip to prosper from Provis's wealth. Pip and Herbert Pocket are forced to hide Provis (who has travelled from his sheep farming station in Australia ((Dickens 1861, p.305)) to visit England and his 'gentleman') to evade the obvious repercussions: Provis' being in England violates his transportation obligations. This places Pip and his friends in immediate jeopardy and threatens their social status and reputation. So Wemmick and Pip arrange a safer haven for Provis to stay (Herbert's fiancé's accommodation).

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Therefore, Provis/Magwitch is insane. He is potentially bribing Pip under highly strained circumstances and expects to be able to hide. The situation is ludicrous.

The setting, or construction of English society is described throughout Great Expectations, however there are some events, or moments, where the contemporary reader may miss important clues inherent to the 1800s.

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Where Dickens omits information he assumes at the time that it is obvious to his audience, he is performing a disservice to his future readership for not adequately, or blatantly, showing society as it was. It can be argued, however, that the readership should be more learned of these social observations outside of such a fictional text, but this argument can be swayed again by realising that one of Dickens motivations for writing Great Expectations was for its political function and realistic depictions to stir debate. If that is the case, then more attention should have been spent on describing those missing realistic details.

While the setting (1800s England), Magwitch/Provis's history, Pip's arc from simpleton to gentleman and his friends' motivations are all believable and 'realistic', there are also aspects of fantasy (sometimes considered romance) laced throughout. We realise that England is depicted as harsh in terms of the social hierarchy and Great Expectations utilises this by granting Pip instant success, or social mobility, but it does ignore, or fail to, highlight what happens between the middle/upper class and the lower/under class.

There are gaps in the realistic depiction of an 1800s England, most likely due to the constraints of the plot and the interactions between the key characters. Therefore, 'realism' can be contested as much as 'romance'. Where Pip's random rise on the social ladder is the stuff of miracles, and met with some criticism, the same can be said for the accurate, or not so accurate, portrayal of England. Likewise, Magwitch's journey as a convict and his wealth generated from sheep farming is also realistic, but the lengths he goes to, to establish Pip as a gentleman and in his attempt to live in England is not only daring and outrageous, but also very unlikely. Again, it is plausible and demonstrates that the relationship between Pip and Magwitch is an intriguing mix of 'romance' and 'realism'. It is this wild string of events that makes Great Expectations an entertaining read.
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