Themes in: Great Expectations

Great Expectations is the first novel I ever wrote a blog post about. It was written by Charles Dickens and published in 1861. Great Expectations is a bildungsroman (‘coming of age’) novel about the growth and personal development of an orphan nicknamed Phillip Pirrip, affectionately known as Pip.

Criminality

Crime is key to the novel. Firstly, as a young boy, Pip meets Magwitch, a criminal. From this encounter, Pip grows fearful of criminality. Even once he has grown up and, due to fortuitous circumstances, becomes involved in middle-class society, he is worried his childhood encounters with a criminal have tainted him forever.

Criminality also adopts different forms in the novel.

For example, Magwitch is a stereotypical criminal. He speaks with a local dialect, uses slang, is dirty and violent, and even threatens to cut Pip’s throat. Dickens draws on an obvious stereotype: if he looks like a criminal and sounds like a criminal, he probably is a criminal. However, this in itself is ironic; young Pip doesn’t even know what a convict is, so he does not make these assumptions, and helps Magwitch escape.

‘I put my mouth into the forms of saying to Joe, “What’s a convict?” Joe put his mouth into the forms of returning such a highly elaborate answer, that I could make out nothing of it but the single word “Pip.”

(Great Expectations, Chapter 2)

As a second example, Compeyson is not a stereotypical criminal. He looks like a gentleman, he is well-spoken, educated, charming, although perhaps a little arrogant.

Yet, (spoiler) when Magwitch reveals to Pip he and Compeyson are both criminals, and were involved in the same counterfeiting scheme, this is a complete shock. Magwitch was given 14 years in prison – Compeyson was only given 7, as Compeyson’s lawyer stressed the differences in social class between the two men; Compeyson didn’t fit the mould of a stereotypical criminal, essentially. Thus, Dickens is critiquing how his audience viewed criminality, highlighting that society is more complicated than just dividing people into “good” or “bad”.

Class

Speaking of class, this is also another interesting theme in the novel. Dickens critiques the binary notion of just “lower-class” and “upper-class”. Social mobility – whether rising in class or lowering in status – was increasingly possible in the Victorian period.

For example, Pip makes the declaration:

‘I want to be a gentleman’

(Great Expectations, Chapter 17)

As a boy, he is initially apprenticed as a blacksmith by his guardian and brother-in-law, Joe. When he suddenly receives finances from an anonymous benefactor, he moves to London as a young man and is able to better his circumstances, experiencing and enjoying city society. This highlights the extreme fluidity there is in social class, and challenges the notion that individuals are born and “trapped” in one way of live forever.

– Judith

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Book Review: Room

Jack is five. He lives in a single, locked room with his Ma.

Room is a fascinating book by Emma Donoghue.

‘Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.’

It is told from the perspective of Jack, a young boy who has had no experience of the outside world. All Jack has ever known is Room; it is the place he was born and the place he has grown up. To Ma however, Room is captivity.

As the book is told from Jack’s perspective, the childlike narration is instantly apparent. For example, everything is personified and viewed through the lens of a five-year-old’s imagination such as Room, Bed and Wardrobe. Some of the sentences purposefully lack complete grammatical sense, as Jack struggles to understand certain words, figures of speech, and abstract concepts. This brilliantly reflects not only children’s use of language, but how specifically a child with stunted development uses language.

I was at first worried this style would make it difficult to follow the plot, but I was quickly proved wrong – I struggled to put Room down and read it in just a few days.

“One of the most profoundly affecting books I’ve read in a long time” 

John Boyne, Author of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

Reading from Jack’s perspective was authentic and enriching. The switch between Jack’s reported speech and his private thoughts implicitly revealed information about how Jack and Ma came to be in Room. For example, Jack believes that while Ma was in Room, he was sent to her from Heaven, while the reader can quickly work out the truth of what happened. This implicit way of reporting certain events mirrors how parents at times avoid telling their children upsetting news, or the whole truth, to try and protect them.

My Photo [Room]
Room was adapted into a film in 2015, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Photograph via letterboxd.com

Jack is such a creative individual; he loves reading, hearing, and telling stories that teach him not only about Room, but a semblance of what the outside world is like. Ma has told him about real people, make-believe people, real things and make-believe things in an attempt to help Jack understand. However, this creativity is underlined with sadness; working out what’s real and what isn’t becomes overwhelming and confusing when Jack learns the truth. He is forced to relearn things, as well as learn brand new things because it is apparent the reality of the world clashes with the reality of Room.

‘“You know how Alice wasn’t always in wonderland?”

[…] 

“Well, I’m like Alice,” says Ma.

[…] 

Why’s she pretending like this, is it a game I don’t know?’

Jack’s emotions and thoughts are always so clear and raw, and so watching the deterioration and sadness of his mother’s mental health through his eyes – who has been holding herself together in Room for so long for the sake of him – was incredibly sad.

Room was a tense, gripping and emotional read. Despite having seen the film, and knowing the outline of the plot, I was constantly kept on edge by Donoghue’s writing and couldn’t wait to read what happened next.

I strongly recommend Room; I’ve never read a book like it before, and I doubt anything else I ever read will come close.

 – Judith

Book Review: Sons and Lovers

Sons and Lovers is a story by D.H. Lawrence which ‘concerns childhood and adolescence and all that go with them, including fear, shame, self‑consciousness, emotional hypersensitivity, sexual awakening’ (Morrison, 2013).

The book focuses upon Mrs Morel, and her youngest son Paul, as well as the relationships he has with two different women in the town: Miriam and Clara. Paul and his mother have an intensely close relationship, and the two behave as lovers – hence the title – which then has an impact on the way Paul sees the world and forms relationships with others.

Sons and Lovers has Lawrence’s clear imprint upon it; the use of Nottinghamshire dialect, characters from a working-class background, the setting of a mining town, and touching on themes such as class, gender, and sexuality.

Yet despite Lawrence’s clear coverage of Paul’s Oedipus Complex*, I found Sons and Lovers less sexually explicit than Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was a relief!

*Oedipus Complex: A theory that the unconscious mind desires sexual relations with the parent of the opposite sex (e.g. sons being sexually attracted to their mothers)

Another difference between Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Sons and Lovers is that in Sons and Lovers, the novel follows the daily life of Mrs Morel and her family over a period of time and, well, that’s about it. As Paul flitted between Miriam, Clara, and Mrs Morel, I never got the impression that the action was building to anything. Thus, when the book ended, it just ended.

Furthermore, for a book which frequently refers to the gender inequalities between men and women, the portrayal of women in Sons and Lovers was not a positive one. It’s clear Paul uses his relationships with Miriam and Clara to satisfy his physical needs and not much else.  Miriam regularly speaks of her desire not to be held back in life because she is a woman, yet spends her entire time moping around the non-committal Paul, only ever seeing her future in relation to his. We are told Clara is a suffragist, yet scenes of Clara expressing her feminist beliefs are omitted, and instead we are provided more details of Clara’s clinging to Paul.

I can understand why Sons and Lovers has received high praise from readers and critics alike; Lawrence’s writing is good, and his descriptions are detailed and lifelike. The theme of incestuous love between mother and son is certainly one most writers would steer well clear of, but Lawrence tackles it in an interesting way.

Morrison writes that ‘For those new to his [that is, Lawrence’s] work, Sons and Lovers is the place to start.’ (The Guardian, 2013).

Whilst I disagree with this, I can’t deny that I enjoy Lawrence’s writing, and there is no doubt in my mind that I will read more of his novels in future.

 

– Judith