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: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol is, I think, well-deserving of its fame as a Christmas classic. In case you’re not familiar with the story (although I wonder how is this is possible), A Christmas Carol is about one particularly mean old man, Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge is notorious for hating all things associated with Christmas, until, one December, the influence of four ghosts initiates a drastic character transformation in him.

Last year, Chris Priestley wrote ‘A Christmas Carol is more than just a story. It is a tirade against greed, selfishness and neglect. It uses the story of a rich man – the startlingly nasty Scrooge – to highlight the plight of those affected by the greed and meanness he exemplifies.’*

*Chris Priestley, Ignorance and Want: why Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is as relevant today as ever

For Dickens, social realism and social commentary are reoccurring themes in his work; Oliver Twist focuses on the injustice cast upon the poor (for example, Oliver) by the better-off (for example, Mr Bumble) and highlights the realities of the poor – themes such as violence and crime can be seen in the lives of Fagin, Bill and Nancy. Similarly, in Great Expectations, Pip begins life in a struggling working-class family, with limited provisions, until he is provided with the means to better his chances in life.

Therefore, Christmas seems an appropriate time for Dickens to again draw attention to the impact the “Scrooges of Society” have on others, as people tend to be more charitable, kind and willing to listen around Christmas-time than other times of year.

I like the length of A Christmas Carol; it’s quite short compared to some of Dickens’ other books, which makes it an easy read – ideal, if you want to start reading more classic novels but don’t know where to start.

I also liked the idea of mixing Christmas, usually a cheerful occasion, with ghosts, hauntings and a foreboding sense of impending doom. This brings out my enjoyment for Gothic literature! Naturally, then, my favourite ghosts are Jacob Marley (his entrance of groaning chains is enough to spook anyone) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. I feel like these are some of the best characters drawn out in the various film adaptations too – although I’m yet to find a film adaptation that completely satisfies me.

As A Christmas Carol is such a popular story, I thought I’d scour Goodreads, to find out why readers love this book so much:

1. Claudia said: ‘I think A Christmas Carol makes us better people.’

2. Jude said: ‘It reminds us of what is truly important in a life.’

3. Walter said: ‘It showed us how the spirit of the holidays can be humanizing.’

4. Melissa said: ‘For me, it’s not so much the story–which I enjoy every Christmas, sometimes twice – as it is the writing itself. There’s a lyrical quality that hasn’t popped out at me in his longer stories.’

5. Diane said: ‘I think we love this story partly because of how well Dickens portrayed Scrooge as a complex, multi-layered character. Sure, he appears as a greedy stereotype at first, but then we are shown his backstory and how he became that way, and (gasp), suddenly we realize that any of us could become rapacious and bitter if we chose to go down that road. And that’s what raises this tale to a classic–its universality. We are also made to care so deeply about Tiny Tim & his family, who choose to be generous even through their own want, because they realize they will become like Scrooge if they don’t.’

– Judith

Book Review: Jude The Obscure

Jude The Obscure is a Bildungsroman (coming of age) story following the life of Jude who, when we are first introduced, aspires to study at Christminster and become an academic or clergyman. However, various relationships and social dramas interrupt this life goal until it gradually withers away.

I really liked Hardy’s style of writing and this was an easy and enjoyable book to read. I thought the issues covered, such as religion, marriage, divorce and courting were discussed in a very modern way, which pleasantly surprised me, given the fact it was written more than 100 years ago.

I also liked the way the book was split into 6, roughly equal parts: At Marygreen [1], At Christminster [2], At Melchester [3], At Shaston [4], At Aldbrickham and Elsewhere [5], At Christminster Again [6]. This helped the narrative flow by keeping each section in just one setting, and also made it easier to log my progress on Goodreads!

The part which gripped me most was At Christminster Again [6] because of the tense and emotional scene with Little Father Time and the children. The scene was predictable, but in a good way. The foreshadowing was well done, so I knew what would happen, and when it did, I was simultaneously satisfied and heart-broken! I am wary of saying much more as I like to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible.

I also noticed some narrative similarities between Jude The Obscure and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens; the beginnings are quite similar. A young boy raised by his aunt grows up to learn about the world and develops feelings for a local girl. However, once Jude reached manhood, the plot completely changed, and sadly this is where the similarities between the two novels ended.

Another slight disappointment for me was that I didn’t understand why the book is called Jude The Obscure. To me, this is such a shame because usually with older books, it’s easier to work out. I just like to be able to work out myself why the book has been given its title.

Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this Hardy novel and it may be my favourite!

– Judith