You know, I could have started this with a "great expectations" pun but I refrained. I am so proud of myself. I am even prouder that I made myself finish Great Expectations, which is, to date, the only Dickens novel I have disliked.
I was considering using "loathed" or "despised" there, but I have to admit that there were some funny bits and that Miss Havisham is indeed all she's cracked up to be.
Dickens' earlier novels, while admittedly more melodramatic, often incorporated a wide cast of characters with uniquely quirky names and equally bizarre habits. Great Expectations has a lot less of that, and most of his characterization is funneled into Miss Havisham, who really doesn't show up that much in the narrative (if you have read Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books you know what she does on her time off!), and Wemmick, clerk to Mr. Jaggers who leads the most charming double life. But as a bildungsroman, it failed for me, because the main character, Pip Pirrip, is not only dull as a board, but also completely superficial, cruel, and emotionally stunted. He is the Victorian equivalent of a dudebro.
I feel a bit strange for disliking a book because of an unlikeable character. Next to unreliable narrators, unlikeable characters in books are some of my very favorite things. Hand me a deliciously flawed anti-hero any day. But Pip isn't exactly wicked, he's just extraordinarily insensitive to the nth degree.
Usually, if you mention Great Expectations, everyone thinks about Miss Havisham. This woman's jilting literally stopped time in her house. Wearing her bridal garb, with the remains of the bridal feast still on the table and the clocks set to the exact minute she lost everything, Havisham is a human specimen belonging in a very odd cabinet of curiosities. Her hatred for men leads her to adopt a young, beautiful girl and raise her to break hearts. This is Pip's love interest, Estella. I'm not quite sure why he loves her so much except for that she is very beautiful. I couldn't believe that his childish crush carried over into this bizarre obsession as an adult. Not that things like that don't happen, but Dickens didn't make me believe in Pip's fascination with Estella. Plus, this perpetuates the fantasy of "I can't have her, so I must make her love me" that engendered the concept of the "friendzone" and how girls need to be "won" by guys. Nope.
Anyway, Pip starts life humbly enough, orphaned and living with his much older sister and her husband, Joe Gargery. Mrs. Joe, as she is called, is temperamental, histrionic, and cruel, while Joe is sweet, gentle, and kind. Pip and Joe act as a sort of buffer against Mrs. Joe's wildness. Near their home are some moors (obviously. England must be absolutely teeming with moors), and in the swampy river farther out is a prison ship. Evidently, it's like a floating apartment house for convicts, only the amenities are leg irons and rats. One day, Pip comes upon an escaped convict in the moors. The man threatens Pip into bringing him some food and a file with while to work on his leg iron. Pip can't stop moaning about how awful he felt about stealing and how he was such a naughty boy, but that soon ends because the convict (along with his mortal enemy) is rounded up and Pip is summoned to wait upon the elderly, aforementioned Miss Havisham.
Later, after being apprenticed to Joe, Pip starts to become intolerable. He knows how to read, and Joe does not, so he takes every opportunity to humiliate his adopted father. Being a companion of Miss Havisham and the ravishingly pretty Estella causes Pip to see the dirt and grime associated with his home life. Pip ignores this vital truth: although they are a bit sooty and poor and mostly illiterate, the Gargerys are much happier than the sepulchral Miss Havisham.
The wheel of fortune turns again, and Pip receives an extraordinary piece of correspondence, informing him that he has the titular "great expectations" (i.e. will come into money) and is expected to become a gentleman. Off he goes to London to meet his solicitor, the inscrutable Mr. Jaggers, who acts as intermediary between himself and his unknown benefactor. Once in London, Pip rooms with a genial fellow named Herbert Pocket, a poor relative of Miss Havisham. Herbert is a cheery but poor young man with an inexplicable tendency to call Pip "Handel," which makes no sense whatsoever. Evidently Dickens felt the same way, as later in the book, Pip and Herbert simply call each other by their first names.
Once in London, Pip wants nothing more to do with sooty, dirty, unsuitable Joe, and puts on great airs of being a gentleman to the point of going into debt. He also becomes friends with Jaggers' clerk, Wemmick, who has a secret home life that's actually exceedingly funny. More Wemmick, please!
As everyone knows (and apologies if you didn't know this by now, but seriously, it's like part of our cultural landscape), it turns out that the convict that Pip helped in his youth is his secret benefactor, having made piles of money down in Australia. Magwitch snuck back to England to see how his protégé was doing. However, once he knows the source of his money (uh, legally earned money from Australia), since it has been tainted by the specter of convicts. Quelle bloody horreur!
When Pip goes to Miss Havisham to confront her about her "leading him on" to believe that he was intended for Estella (which, remember, no one ever said, but Pip's brain was lustily charging ahead), she puffs into flames (note: candles + cobwebs + really old wedding dress = conflagration). Pip saves her, but is terribly burned on his arms.
Aside from the imagery here, which, let's be honest, is completely brilliant, there is really no point to Pip's injuries except to give him yet another thing to complain about. Hooray!
Someone finds out that Magwitch is in England and starts blackmailing Pip, if by blackmailing you mean kidnapping and attempting to murder. After a lucky escape, he, Herbert, and this random dude smuggle Magwitch out of London, but it doesn't really work and Magwitch dies a tragic death. But at least he knows that his adoptive son Pip loves his long-lost daughter Estella. Because of course.
Pip could have been replaced by an actual turd throughout the entire narrative and it would have been much easier to understand him. As is, he is a selfish, emotionally-stunted prig who feels entitled to everything, especially Estella, since she is a thing to be possessed and not a person.
Aside from the little turns of phrase that recall Dickens' earlier works and characters like Wemmick, this is a sludgy morass of depression that I wouldn't wish on anyone. I actually have Bleak House next to me as I write to remind me that I love Dickens' other books and that he really was a fantastic author. In fact, I may need a reread of Bleak House now in order to cheer me up.