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June 24, 2013

Telling It Like It Is: GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens

Hey guys, maybe you’ve heard or maybe you’ve been living under a rock without internet access last week, but Kim and Kanye finally welcomed their (shockingly) tiny bundle of joy into the world. Of course, everyone over here at The Book Report Network is thrilled, and kind of obsessed. So in honor of little North West, I have no choice but to break down the Dickens classic, GREAT EXPECTATIONS for all y’all. I know it’s a little bit of a stretch, but we have nothing if not big hopes for the daughter of such talented megastars (I’m thinking she’ll have mad flow, charisma aaand…really pretty hair?) Anyway, welcome to the good life, baby Nori!

The story opens with poor, young Pip sitting in a graveyard (nothing weird --- he’s an orphan and he’s visiting his parents’ tombstones) when he gets accosted by an escaped convict, who forces Pip to steal him some food and a file so he can break off his leg iron. This is taking place in turn-of-the-19th century England, so it’s not one of those dinky house arrest ankle bracelets that are so trendy these days --- we’re talking an old-school ball-and-chain number. Pip, totally scared out of his wits, complies, although all his trouble doesn’t really amount to much because the convict gets caught the next day anyway. Bummer, amirite? Except maybe not because he was terrifying and he smelled and it kind of sucked to be an escaped convict in the 19th century anyway. (Don’t believe me? See: Jean Valjean.)

Also he ends up doing pretty okay for himself, so there’s that.

Despite the fact that he’s kind to convicts who bully him, Pip’s living situation is pretty bleak. He lives with his super mean older sister and her husband, Joe, who is a real-life blacksmith. Joe is really cool to young Pip, who sees him as a substitute father figure and pretty much wants to be him when he grows up (even though I don’t see being blown away by a guy who’s married to someone who’s basically Mama June meets the wicked stepmother from Cinderella --- but I guess things were different before you could internet creep on the people you’re dating…). Things start to look up, though, when Uncle Pumblechook takes Pip to play at Satis House, home of the wealthy and insanely insane Miss Havisham (who happens to be one of my all-time fave literary characters) and her pretty adopted daughter, Estella. It’s the Dickensian version of Rent a Friend (which is a real thing!) and Pip starts visiting Estella more and more frequently, all the while falling in L-O-V-E with her.

A bunch of years pass, and now Pip is an apprentice (read: intern) in Joe’s blacksmith shop. Everything is totally cool, and Pip maybe isn’t living the good life (mainly because he can’t afford to take Estella out --- she’s an Xbox and he’s more an Atari), but he’s doing okay for himself in that simple do-a-bunch-of-manual-labor-all-day-and-then-grab-a-cold-ale-with-your-brother-in-law kind of way. Everything changes, though, when this fancypants lawyer named Jaggers waltzes into Pip’s life with some pretty sweet news: An anonymous benefactor has decided to give Pip a huge amount of money. Oh, happy day! you’re thinking, but guys, it’s a little more complicated than that, okay? So just bear with me. Pip is sent to London ASAP to begin his “education as a gentleman” (whatever that means --- and if romance novels have taught me anything it’s that being a gentleman in 19th century London basically meant learning how to play whist and wear snappy, foppish three piece suits and chase above- or below-class women who will ultimately teach him the true meaning of love --- this is NOT what Dickens has in store for our no-longer-poor hero). Pip assumes that this shadily unnamed benefactor can be none other than Miss Havisham, and she’s finally providing him with the funds to woo Estella, so he kisses the simple life buh-bye and heads to London to seek his fortune and his love (with great expectations, if I may).

Things don’t go so well. (What’s that saying? Gobs of money and a nice head of hair do not a gentleman make?) In London, Pip is taken under the wing of Miss Havisham’s sensible cousin Matthew Pocket --- who’s basically a cool dude and helps Pip out the way that Kathy Bates helped out Leo Dicaprio in Titanic --- and his son, Herbert, who’s described as “a pale young gentleman,” which is Dickensian euphemism for uber-English and secretly insecure. Once Pip turns 21, all hell breaks loose (relatively), and he and Herbert paint the town whatever the gentleman version of red is, running up all kinds of debts. As Pip becomes more integrated into his new life and further from his roots, he becomes increasingly alienated from his old buddy (and hero) Joe, and treats him with thinly veiled contempt every time he sees him, which isn’t even that frequently. Bottom line is that Pip’s becoming too much of a snob for his own good (see: post-makeover Tai), although he’s still not good enough for Estella, who --- if she wasn’t too snobby to actually do it --- could’ve written the original Ice Queen handbook.

One day, Pip, who is now heavily in debt, is visited by the old convict who he tried to help all those years ago! The man, Abel Magwitch, admits to Pip that he was so touched by the boy’s kindness that he was inspired to dedicate the rest of his life to making all of Pip’s wishes come true (shades, again, of Jean Valjean, but with a little bit of an Usher-Beiber vibe thrown in for good measure). Magwitch is in trouble again, and needs Pip’s help to get him out of a bind with the po-po. Pip is secretly not cool at all with this because he’s been nursing these delusions of really sexy grandeur with no convicts involved, but he’s kind of stuck between a rock and a you-gave-me-all-my-money place. So Pip and Herbert arrange for a boat to get Magwitch away from London, which means Magwitch will be safe and also out of Pip’s hair, thus killing two birds with one ungrateful stone.

But in a crazy twist of events, Pips learns that Estella was really Magwitch’s daughter all along! (I just want to point out that Dickens was a master of irony before the hipsters ever even heard of it.) Miss Havisham, who Pip also learns was jilted by Compeyson, Magwitch’s arch-nemesis, adopted Estella basically as a cruel social experiment to teach her to break men’s hearts. The thing about Miss Havisham is that she never quite moved on from that first heartbreak (taking “the first cut is the deepest” to a whole new, twisted level) and she sits around all day in her wedding dress (Did she sleep in it? Did she wash it? Did she ever have the drunken urge to revamp it with just a pair of scissors and a Miley Cyrus song in her heart?), and all the clocks in her grand house stopped at the time of her jilting. So instead of getting herself a bunch of cats, she adopted a daughter and used her to get revenge on mankind. Naturally. Anyway, Pip is pretty bummed when he finds out he was merely a pawn in Miss Havisham’s messed up games.

With his paradigm irrevocably shattered, Pip turns over a new, less spineless leaf, and starts to care for Magwitch, who is preparing for his departure from London. Estella, meanwhile, is miserably married to an insufferable d-bag named Bentley Drummle. Pip, who’s on a Britney Spears-esque quest for redemption, visits Miss Havisham to tie up all loose ends with her and reveal Estella’s real history, although all doesn’t go necessarily as smoothly as planned (or does it…?) and Miss Havisham, in a fit of desperation, accidentally sets her dress on fire. Talk about all your hopes and dreams going up in smoke, amirite? Not even Pip can save her, and she eventually dies from her injuries.  

All’s well that ends well, right? Just kidding. Things go from bad to worse, and Magwitch is captured on his way out of London. Pip visits him in jail, where Magwitch is deathly sick, and reveals to him that Estella is still alive (another problem that the internet could’ve solved in seconds). Magwitch, finally feeling satisfied with his transformation into Jean Valjean, dies but not before giving Pip a hopeful hand squeeze. (What does it mean? That Pip should go get Estella? That Magwitch loved him all along? That he didn’t have a clever last line so opted for the safer and more mysterious hand squeeze? We may never know.) The cops want to take Pip in for all his unpaid debts, but something is going around and he, too, gets really sick. Good, old Joe takes Pip in and nurses him back to health, thereby basically rubbing Pip’s ungrateful past in his face. Pip, it seems, has finally learned all his lessons, and he begs Joe’s forgiveness. Joe, of course, forgives him because why the heck not?! Broke and no longer a gentleman, Pip does the only thing he can do --- head to Egypt to become a nice, old-fashioned clerk; the kind of clerk you wouldn’t be ashamed to bring home to your parents. He finds out, years later, that Estella was abused by her husband, thus giving him the opportunity to say, “I told you so,” slap her on the butt and dance off with an Irish jig. Just kidding. He does the boring thing and forgives her for all the severe emotional torment she inflicted on him since forever and the two realize they deserve each other and live codependently ever after.

Good thing Nori has two emotionally stable role models in her life and will make such good choices. We’re gunning for ya, kid!