By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
Who doesn’t want instant fortune? The rags-to-riches dream is so ingrained in popular culture we spot it from game shows to get-rich-quick schemes. One ‘90s Hollywood movie where Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda split a lottery ticket as a tip puts it this way: “It Could Happen To You”. What if it did?
That’s the surprise that met Pip. An orphan raised by his domineering sister and her blacksmith husband, the teenage Pip one day learns he has “come into fortune”.
The catch–Pip cannot know who the source of his fortune is until his benefactor says so.
Pip’s self-told story takes him from the foggy marshes of Kent to the seedy apartments of 1800s London, where he tries to shut out his erstwhile life and pursue his dream of becoming a gentleman.
Still, the past catches up with him through the characters he meets in the city–each holding connections to his childhood. Some have never left his mind–most especially Estella, Pip’s unrequited childhood love.
But Pip’s supposedly-unlimited fortune slowly alters him and how he treats those close to him. Only his devotion to the indifferent Estella grows, fed by a notion that her hand is part of his “expectations”.
Then his patron shows up one night.
Charles Dickens first released “Great Expectations” in weekly installments over nearly nine months. It explains the novel’s length and the plot’s intriguing twists and turns.
Dickens relies heavily on descriptive scene-setting to transit us between acts. But it can go too far for the 21st-century non-native English speaker, who has to read aloud through many an “accented” dialogue.
Writing style aside, he weaves a classic morality tale of how wealth can corrupt and how gaining the world never guarantees satisfaction.
We watch Pip trickle then tumble down, wondering if he’ll turn back. Yet he narrates with a certain naïveté that you think he remains the child who was terrified by an escaped convict at the beginning. I had to visualize him a little older as the chapters progressed. But even early on he describes his surroundings with a measure of wit and irreverence mature for his years.
While Pip is faulty and can be stubborn to change, we feel for him and take his side. And no other aspect of his story makes the reader relate to him more than his feelings for Estella.
“Great Expectations” also hits at the reality of love’s expectations. Case in point: Estella’s guardian Miss Havisham, a rich old spinster embittered by a lover’s deceit. Under her influence, Estella grows up to spurn Pip’s unwavering affections.
Pip’s other relationships have bright sides nonetheless. We admire friends like Joe, Biddy, Wemmick, and Herbert, who stay behind him through his slips and slumps. Amid the restlessness and uncertainty of Pip’s future, their scenes also lead us to smile, chuckle, even shed a happy tear.
They make us trust that second chances are possible. And we hang on to see if these chances happen in the end. They can be a fresh start at making a living, a chance to love again, or a redemption from past wrong.
Like Pip, his friends, and their “great expectations”, our own collective discontent is a hint at something better ahead.
(I read the free e-text version of the book at Project Gutenberg. Get it here.)
*Past bookshelf reviews: