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2015 Bookshelf: Great Expectations

Meg Chaney

I just checked off the next book on my 2015 Reading Challenge List (from Modern Mrs. Darcy)! You can view my list of books here

A book I should have read High School: 


For ages, I've wanted to read a Dickens novel. Back in High School, I tried to delve in, even during my college years I attempted one or another, but I could never get into it. I was convinced that Dickens just wasn't my cup of tea.

I was so wrong.

Great Expectations had it all, a compelling narrative, fascinating characters, gothic themes, and suspense!

Sometimes the dialog and wording was a bit confusing, but I loved sinking deep into a book, one that required me to think, grow conclusions, piece together themes throughout. I felt like I was back in grad school again, ha! Every once in awhile, I love a novel that demands critical thinking. This one surely delivered.

My favorite part? I loved the characterizations. So many fascinating characters in this novel! One of my favorites was Miss Havisham. This lady was straight out of a gothic novel! Stuck in times past, dwelling upon a wedding that never happened, infested, bemoaning, begrudging, more a ghost than a woman. She's a spectacular character!

Pip describes his first meeting with Miss Havisham as thus:

I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone.
— p.91-92

She sits in her house, day after day, one wedding shoe on and the other off, stopped at a moment in time that never progressed forward (p.91). Pip views her as a living skeleton, someone who is, truly, no longer living (92). She sits smoldering with resentment and hatred over the man who jilted her. She never sees the light of day and refuses to acknowledge that time has progressed. Even her wedding cake has been left out on a table, to rot away in a most disgusting way:

The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks stopped all together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undisinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community
— p.117

Miss Havisham's spitefulness over being jilted is shown through the way she refuses to move on, move past the experience. Instead, she fumes, insisting that her life was ruined at that moment. And so, the clocks stand still in her household, the cake rots, she never puts on her other wedding shoe. Perhaps the worst result of her hatred is seen in her treatment of Estella. Estella is a young ward who is placed in Miss Havisham's house. Miss Havisham molds this young child, teaching her to hate from an early age, enforcing a heart of stone upon her. It is only near the end that she realizes just what an error she made, in raising up Estella so.

It is only near the end of her life that Miss Havisham recognizes the mistake she'd made (p.443). Although Pip feels sorry for her, he can't help but acknowledge just how selfish she had been:

I knew not how to answer, or how to comfort her. That she had done a grievous thing in taking an impressionable child to mould into the form that her wild resentment, spurned affection, and wounded pride, found vengeance in, I knew full well. But that, in shutting out the light of day, she had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences; that, her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker; I knew equally well.
— p.444

Miss Havisham had shut out the world, long before her time. Instead of living out her purpose, of inviting people into her life and living, she lived as if she was already dead. And that, Pip recognizes, what a grave mistake. Pip has his own lessons to learn in Great Expectations as well. But I think Miss Havisham's sad story teaches him something as well. People can have a great influence over others, they must use it wisely. And people are not meant to live alone. They need their loved ones to go through life with, through the easy and hard times, supporting one another, teaching each other to love and forgive. Miss Havisham missed out on life, because sat and fumed with resentment. She sewed hatred, instead of love. Perhaps a bit of a lesson for us all?