I’m teaching Great Expectations with one of my classes right now. I recognize the irony of having to teach Great Expectations very soon after saying I was giving up on Dickens. Luckily it’s one of the ones that I’ve read before, so I’m not totally starting from scratch.
I’d forgotten how ironic Dickens can be in his writing. There were times when I actually laughed out loud at how blind Pip was being. It’s so much better, and more action-filled, than books like Bleak House.
The other thing I’d forgotten is how overwhelmingly unpleasant almost all of the characters are. There are a few exceptions: Herbert is lovely, if a bit dim. Joe and Biddy are sweet. Wemmick is a good and loyal friend, even if he is a bit secretive. They are, I think, the only “good” characters in the whole book.
Women, especially don’t come off well. Mrs. Joe is abusive. She resents Pip for no apparent reason apart from his mere existence. Miss Havisham is insane. She attempted to freeze time around her and is trapped in the most horrible moment of her life – and when she realises her mistake, she dies in a most horrible way. It’s like she can’t exist outside of her need for pity and revenge. Estella is, to put it mildly, a bitch. She is by her own admission cold-hearted and emotionless, the living embodiment of Miss Havisham’s revenge on mankind.
The men aren’t much better. Magwitch is a violent criminal. Orlick is evil – evil with a motivation of jealousy and envy, but still evil. Jaggers is officious, secretive, and probably corrupt. Uncle Pumblechook is overbearing and a liar who blatantly makes up tales (such as his relationship with Pip) to improve his status.
And then there’s Pip. Pip is an idiot. He falls in love with someone who treats him like dirt or worse, simply because she is pretty. At even the word “gentleman” he completely abandons his old life and old friends, treating them the way Estella treats him. He is the most horrible snob who only cares about the appearance of gentility. He seizes on anything that reinforces his misconceptions, while completely ignoring any information that contradicts them. His only redeeming factor is that, by the end of the book, he realizes his mistakes and works to correct them. That doesn’t change the fact that through most of the action, he is one of the most irritating protagonists I’ve ever encountered in fiction.