So I figured for this blog I would do the same thing with the last week that we had an essay. There’s a tiny voice in my head telling me this is the lazy thing to do, but I swat it away and remind it that this week I had to reread a rather lengthy book that I hated in high school (more on that in the essay), I worked nearly nonstop at walmart because everyone waits til the last minute to get Valentine’s gifts and it’s tax season, also I have four other classes. Not to be whiny, but I don’t feel so bad when I remember all that. Besides, this essay is about Pip of Great Expectations, and all he does is whine. So, without further complaint, here is the main reason I hated this book in high school:
Great Expectations: Lacking in Sympathetic Characters
I first read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens during my freshman year of high school in a Pre-Advanced Placement English course. I thoroughly hated every page of the—too me, at the time—excessively lengthy novel. Returning to it for this course, I can appreciate it more. However, I know that without needing to reread it for this course, I never would have picked it up again, and I would have missed out on a great deal. A lot of why I despised the book so much the first time was because the characters are so thoroughly unsympathetic, particularly the central characters: Pip, Estella, and Miss Havisham. It is worth noting that there are a few exceptions among the minor characters like Joe and Biddy.
To start, Pip aggravates my sense of decency at almost every turn in the novel. Even as a child he is not particularly sympathetic because of his condescension towards Joe, who is a much better man than Pip will ever turn out to be. Also, this disdain for his only friend and protector grows as Pip comes into some money and begins building castles in the air. I suppose it would seem likely that Miss Havisham was his benefactor, and I even understand why Pip is so distressed to find that she is not. However, his reaction to the convict who has given him so much infuriated me. It reminded me of the treatment of Jean Valjean of Les Misérables by all the people he had helped over the years as Monsieur le Mayor after he turned himself in. I was quite disappointed that Herbert reacted the same way. The man is a convict, but that does not mean he is eternally damned. Pip’s treatment of others is the main point that makes him unlikeable and unsympathetic, but there are others, as well. For instance, the fact that Pip realizes how unfairly he is treating others without doing anything to change that makes him even more annoying.
At first I thought Estella was a sympathetic character—at least on this second reading—because she appears to be merely a product of her upbringing. She does not seem to have any control over her lack of emotions or the way she uses men because that is how Miss Havisham raised her, and she knows nothing else. However, everyone is capable of overcoming their upbringing. There are hundreds of books that have been written on this topic, and the personal human experience reveals it, too. The fact that Estella so calmly accepts her life angers me. My reaction to Miss Havisham is along the same lines. Rather than move on from her disappointment, she figuratively stops time in the house and decides to seek vengeance vicariously through an innocent girl. Both women irritate the feminist in me by their lack of willpower to overcome their circumstances and take control of their lives.
As to the exceptions, they are all minor characters. Also, they are often poor. Joe and Biddy are not high class people financially or in an aristocratic sense, but they are good people. They live wholesomely, and they are kind to those around them, even those who treat them ill. No matter how Pip turns up his nose at them, they both love him anyway. Similarly, despite Mrs. Joe Gargery’s horrible attitude and abusiveness towards her husband, he clearly loves her and constantly says what a fine woman she is. Biddy would have been happy to pass her life with Pip if he had not been so stuck up and attached to Estella. Another minor character, the convict Abel Magwitch, is another sympathetic figure. The world has been against him since he was quite young, but rather than try to establish himself in society once he gains wealth, he uses his finances to further the future of a boy who helped him once long ago, and the boy is not even grateful to him.
If the central characters of Great Expectations had been more sympathetic, I do not think it would have taken me this long to appreciate the book’s merits. If even Pip had been a bit more likeable, I think I would have enjoyed the book more the first time, rather than having to reluctantly return to it later in life.