Roberta Writes – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: book overview part 1

When I was a little girl of 8 years old, my sister, Hayley, was born. Hayley was a dreadful baby, she cried all the time and she would not sleep, ever.

My dad was sleeping in the spare room so I moved in with mom to help her with the baby. I did get Hayley to go to sleep a few time by walking her around for a few hours while she wailed non-stop.

One evening, Mom and I watched Great Expectations. I’m not sure if I would have been allowed to watch it if Mom hadn’t been very tired, but watch it I did, and I never forgot the opening scene when Pip meets Magwitch in the graveyard. I also remembered Miss Havisham in her wedding dress living in her spooky dark house with the banquet table covered in rotting food among which rats played and spiders nested.

During my first year of high school (12 turning 13), I read the original of Great Expectations with a dictionary by my side. I looked up words I didn’t know and some of them, like countenance, I’ve never forgotten. A few of these words even creep into my own writing from time to time. If you have read A Ghost and His Gold, you would have experience my usage of countenances in this scene:

“After a further period of timeless silence, another presence makes itself known. A shadowy red form. It exudes anger like flashes of lightening, making the fine hairs on Michelle’s arms stand to attention. The shadow elongates like a piece of chewing gum and tears down the middle. The rent widens and stretches to form a mouth.

“I hate you,” the voice that issues from the rent booms.

The voice frightens her, and she turns and starts pushing her way through the countless milling people, their faceless countenances disfigured by gaping holes from which a collective and continuous doomed moan issues.”

This is the opening scene from the original movie of Great Expectations that I never forgot:

I have re-read Great Expectations a few times over the years, it is my favourite Dickens by far, and I listened to the audio book recently.

I thought I would write a few posts about it and this is the first in which I will share an overview of the book. If you haven’t read it and know nothing about the story, but wish to read it in the future, don’t read this overview as it will contain spoilers for the story.

An overview of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Pip is an orphan boy who lives with his older sister an her husband on the marshes in Kent. His sister is an overbearing woman who abuses Pip physically and mentally and also mentally abuses her kind and gentle husband, Joe. Joe tries to protect Pip from the worst of his sister’s unkindness, but he is not willing to be overly confrontational with his wife so his protection is limited. Joe reminded me a lot of gentle Matthew Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables although Pip’s sister, referred to as Mrs Joe in the book, makes Marilla Cuthbert seem kindly and pleasant by comparison.

Pip has a habit of visiting his parents graves in a lonely graveyard on the marshes. While he is visiting their graves on Christmas Eve of his 7th year, Pip is discovered by an escaped convict. This convict, who we later find out is called Abel Magwitch, uses vile threats to compel Pip to bring him a file and food early on Christmas morning. Pip’s conscious smites him all night, but his fear forces him to steal food, in particular a beautiful pork pie, and alcohol from his sister’s pantry and take it to the graveyard. On the way, Pip comes across another escaped convict, who we later discover is called Compeyson. Pip tells Magwitch about Compeyson, thinking they are friends, but it is quickly obvious they are not.

Later on Christmas Day, Pip witnesses both convicts being recaptured while fighting each other in a ditch.

Pip’s pompous Uncle Pumblechook, a man of some financial means and obsessed with social standing, arranges for Pip to go to the home of an aging wealthy woman who is very odd and reclusive but who has an adopted daughter, Estella. Pip is to play with Estella and amuse the older woman, Miss Havisham.

When Pip arrives he discovers that Miss Havisham was jilted at the altar by her fraudulent fiance who conspired with her jealous half-brother, Arthur, to swindle her out of a sum of money. Miss Havisham never recovered mentally and still wears her wedding dress and the wedding feast is still laid out in the great hall. All the clocks in her decrepit and decaying house were stopped at twenty to nine in the morning which was the time Miss Havisham discovered her fiance’s treachery. She is eccentric and embittered and seeks revenge on all men for her fiance’s and brother’s betrayals. She raises her daughter, Estella, to be cold and plotting an an instrument for her future revenge on all men.

Pip is greatly influenced by the wealth he sees in Miss Havisham’s house, Estella’s beauty and haughty manner and dismissal of him as a labourer who is far beneath her in social standing. He wishes to uplift himself in her eyes and sets about trying to improve his own education and standing in life. Pip becomes disgruntled with his own proposed future of becoming an apprentice to Joe and learning his trade as a blacksmith. An arrangement Pip had previously looked forward to but after working for Miss Havisham for several months, seems to keep him in his place as a lowly labourer.

Pip sister is meanwhile attacked and sustains a serious injury which leaves her brain damaged. His teacher, Biddy, moves in with him and Joe to help look after Mrs Joe.

Miss Havisham lets him go from her employment some months later, after ensuring he is indentured to Joe as an apprentice.

Not long after Pip starts working for Joe, he is visited by a prominent London lawyer, Mr Jaggers, who tells him he has a secret benefactor who wishes him to be brought up to be a gentleman. Arrangements are made for Pip to leave Joe’s employ and his sister’s home and go to London to live as a gentleman and obtain an education. Pip wants to go and turns his back on his old life in order to try to win Estella’s affections. Pip is convinced Miss Havisham is his secret benefactor and intends for him and Estella to ultimately marry. Pip does not make any attempt to gain employment or use his better education to earn his own living, preferring to live a life of idleness and runs of debt. Pip expects to settle this debt when he comes into his ‘expectations’.

This is the scene when Pip meets Miss Havisham and Estella from the original Great Expectations:

Next week, I’ll share an overview of the second half of the book.

61 thoughts on “Roberta Writes – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: book overview part 1

  1. It is an amazing story. I watched A Tale of Two Cities on TV when I was about 12. I never forgot it either. Dicken’s novels adapt well to the screen, probably because they were often written episodically.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. GE was a set text for my O levels (national exams at 16) and I hated it. Never force Dickens on someone. About 20 years later, encouraged by my wife I read it again. My, how it had improved over time! I agree, it is my favourite Dickens too.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Cheers to that, Geoff. I just commented to Willow that I think Dickens and Shakespeare should be by choice at school and studied by kids who are interested in studying literature. Forcing these books on youngsters kills their interest, often forever.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Helen Mirren said the other day that children’s first experience of Shakespeare should be as a play not a set text. I think she’s probably right as long as they can understand the language sufficiently

        Liked by 2 people

    1. HI Willow, my younger son has been put off reading entirely by the school set works. I think Shakespeare and Dickens should be taught to kids who chose to study English further and not everyone. Encouraging a love of reading, if at all possible, should be the primary goal at school. That is my opinion anyhow.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really enjoyed your thoughts about the book. The movie is certainly very memorable as is the landscape that Dickens took his inspiration from! I’m looking forward to seeing more of your posts about this!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. An excellent first in your series of “Great Expectations” posts, Robbie! You summarized part of the great Dickens novel well, and I enjoyed reading your personal memories of first encountering “Great Expectations”!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, David Copperfield makes me cry. Bleak House is one I haven’t read and after Yvette and Trent’s discussion about it, I now want to read it and have it on my list. Taking a little break from heavy reading with one of Jacquie Biggar’s entertaining romances first though.

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  5. I love coincidences like the one I’m about to describe, Robbie. Today I was working on a blog post entitled Great Expectations. The substance is not about this story, but I referenced the book in my first paragraph. It will be up tomorrow. I enjoyed refreshing my memory regarding this book.

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  6. It’s no wonder the book is such a classic, Robbie. It was good to read your thoughts about it. There were a few years when I was in grammar school (grade school) when they were fond of showing us flickering old black and white movies. This was one of them. At the time I was fascinated by how weird and creepy it was — especially that cobwebby scene with Miss Havisham. Hugs on the wing.

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  7. I’m so glad you enjoyed the movie and book, Robbie. I can imagine you being mesmerized by the movie as a child. I was forced to read this book in high school and had the opposite reaction (probably because I was a young teen who didn’t like having to analyze it). I haven’t read any Dickens since. School ruined lots of classic books for me, but that’s a whole other topic. Thanks for sharing the clips, and it was very cool to hear how you’ve used the language in your books. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Diana, subsequent to that reading, countenance has always come naturally to me as a word. I took a fancy to it. I didn’t mind the set work books I read at school and I discovered some fabulous authors like Charles Herman Bosman. I must admit that set work books have ruined reading for Michael. He reads at a much slower pace than Greg and I because of his learning barrier (although the tests say he is average speed for a learner his age) and he labours through books like Fahrenheit 451. I found the beginning of that book difficult to follow and had to re-read it after I finished the book so I do understand how he feels.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You and I have chatted before about the delicate balance in schools between studying literature and simply instilling a love of reading. I prefer the latter, personally. Thank goodness I discovered Tolkien, because I did not enjoy reading until then.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Great overview, Roberta! I adore Dickens. My fave book is “A Tale of Two Cities”.
    It certainly was a harsh time to be alive. He has documented this in his stories, and they remain a snapshot into the time and place. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Robbie – we read Great Expectations in middle school. I always thought it was the full version, but later, when I saw how big the book was, I realized that we had read an abridged version. I liked it but I think I should read the real thing before I can truly say that! Thanks for sharing the book’s overview. I remember the movie, which I saw on tv at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

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