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21st January
2010
written by Steph
For the past week or so, I’ve been dipping in and out of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (I feel the need to clarify, as if some of you are thinking I would be reading some other Great Expectations by some other author…).  In that time, I’ve made it through about 100 pages, so, not really great progress on my part.  I admit, my life has been busy and I have perhaps not been making reading a priority, but I’m sure that I’ve been letting my reading slide because I haven’t been having fun with this book and don’t particularly look forward to reading it.
Just so we're clear, I'm not supposed to be rooting for Magwitch, right?

Just so we're clear, I'm not supposed to be rooting for Magwitch, right?

I have perhaps not outlined my tortuous past with this book, and that is likely because my past is not all that tortuous with it.  Just that I’ve tried to read the damn thing at least three or four times and I find myself incapable of doing so.  I don’t know why I thought this time would be different, but I was confident I would make it through this time so I could finally say, “Ha, Charles Dickens!  This time I have defeated you!” and then I could FINALLY move on with my life.  But no, once again, Dickens has beat me down.  I knew it was over when I could not longer bring myself to pick up the book, so little did I care about our fair and gentle narrator, Pip Pirrip. Actually, it was worse than that because it was more than simply being complacent or apathetic – no I was beginning to actually hate the book, and was actually preferring lying on the bed staring at the ceiling to reading.  Clearly this situation was not ideal. So I’m abandoning ship, giving up the ghost, and letting Pip live his maudlin, tragic life in the pages of fiction, all without me present. I feebly dream that some day I may pick this book up and everything will click and I will suddenly get caught up in this epic bildungsroman.  But then, maybe I won’t, and I think I have to make my peace with that.  Because for now, Dickens and I just can’t dance together. It’s hard to pinpoint precisely, I suppose, why one book captures us and another one doesn’t, but here are two reasons why I don’t much care for Great Expectations: 1)   The writing.  Don’t get me wrong, there are chunks of good, even great, writing to be found in this book, but for me, the writing isn’t consistently good.  I’ve found the first 100+ pages to be a bit like a rollercoaster, with good patches, and then some dreadfully dry and unimpressive passages.  It’s clear that Dickens can be funny, and yet he doesn’t do it enough for my tastes, especially when the alternative is him being just kind of dull. (NB:There is one notable exception to this, but I’ll get into that momentarily. ) I find myself only able to read a few paragraphs at a time before my mind starts drifting off. Suffice it to say, to me Dickens' writing neither sparkles nor shines, and very rarely does it evoke anything in me above and beyond tedium. 2)   Pip Pirrip.  I’m sorry, but I hate him. And it’s not like Dickens hasn’t given us plenty of villains in this novel, and yet the one character I dislike above all else is Pip.  And I realized that I can put up with mean, nasty, and unlikeable characters in novels, but what I can’t stand is stupidity.  And Pip is pretty much an idiot throughout the entire portion of the book I read and it was so agonizing.  He just seemed like such a little chowderhead, and I just did not care for him at all.  I just wanted to stop hearing about him, ergo, no more Great Expectations for me!
Trust me, Miss Havisham.  I know just how you feel...

Trust me, Miss Havisham, I know just how you feel...

Ok, so even though I walk away from this monster once more with my tail between my legs, I want everyone to know that I do so with my head a little bit higher, because I did find one thing that I loved this time around.  Bless her crazy, broken heart, but Miss Havisham was the book’s saving grace for me.  I ADORED her.  The parts with her were by far my favorite, and they were the only time the narrative really began to soar for me.  When it came to Miss Havisham, I found the descriptions provided by Dickens to be deliciously spooky and weird, and incredibly vivid and piercing.  I loved the idea of this woman and this place, frozen in time, festooned in cobwebs and yellowing bridal wear, a rotting cake infested with bugs.  Of course I knew Havisham’s sad tale before ever picking up this book (who doesn’t, really?), but I will admit that here Dickens surpassed my greatest expectations. It wasn’t the writing, specifically, at least I don’t think so, but he managed to produce an image so great, I wasn’t prepared for how it would move me.  Having a woman be bitter and upset would not pack nearly the same punch as having that same woman in her bridal outfit, one foot still shoeless, time forever frozen.  For me, the most arresting image was when Pip is surveying the bedroom and notices that all the clocks have stopped at twenty 'til nine.  For me, that was the lightning bolt moment, shocking in its sadness.  For Miss Havisham, there is no future. And in terms of this book and me, for the time being, that also seems to be the case. (But seriously, why can't the book JUST be about Miss H?  That would be a book I could get behind!) I’m still batting about some ideas about whether I will try this again in the future, or how I can make this book work for me in the now.  One thing I’m considering is signing up with Daily Reader, and having them email me installments of the book each day.  I tend to spend at least 8-9 hours on my computer each day, so I think that reading a Great Expectations email could work for me.  I think that it’s possible that this is a book I need to read in snippets as I don’t think I can have it be my main reading focus, where it seems to suck all sunshine from my life.  Balancing it alongside other reading material might work, and I’m willing to give it a try.  My only disappointment with Daily Reader is that they ask you how large an instalment to send in terms of time spent reading.  I would much rather tell them to simply send me one chapter per day and leave it at that.  I realize that if I don’t get a full chapter one day I could always go and get more, but I’m still annoyed! This isn’t a review, not really, so I won’t be rating my experience with this book.  But I will leave you with this quote, which was one of the few scattered throughout that really spoke to me:
“It was then I began to understand that everything in the room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago. I noticed that Miss Havisham put down the jewel exactly on the spot from which she had taken it up. As Estella dealt the cards, I glanced at the dressing-table again, and saw that the shoe upon it, once white, now yellow, had never been worn. I glanced down at the foot from which the shoe was absent, and saw that the silk stocking on it, once white, now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without this arrest of everything, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed from could have looked so like grave-clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud.”

20 Comments

  1. 01/21/2010

    I actually enjoyed this book contrary to what I expected, and my review of it will go up tomorrow. Personally, by the end I WAS rooting for Magwitch. Pip does get smarter, and Miss Havisham grows as a human being. I’m not sure the story will stay with me forever, but it was far better than I expected. The last third of it went really fast (it was the middle third that was a little dull for me).

  2. 01/21/2010

    Sounds like quite a few people are having trouble with Dickens this week. I have several of his novels on my self because my dad loves his work but, for now, having read A Christmas Carol is enough for me.

  3. 01/21/2010

    Sorry you weren’t able to enjoy the book. I was made to read this one in high school and remember liking it. Who knows what I might think of it now, almost 30 years later? I’d say it is worth a try in the future but maybe that is a long time from now? ha I think you don’t have to like Dickens or have him on your dance card!

  4. 01/21/2010

    Oy. Sounds like you and “Great Expectations” didn’t get along at all. I’ve always wanted to read it for Mrs. Haversham, who I’ve heard so many great things about. =) I think I’ll still tyr to get to it… one day. I read “Oliver Twist” for a class once. I thought it was okay, if not a little overrated. I have “A Tale of Two Cities” on my shelf somewhere, but Dickens is an “eventual” author. I’m sure I’ll read more of him eventually, but I’m no great big rush. Hope your next read goes better!

  5. 01/21/2010

    Oh no, no success! I thought you might survive it this time around. Like Amanda, I was also rooting for Magwitch. My favourite part of this book was the last third, too. Pip was meant to be an idiot, it’s all part of the story, as he finds out to his shame in the end. Miss Havisham is indeed an unforgettable character. It’s so interesting how we react to books so differently. This was my fave Dickens, as you know. Anyway, good for you for discarding a read you don’t enjoy. You still have shelves of unread titles left over from your previous trips to the bookstore.

  6. 01/21/2010

    P.S. Just want to comment how thrilling it is to see an icon beside my name now, no more blank face. Lol.

  7. Eva
    01/21/2010

    I loathed Pip as well. And I had to read it TWICE. And ANALYSE it. Oh, the evil. lol

    I wonder if you paid extra attention to Miss Havisham this time because of the Thursday Next books?

    And I love that we both posted about our problems with Dickens on the same day!

  8. 01/21/2010

    Finally managed to read Great Expectations, after a couple failed attempts, when I tried an audio version… and I really liked it! Dickens has always been a challenge for me.

  9. 01/21/2010

    Perhaps you should try Great Expectations by Edmund Wells. Or a book by Charles Dikkens, the well-known Dutch author. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

  10. 01/21/2010

    @ Amanda: I look forward to reading your review (since, you know, you’ve actually read the whole book). I did some random flipping and noticed there’s a part where they go to Denmark (?) and I was pretty certain I would be in utter agony during those portions (not that I have anything against Denmark)… I guess it’s good to know the book picks up at the end, but the trouble is getting there!
     
    @ claire: I really thought I would succeed this time too – I was so optimistic just a few days ago, and then alas everything went downhill! I always feel strange when you like a book so much and it fails to move me, because I really respect your taste so much, and in many ways we are alike! But it’s these differences that make things interesting, right?
    And your little icon is so cute and very claire! Such a nice change from the blank nobody!
     
    @ Eva: Well, I’m glad to hear I’m not alone in hating Pip, but I am sad to hear you had to read this one twice. I managed to avoid this one in Grade 12 by reading Sense & Sensibility instead! I really dodged a bullet, clearly!
    I don’t know that my love of Fforde made me more anxious to love this one or attend to Miss H specifically, but I do remember having flashes of her from Lost in A Good Book pop into mind while I read, which was fun!
    Here’s to not loving Dickens and being ok with it!
     
    @ JoAnn: I feel like I might get lost in Dickens’ prose if I were listening to it, but I’m glad to hear that it worked for you that way. I don’t really listen to audiobooks, so it’s an interesting option to consider!
     
    @ Trisha: If only this Great Expectations had been half as fun! Sigh.

  11. Great Expectations is the only Dickens that I’ve read and I loved it! It has been about 8 years since I read it, so I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, but I don’t remember any of the problems you mention. I really should read more Dickens, but am put off by the fact I’ve seen so many screen adaptations and I don’t like knowing the story in advance.

  12. 01/22/2010

    I really loved this book, but can completely understand that some people wouldn’t. Even for me, there were moments of tediousness involved. We do agree on one point though: Miss Havisham was a truly delectable character. I loved her the most out of anyone in the book and thought Dickens portrayed her with incredible skill. And don’t feel too bad about hating Pip. He was an incredible ass for most of the book, and it was really hard to feel sorry for him. I think I remember being ashamed of him for most of the story. He wasn’t a character I wanted to cuddle up with, that’s for sure! I am really glad that you gave this book a try, even if it didn’t really work for you. Now you can say for sure that Dickens just isn’t your cup of tea and move on from him.

    Also, on another note, I was really excited to discover that you will be on The Believers tour! I am really very curious to hear what you thought of it. I’ve heard it’s a very polarizing book and I really want to see where everyone falls with it. I will really be looking forward to your review!

  13. mee
    01/22/2010

    Miss Havisham sounds like an amazing character! I might just go and read The Great Expectations for her ;). I don’t think I ever read or watch any adaptation of it so I really don’t know much about the storyline. It’s one of those books that I think I will read in the future (how far away? I don’t know). I read Dicken’s A Christmas Carol last year and I have to agree with you–his writing didn’t hold my attention.

  14. 01/23/2010

    @ Jackie: I like not knowing much about plot either when I go into a book, and I must say that apart from Miss H, I don’t really know much about the GE plot… and yet I was just so stultified that I just couldn’t muster up the effort to keep reading to find out how things turn out. Though I would like to know. But I’m staying clear of Wikipedia so that I have that to motivate me to try this again some day!
     
    @ zibilee: Loved Miss H, I just wish the rest of the book had been written with that skill! Then it would have been a completely different story. She was so over-the-top and yet she completely worked for me. But I think that ultimately “tedious” was exactly the right word to describe this experience for me. Which is sad, but such is life and I must move on!
    And yes, I was so excited to see you’re on the Believers tour as well. I’m about halfway through (in part I had to drop GE so I could get this done in time for my stop), and well, I won’t spoil it, but I’m having a much different experience as compared to my last TLC book!
     
    @ mee: The parts with Miss Havisham are wonderful, though clearly they weren’t enough to keep me reading. BUT I think you should at least try the book so you can experience her – she’s amazing! And as you know, I had no luck with A Christmas Carol either…

  15. Joy
    01/23/2010

    Must admit I like Great Expectations, heck I even visited the wonderful Cooling marshes in Kent where part of it was set; just as Dickens describes. I agree the book does has flaws and the end is dissapointing as it does not fit what has gone before. If you want Magwich to survive then try Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs a much darker story which makes Great Expectations look happy go lucky.

  16. 01/23/2010

    Between you and Amanda, I’m completely undecided. I know I want to read some Dickens this year (I’ve only read A Christmas Carol so far, which I loved), but am I feeling brave enough for this? Hmmm…

  17. 01/24/2010

    @ Joy: I understand making literary pilgrimages, but I don’t think it will happen for me and this book! 😉 Thanks for the recommendation of the Carey book – I have a few of his books kicking around the apartment, but not that one!
     
    @ Nymeth: Well, you’ll see from the comments that most people do seem to love this book, so this could just be one of those ways in which I’m weird. I will also say that despite my not finishing it, I didn’t hate it, I just found it tedious. You might not!

  18. 01/25/2010

    I actually DON’T know anything about the story and characters, even Mrs. Havisham. But despite all the negative thoughts on this book, I’m still looking forward to it 🙂

  19. 01/25/2010

    @ Rebecca: I know you really enjoyed the Dickens you’ve already read, so I see no reason why you wouldn’t like this one. I think Dickens just isn’t an author I like, but clearly plenty of people really enjoy this book! I’ll look forward to your thoughts on this when you get around to it!

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