by Ella Mae Masamayor
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens has been on my Classic Literature Bucket List for years. It’s one of those books you’ve likely heard about all your life—anywhere from pop culture references to required reading lists—but have never gotten around to reading. Classic novels have always intrigued me; I’m always curious about how and why stories become timeless. After all, enduring the passage of time and memory is no small feat.
And so, after gathering dust on my shelves for far too long, I finally read Great Expectations. It felt like one of the most remarkable achievements of my life (I’m exaggerating, but I was proud of myself when I reached the last sentence). Reading Great Expectations felt like an adventure deserving of documentation.
Of all of Charles Dickens’ novels, I’m not sure why I picked up Great Expectations in the first place. Apart from its title, I didn’t know what it was about. I bought this book at least five years ago. It’s one of his most famous works, and yet the same can be said about A Christmas Carol (which is infinitely shorter), Oliver Twist (the quintessential orphan boy), and A Tale of Two Cities (with its very famous opening line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”). I honestly didn’t know what to expect, pun intended. I had never seen an adaptation nor read any abridged version or plot summary. I was captivated solely by the fame of the title and its author. I was just at the right place and the right time, finding a famous book with a pretty cover plus the money to buy it.
It took me a long while to read the book. I remember picking it up some years ago but never got past the first chapter. All I remember from that first reading was a boy named Pip standing in a graveyard. I let Great Expectations go for a while, thinking maybe one day return to it and be in the right headspace to finish it. When January of 2023 came along, I realized there was no better time than the beginning of a year to devour a book like this. If I could handle Great Expectations, then I could probably do anything. And so I did.
It was by no means an easy read. It took me almost a month to finish, and there were days when I made little to no progress. I contemplated giving up (again) several times. There were days when the book felt painfully dragging, with long, run-on sentences that flew right over my head. The language was challenging and inaccessible, and sometimes felt like a new language altogether. Classic literature often exists in the time and place it was written. Plenty of the context is assumed and not spelled out for the readers, and I felt frustrated when I had no clue what he was saying.
So I did what I used to be so ashamed of doing: looking up chapter summaries. I’ll be honest—I was a bit of a book snob when I was younger. I thought I should be able to understand all the context clues and comprehend all the narratives without looking anything up. I believed that good readers could figure things out for themselves.
Now, I know that pretending to understand the words and the pages only made reading even more cumbersome. With Great Expectations, I found myself looking up a lot of chapter summaries and analyses to see if I understood a chapter correctly. I’ve since learned that it’s not a crime to search for things we don’t understand and discover how others understood them. I was reminded that I am neither a literature student nor a classics scholar; I am simply a reader trying to enjoy a book. Knowing the novel’s context and history greatly enriched my reading experience. It was also fascinating to learn about other readers’ interpretations and conclusions that I may have totally missed. It stretched my perspective and gave me a more meaningful appreciation of the book.
That doesn’t mean I recommend checking online summaries for everything; there’s a difference between seeking to understand and being too lazy to comprehend for ourselves. I still believe in the value of drawing our own conclusions and finding our own meanings, but knowing what we don’t know and being willing to look for the answers vastly improved my reading experience.
Still, even if it was a difficult read, I was surprised to find myself giggling between long paragraphs. Dickens has a witty, sarcastic flair to his writing. He highlights hilarious absurdities and treads a fine line between comedy and commentary. As with many classic novels, Dickens used the setting to match the tone and message of the story. He painted the marsh, the dilapidated mansion, and the London city life in a way that evokes the thoughts and feelings he intended to deliver. Through his mastery of words, Dickens shows us that even the lustrous and expensive can become tarnished and dirty; even the simple and lowly can be home to the truest and kindest.
He also has a gift for creating the most memorable of characters. I now understand why characters like Miss Havisham or Pumblechook are so often referenced in pop culture. They’re the kind of characters you never forget, even when (and sometimes, especially if) they’re not particularly good people. Even with the myriad of characters, I still got to know each of them through their quirks—their words, their manner, their motivations, and their choices.
This brings us to our main character, Pip. The book is often classified as a bildungsroman—a coming-of-age novel that follows Pip from childhood to adulthood, and wow, what a ride that turned out to be. The reader is allowed to experience Pip’s character development alongside him. Great Expectations is told in the first person, allowing us to fully immerse ourselves in Pip’s mind. You’d think following a character through his quiet little thoughts could get boring, but I felt so many emotions for Pip as the novel progressed. Sometimes I laughed with him and felt happy for him; other times he made me annoyed, frustrated, and angry. Sometimes I could relate to him deeply, and other times I outright questioned his decisions. Sometimes I hated him for what he did and believed he deserved everything that happened to him, but I also joined him in his regret and suffering. Pip was kind but also selfish, fortunate but also irresponsible, and superfluous but also sentimental. And despite his mistakes, he was eager for redemption. He is wonderfully complex—weak, blind, and flawed like the rest of us.
When I reached the end, I felt fulfilled, not only because of its length but also because it left me with scores of thoughts and lessons to mull over. Dickens was clearly an activist and a critic of the social order, and he made his comments known by showing, not telling. He shows us the corrupting power of money and social standing and how that corruption clouds our gratitude and contentment. He illustrates how beauty and manners are not equivalent to goodness, how wealth could never replace friendship and loyalty, or how evil can easily disguise itself with beauty and demeanor. Dickens challenges our judgments, subtly asking us how much of our action is shaped by prejudice, or how often we subconsciously imagine others above or below our station—lessons that undoubtedly deserve immortality.
Great Expectations ranks among the rare stories that stay with you long after you’ve finished it. It’s been two months since I read the novel, but I still look back on my highlights and annotations and find something new to think about. This is not to say I’ve committed the story to memory; on the contrary, I will likely forget some details, maybe even mix up the names and places and timelines eventually, but I do believe Dickens didn’t mean for us to memorize Pip’s story by heart. I think the value of a good novel comes from how much the story resonates with us, how we connect the characters’ journeys with our own, and how we’re forced to interrogate our thoughts and biases. To me, this has always been the purpose of fiction: to broaden our perspectives by empathizing with characters we will never meet, and by going on adventures we may never live out for ourselves.
Granted, it’s not for everyone, and I don’t think you necessarily have to read Dickens’ novels to extract these messages. Plenty of other books will tell similar stories, and real life is already chock-full of lesson-giving realities. Reading Dickens is not a badge of honor nor a prerequisite to a good life. You could never read a word of Great Expectations and still turn out much wiser than everyone else who did. But to those curious about Dickens’ work, who want to know why his novels survived more than 160 years in print, or who simply want to conquer their Big Book Fear, Great Expectations may be a Great place to start. ☁️
Anything to share? :)