I would consider Great Expectations to be the ultimate coming-of-age story in literature. At each stage in Pip’s young life, he becomes more complete, his childish fears and fantasies gradually replaced by the concerns and conflicts and aspirations of a youth burgeoning into young manhood. And yet the spirit of the little boy, flummoxed by the irrational treatment he receives from various adults, remains constant as he struggles to maintain his equilibrium and understand who he is and what is to become of him.
I recall seeing it as a Victorian morality story when I first read it oh so many years ago. What I had forgotten and what especially delights me on reading it now is Dickens’ droll humor and his razor-sharp depictions of characters and their foibles. His protagonist’s character develops gradually, as we get to understand the various aspects of Pip’s persona; but when he introduces a minor character, we are instantly treated to a 30 second piece of theater, complete with sounds, lights, costume and acting cues. We can practically smell the breath that emits from them. And it’s done with seemingly effortless ironic humor.
"A man who has been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars, who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin."
Even his minor characters are seldom one-dimensional; they lead complex lives, even though we only get to peek into them briefly. A wonderful example of this is his account of the two totally separate lives led by the clerk Wemmick and the marvelous transformation that he undergoes during his journey from his “castle” to his humdrum working life. As always in Dickens, many of the characters are archetypes of their time and place, early 19th century England; to a degree, the characters are an integral part of the setting, icons that define the society they inhabit.
Conditioned are we as readers have become to fast-paced narratives, it’s remarkable that a novel written over 150 years ago can be so absolutely delightful and absorbing.