Wednesday, August 09, 2006

An 1861 review of "Great Expectations"

Of the Dickens I've read--which is not even most of his work--Great Expectations is far and away my favorite. There is an interesting review of the novel, from the year of its original publication, in the Atlantic Monthly, available online at Powell's.

Click here to read the entire 1861 review.

Here's a taste:
We have read it, as we have read all Mr. Dickens's previous works, as it appeared in installments, and can testify to the felicity with which expectation was excited and prolonged, and to the series of surprises which accompanied the unfolding of the plot of the story. In no other of his romances has the author succeeded so perfectly in at once stimulating and baffling the curiosity of his readers. He stirred the dullest minds to guess the secret of his mystery; but, so far as we have learned, the guesses of his most intellectual readers have been almost as wide of the mark as those of the least apprehensive. It has been all the more provoking to the former class, that each surprise was the result of art, and not of trick; for a rapid review of previous chapters has shown that the materials of a strictly logical development of the story were freely given. Even after the first, second, third, and even fourth of these surprises gave their pleasing electric shocks to intelligent curiosity, the denouement was still hidden, though confidentially foretold. The plot of the romance is therefore universally admitted to be the best that Dickens has ever invented. Its leading events are, as we read the story consecutively, artistically necessary, yet, at the same time, the processes are artistically concealed. We follow the movement of a logic of passion and character, the real premises of which we detect only when we are startled by the conclusions.
For a (much) more recent and briefer--though no less ardent--review, click here for Elizabeth McCracken's 1997 appreciation in Salon.

Great Expectations is also the basis for one of my favorite twice-told tales.

David Lean directed a flm version of Great Expectations (1946), which, Roger Ebert approvingly notes,
has been called the greatest of all the Dickens films, and which does what few movies based on great books can do: Creates pictures on the screen that do not clash with the images already existing in our minds. Lean brings Dickens' classic set-pieces to life as if he'd been reading over our shoulder: Pip's encounter with the convict Magwitch in the churchyard, Pip's first meeting with the mad Miss Havisham, and the ghoulish atmosphere in the law offices of Mr. Jaggers, whose walls are decorated with the death masks of clients he has lost to the gallows.
Read Ebert's review here.

I recently watched this film and I think Ebert got it right. What a boon to lazy students who will watch the film instead of reading the book!

Most critics didn't like the 1998 version (starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow) but I thought it was worth watching. Ebert did, too:
Great Expectations begins as a great movie (I was spellbound by the first 30 minutes) but ends as only a good one, and I think that's because the screenplay, by Mitch Glazer, too closely follows the romantic line. Dickens, who of course had more time and space to move around in, made it the story of a young man's coming of age, and the colorful characters he encountered--from the escaped prisoner of the opening scenes (played here by Robert De Niro) to good old, proud old Joe. The moment this movie declares itself as being mostly about affairs of the heart, it limits its potential.
Read his review here.

Several versions of Great Expectations are available for free online. Click here and follow the links to access them.

--Marshal Zeringue