Taking a fresh look at an old favourite, Lynne Truss revisits a Dickens classic
Great Expectations (1861) is Charles Dickens's masterpiece, written at the peak of his powers, 10 years before his death. Drawing on the north Kent topography of his youth, and dealing with matters of love, loyalty, indebtedness, pride, guilt and bitter disappointment, it seems the most honest, personal and mature of his novels - one of only two written in the first person; the other being David Copperfield, published 10 years earlier.
In Great Expectations, Pip escapes his upbringing only to find that he has fatally misjudged the value of worldly betterment. It is a powerful theme.
Pip attaches himself to false people; despises the true; and in the end is brought to feel authentic, heart-breaking shame.
As in so many Dickens novels, imagery of summary punishment abounds. When Pip's sash window fails to stay open, he describes how "it came down like a guillotine". There are also a lot of good and bad parents in this book, from the clerk Wemmick's cheerful "Aged P", to Joe Gargery's account of a visit to Hamlet: "Which I meantersay, if the ghost of a man's own father cannot be allowed to claim his attention, what can?"
This novel has the strongest central plot of any Dickens work, the story swivelling neatly on its tremendous revelation that orphan Pip owes his fortune to the convict Magwitch. However well you know the novel, the shock to Pip of this terrible news never fails to move. Pip has blindly assumed his anonymous benefactor is Miss Havisham. But his true patron is Magwitch - a nightmare, primitive figure who symbolically drags Pip back to the cold, fear and hunger of the marshes. A brilliant twist.
Pip thought he had escaped. But all along - like the convict - he had been, temporarily, at large.
Lynne Truss is a writer and broadcaster. Her book on punctuation, 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves', will be published by Profile Books in November. See www.bbc.co.uk\arts\bigread for a full list of the nation's 100 most popular books, resources and details of related programmes. Details of British Library Big Read events on 020 7412 7332