Great Expectations is one of Dickens’ best-loved works. It tells the story of the orphan boy Pip, and his surprise inheritance of a fortune. He is raised by his spiteful older sister and her gentle, loving husband. This book is also where their mysterious neighbour, the iconic perma-bride Mrs Havisham, makes her appearance.
One thing that readers may not expect when picking up this Victorian classic is the sheer amount of humour woven through the pages. You can hear the storyteller’s smile in every sentence. Because you can feel the author having so much fun when writing, the reader has so much fun when reading. This statement is true for most Terry Pratchett books, and it is true for Dickens’ Great Expectations.
My favourite scene is of Pip’s visit to the theatre to see a performance of Hamlet, and I have included just a couple of lines from this scene below. There are really too many of Pip’s humorous observations to mention them all, but here are a selection of some of my favourites.
Pip on his meagre wages:
” A moneybox was kept on the kitchen mantleshelf, into which it was publicly made known that all my earnings were dropped. I have an impression that they were to be contributed eventually towards the liquidation of the National Debt, but I know I had no hope of any personal participation in the treasure.”
Pip begins to wonder whether his beloved brother-in-law can read:
“I had observed at church last Sunday when I accidentally held our Prayer-Book upside down, that it seemed to suit his convenience quite as well as if it had been all right.”
Pip on his first ever visit to London:
“We Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was reasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of everything: otherwise, while I was scared by the immensity of London, I think I might have had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty.”
Pip observes the dynamic between two of his acquaintances:
“Startop, being a lively bright young fellow, and Drummle being the exact opposite, the latter was always disposed to resent him as a direct personal affront.”
Pip goes to see a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
“On our arrival in Denmark, we found the king and queen of that country elevated in two arm-chairs on a kitchen-table, holding a court. The whole of the Danish nobility were in attendance; consisting of a noble boy in the wash-leather boots of a gigantic ancestor, a venerable Peer with a dirty face who seemed to have risen from the people late in life, and the Danish chivalry with a comb in its hair and a pair of white silk legs, and presenting on the whole a feminine appearance.”
“The late king of the country not only appeared to have been troubled with a cough at the time of his decease, but to have taken it with him to the tomb, and to have brought it back. The royal phantom also carried a ghostly manuscript round its truncheon, to which it had the appearance of occasionally referring, and that, too, with an air of anxiety and a tendency to lose the place of reference which were suggestive of a state of mortality.”
Pip visits Newgate prison:
“So, felons were not lodged and fed better than soldiers (to say nothing of paupers), and seldom set fire to their prisons with the excusable object of improving the flavour of their soup.”
Pip and his best friend Herbert procrastinate all day over sorting through their debts, in a supremely relatable way:
“Dinner over, we produced a bundle of pens, a copious supply of ink, and a goodly show of writing and blotting paper. For, there was something very comfortable in having plenty of stationery.”
“I would then take a sheet of paper, and write across the top of it, in a neat hand, the heading, ‘Memorandum of Pip’s debts’, with Barnard’s Inn and the date very carefully added… The sound of our pens going, refreshed us exceedingly, insomuch that I sometimes found it difficult to distinguish between this edifying business proceeding and actually paying the money. In point of meritorious character, the two things seemed about equal.”
Did you enjoy reading Great Expectations? Are there any other unexpectedly funny classics? Let me know in the comments below.