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It's a Delight to Rediscover 'Great Expectations'

Renée Scolaro Mora

The benefactor business in Great Expectations raises questions concerning agency. The haves exert their power over the have-nots, at will or whim.

Great Expectations

Airtime: Sundays, 9:00 PM
Cast: Douglas Booth, Ray Winstone, Gillian Anderson, Vanessa Kirby, Harry Lloyd
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: PBS
Director: Brian Kirk
Air date: 2012-04-01
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You know nothing about men, Miss Havisham.

-- Pip (Douglas Booth)

Great Expectations tells the story of the orphan Pip, plucked from obscurity to be raised as a gentleman in early 19th-century London society, courtesy of an anonymous benefactor. The BBC's version was soundly thumped last December when it aired in the UK: Dickens purists complained of mis-castings, missing characters, and the mishandling of Dickens' prose. But, for those of us who haven't revisited the story in the 30 years since Mrs. Randow's freshman English class, it's a delight to rediscover.

Premiering on PBS 1 April, the two-part program's opening scenes provide a stark contrast to the series' title: the expansive gloomy marshlands and isolated village suggest a life of no expectations. Here, we see, Pip (Oscar Kennedy) is at the mercy of his abusive sister (Claire Rushbrook), as is her kind and gentle blacksmith husband Joe Gargery (Shaun Dooley). The unending sameness of the landscape reflects what's in store for young Pip.

And yet, the boy's seemingly predictable trajectory is repeatedly interrupted and revised. First, he encounters an escaped convict, Abel Magwitch (Ray Winstone), who forces Pip to steal a file from Joe in order to help him break out of his chains. His next encounter is jarring in another way. When he meets Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson), the jilted bride who has been roaming the mouldering halls of her home, Satis House, in her wedding gown for decades, Pip is rightly surprised. But he's also smitten by her adopted daughter, Estella (Izzy Meikle-Small). Years later, Pip (now played by Douglas Booth) learns from the lawyer Mr. Jaggers (David Suchet) that he's inherited lots of money from an anonymous benefactor -- and so he heads to London to start his life yet again.

Part of what makes Pip so endearing is his hopefulness and naïvete. Despite a proviso forbidding him from trying to discover his benefactor's identity, he decides it must be the wealthy Miss Havisham, and also that she means for him to be with Estella (grown up into Vanessa Kirby). Most readers of Dickens remember the ghastly and ghostly Miss Havisham. She and Estella are a disturbingly memorable pair, to be sure, carving out a delusional power play, struggling against their own limited agency.

Pip's faith in the promise of fortune and love spur him on to goodness. He pays it forward (and engages in no little bit of wish fulfillment), becoming the anonymous benefactor to his friend Herbert Pocket (Harry Lloyd), so that Herbert can marry his own penniless fiancée.

All this benefactor business in Great Expectations, of course, raises questions concerning agency. The haves exert their power over the have-nots, at will or whim. As a child, Pip is the ultimate have not: he certainly has no "rights" in British society, barely recognized as more than property. Pip is a means to an end for his sister when Miss Havisham takes an interest in him, a chance for Mrs. Joe to raise her own station in life. And Pip is well aware of his role in the family, just as he is aware of his lack of choice.

Still, this is Pip's story, and so his decisions have weight. As he stands at his parents' graves immediately before his initial encounter with Magwitch, we know that his sister has not destroyed his innate goodness. His decision to assist Magwitch, to bring him food as well as the blacksmith's file, reveals as much. But the measure of that goodness shifts when Pip is "removed from his present sphere" (the forge, where he has worked with Joe) and brought to London. Here he is offered a series of substitute "fathers": Jaggers, who is merely businesslike and self-interested; Wemmick (Paul Ritter), Jaggers' clerk; the helpful Herbert Pocket; even the villainous Bentley Drummle (Tom Burke), Pip's rival. All offer lessons in the cruel realities of social class and property laws and remind him of who he is and where he comes from. Drummle's lessons are more malicious than the others', but they're useful for the gullible Pip to learn.

Of these many father figures, Joe Gargery looms largest in Great Expectations. Though he is simple and uneducated, Joe's affections are worth having. His first apprentice, Orlick (Jack Roth,) is willing to kill for them, and Pip depends on them as a child. But as an adult, Pip's insistence that his before and after realities stay separate means rejecting Joe, not sharing his good fortune as his sister had expected, and by extension, not sharing that good part of himself. Pip is disillusioned by his discovery that he is not really a gentleman and so not a fit match for Estella. But that recognition is nothing compared to his pain on realizing that he has been undeserving of Joe.

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