ETA: I forgot--this is my first completed book in the Tea & Books Reading Challenge, which began Jan. 1 and involves reading books of 700 pages or more. This one definitely counts. Woo hoo! And books two and three have already been started!
And so, we come to the end. Somewhat predictably, there are various happy endings--Bella learns the truth about John, and also learns that Mr. Boffin's miserly ways had nothing to do with him actually becoming miserly, but were an act to teach her a lesson. Mr. Wrayburn recovers, albeit slowly, but Lizzie is not a widow. Wegg gets a mighty comeuppance. Riderhood and Headstone come to an untimely, if appropriate, death. And in the very last chapter, Dickens gets the last word about the evils of snooty society, but shows that Lightwood and Twemlow have learned better, to their credit.
That said, I was a bit troubled by how quickly all this wrapped up. Good grief--this book is almost 800 pages, and yet in one chapter the newly wealthy Harmon couple swoop around and fix all kinds of things. Voila! Instant resolution.
Still, that's a small quibble for such an otherwise enjoyable book. Dickens really explored many grand themes in this one: problems of wealth and poverty, education or lack thereof, women's roles (both wealthy and poor), and the layers of society that existed, not exactly functionally, back in his time.
After finishing the book with a happy sigh, I turned to the introduction in the beginning. (Why do they always put the spoilerific essay in the beginning? Why not put it at the end?) I have an older Wordsworth Edition with an intro by Deborah Wynne, who is academic but not entirely without a sense of humor:
"As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has noted in her discussion of the violent homosocial bonds in the novel, 'men are always dragging each other into the river.'"
Much of her discussion covers things I mention above and have mentioned in previous posts. However, she makes two points that I hadn't thought much about. One is a deeper look into women's roles and how Dickens seems to agree that a woman's greatest wish in life should be to be settled in a good, financially stable (and preferably well-to-do) marriage. Look how "lucky" Lizzie is to get Eugene Wrayburn; look how Bella, who once devoutly vowed never to want more than her husband and baby, is rewarded by Harmon's restoration to his inheritance; even Pleasant Riderhood gets a lift up in the world after meeting Venus. How much of that is the reality of the times? It is a bit odd, given that earlier in the book Dickens seems to champion education for women (or at least for Lizzie and Jenny Wren).
The other point that really gave me pause involved Mr. Headstone, whom I thoroughly disliked. Wynne posits that Dickens made him a sympathetic creature to the reader--umm, not to *this* reader. However, as she looks more closely at him, I can see where she's coming from:
"Headstone, a ragged orphan who disciplined himself to rise into the ranks of the middle class, is in many ways a product of the Victorian ideology of 'self-help'...Yet, as Eugene's contempt makes clear, Headstone lacks access to the powerful cultural and social systems through which the propertied classes protect their own interests. ...the 'mire' of poverty from which Headstone and Charley try to escape is not the worst 'mire' to be trapped in. Eugene's contempt inflames Bradley's barely repressed passions, forcing him back into the 'dirt' of poverty and low status, which in turn prompts him to commit the acts of violence. ...[he] illustrates the dangers of an alienating society, where self-division can have disastrous consequences for individuals."
So the question seems to be: was Headstone mentally ill and borderline psychopathic, or--if he'd never met Lizzie and Wrayburn--would he have been content with Miss Peecher and having achieved a middle-class life from a lower-class start? If the latter is the case, then I suddenly do have more sympathy for him, and perhaps less liking for Wrayburn. It's a deeper complexity than I initially read into it.
Well, that was fun. And hey--tonight begins PBS' Great Expectations!