Of all novels, Great Expectations strikes me as the greatest, partly because it changes so much as you reread it. You can read it as, or to, a child (I'm reading it at present to my nine-year-old daughter) and thrill to the plot - not least because any book that starts with its protagonist as a child offers something of the child's-eye view. Like a detective story, which it also is, it has a dramatic opening, with the "small bundle of shivers" that is Pip being terrified by an escaped convict, Magwitch, into stealing food for him. From time to time, I tell my children the plots of classic novels on walks, and the power of this one was unmistakable, because even the six-year-old was asking, What happens next?
I myself first read it as a teenager, as a Bildungsroman. My sympathies were all with Pip, and I largely overlooked the moral subtleties of his tale, let alone the artistry with which it is composed. I had not then experienced what it was like to fall in love with someone who treated me with cruelty and contempt, as Estella does Pip, but I understood that this was about a young person's education in the ways of the world and, like all young people, I was greedy for such knowledge.
I was captivated by the mixture of brooding gothic horror and social comedy. Pip believes he has been selected (for no very obvious quality) by the rich and crazy Miss Havisham to be elevated above his birth and to marry Estella, the spoilt and beautiful girl who, as she warns him, cannot love. This seems perfectly proper to a young reader, who, just like Pip, has yet to learn that he or she is not necessarily the hero of his own life. In the end, Pip does become a gentleman, and saves Estella from becoming a second Miss Havisham, so the fairy tale comes true, in a sense. But he has lost the great fortune he expected, has had to work hard, and has suffered much. Estella has been "bent and broken". The good have died, and so have the wicked. It gradually dawned on me that this was an extraordinarily dark inversion of a number of fairy tales.
You don't realise, as an immature reader, quite how foolish it is to identify with a fictional character, as Nabokov said. In a sense, you are right not to, because if you fail to feel yourself at one with Pip on first reading Great Expectations, you fail to grow with him. Critics have wondered at his name: to me it's always been obvious he is a pip - the seed of the man he'll grow into. As a novelist, this strikes me as the most fascinating of all subjects. How do people become fully human? Dickens was a philanthropist but also a profoundly flawed human being, and he knew it more than most. Pip also knows that he has sinned, and at every point in his story Dickens is at pains to point this out. (Perhaps he was wise to do so, considering how often critics need to have the comedy of bad behaviour spelled out for them.)
The next time I came to read Great Expectations was after university, when I began to do my real reading, both for pleasure and for craft. By then I had the usual critical knives lashed flashily to my chariot wheels. It is, for instance, a story that begins on Christmas Eve, and ends in December also, with the evening mists commemorating those out of which Magwitch rises one morning. Far from being the typical "baggy monster", the whole structure is lean and pared down. Every chapter advances the action, the themes of the whole, and there are none of the usual "Dickensian" grotesques. Estella is the opposite of the sentimental child- heroine of Dickens's other fiction, and I didn't quite believe in her bad marriage, or her humiliation - not then having witnessed a very similar one in real life. The first person to use the word "gentleman" is Magwitch, and he uses it to describe his mortal enemy, a fellow convict. Magwitch understands a gentleman to possess money and the things money can buy, such as clothes, fine manners, a posh accent - all of which he determines Pip shall have, too. Reading it in the 1980s, an era preoccupied not just by money but by social ambition, I think I only half-grasped how deep that irony went. Dickens is the master stylist, and satirist, but the greatness of Great Expectations goes beyond satire.
That word, "gentleman". As a matter of birth, it is wholly irrelevant to any person of sense. Pip is taught by Herbert Pocket (my favourite character, after Joe) not to put his knife in his mouth, and so despises Joe's looks and manners in turn. He is taught, as we have been taught, to value form rather than content. Presentation, charm and manners are indeed worth learning, but the gentleness, courtesy, truthfulness and courage that should constitute the true "gentleman" belong to Joe, the uncouth, uneducated blacksmith. I love Dickens for that, for bounding free of the blacking factory. Joe's words to Magwitch - "We don't know what you have done, but we wouldn't have you starved to death for it, poor miserable fellow creature" - are what makes Dickens the greatest and most compassionate of novelists. Surely, if a novel fails to make us as readers keep faith with humanity, it fails absolutely. It is love, or caritas, that rescues Pip, and Estella, and Joe and even Magwitch. It is because they love each other, and make us love them and see them, that they burn so bright against the gloom. It is love, not money or social graces, that makes you fully human, and love that fulfils expectations, great or small.
Amanda Craig's fifth novel, Love in Idleness, will be published in July by Little, Brown