My fourteen-year-old self is going to think I’m Madame DeFarge. And not just because I learned how to knit a few years ago. No, it’s more the face-of-evil-betrayal thing.
I liked Great Expectations.
Horror of horrors: it appears that Mr. Dickens and I have come to an understanding.
I last read Great Expectations in the ninth grade — fifteen years ago, give or take. The following year brought A Tale of Two Cities, which I will never read again thanks to truly irritating Lucie Mannette and her golden thread, and then I had a long break from Dickens until Hard Times popped up in a graduate seminar six or seven years ago, a break punctuated only by sporadic forays into David Copperfield.
Before this reading of Great Expectations, my major Dickensian complaints consisted of: Dickens’s long-windedness, his lack of subtlety, the tidy way that characters prove related to one another. Seriously. It felt like reading a nineteenth-century version of Crash sometimes.
Honestly, I put Great Expectations on my Classics Club list not from any noble intention to re-evaluate my own notoriously long-lived literary grudges (see: Steinbeck, Faulkner), but because at the time I thought I might like to read Havisham (still haven’t gotten around to it), and I like to read literary reimaginings with the original text firmly in mind. (Why I wanted to read Havisham is a story for another post.) When I decided was peer pressured into participating into the Classics Club Spin selection, I popped Great Expectations onto the spin list in position number 20, dead last, never thinking for a moment that it would really be picked.
I suppose I’ll be taking 5% chances more seriously from now on.
Great Expectations is Dickens’s penultimate completed novel, and though my edition clocks in at 484 pages (excluding notes and introduction), it’s one of the shortest of Dickens’s novels (which may halfway explain my change of heart). Unrequited love, the pursuit of wealth and status, the plight of the poor, and the nature of guilt are themes traced through the novel.
On the bleak marshes of Kent, Pip, a young orphan, has no expectations at all when the novel begins, except perhaps a slap upside the head from his sister, or a kind word from her blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery (the pair are raising him). A chance encounter with a runaway convict causes Pip no end of fright and guilt, until those emotions are eventually crowded out by his love for and anxiety over Estella, the cold and contemptuous ward of the ghastly Ms. Havisham. Notified one day that a mysterious benefactor wishes Pip to become a gentleman, Pip leaves his home, Joe, and Estella behind, setting out for London and the issuance of his “great expectations.” Once there, however, the new wealth that confers upon Pip the status of gentleman also separates him from the people he loves, and, often, the best parts of himself. Great Expectations is largely concerned with the forces, both internal and external, that shape Pip’s character.
The novel’s narration is an older (and perhaps wiser) Pip, who looks on his childhood self’s foibles and his adolescent self’s willful errors with an uncompromisingly honest eye. His narration is wry, emotional, often funny. Pip meets a typical cast of Dickensian characters on his road: Jagger, the unscrupulous, clever, perpetually hand-washing lawyer; Joe, the gentle blacksmith, unfailingly tender-hearted, too convinced of his own unworthiness to correct Pip’s faults; Mr. Wopsle, the ridiculous cleric-turned-actor; Miss Havisham, withering and decaying in her own bitter memories.
And Wemmick, my favorite character in the novel. Wemmick is, I think, Dickens’s embodiment of modernity and practicality. While tender-hearted and thoughtful at home, caring for his deaf father (“The Aged Parent”) and sneaking his arm around proper Miss Skiffins’s waist, Wemmick transforms into an entirely different creature at Jaggers’s office, where he works as a clerk. He remonstrates with clients, ignores their tears, and carries out his duties without any regard to the suffering around him. It’s as if he shuts down his emotions as a form of self-preservation; otherwise, how could he bear what he sees every day? I suspect that this is Dickens’s commentary on the kind of person one must become to survive in — though not change — the modern world.
I know I didn’t appreciate Wemmick fifteen years ago because he came as a total surprise to me. What I also failed to see as a fourteen-year-old was Dickens’s marvelous sense of humor — abundantly evident in caricature studies, if you will, but here particularly in bleak, black humor. The novel’s second paragraph, after Pip explains the origin of his name in the first, is an extended joke. Pip explains how he derived a sense of his parents’ characters and his siblings’ physical attitudes from their tombstones:
As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, “Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,” I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine,—who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle,—I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.
The tragic death of five infant boys transmuted into the image of children born with trousers on, relaxed and jaunty — how strange, how macabre, how childishly innocent!
Take, then, the next paragraph:
Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
Pip introduces us to his child-self at the moment of self-realization, at the moment when he places himself within the context of his surroundings. And we learn what remains, for most of the novel, Pip’s defining characteristic: fearfulness. As a child, Pip fears his sister and her abuse, fears for his own safety once he’s met the convict, fears Estella’s coldness, fears becoming trapped in his provincial town with a respectable profession. Later he fears what people will think of him if acts a certain way; he even fears the boy he hires to be his valet. And of course he fears losing Estella, and fears that his convict will not forget him.
Though Pip-the-narrator never excuses his own (sometimes deplorable) behavior, in the background Dickens always seems to be saying, “consider the circumstances!”; take, for example, the paragraph I have just cited. Dickens emphasizes that Pip’s parents and brothers are dead; the churchyard overgrown with nettles suggests that the church (or religion) will be of little help to Pip (and indeed religion plays little role in the story); and the bleakness of the physical environment suggests that even nature will not be a comfort to Pip. Great Expectations provoked more marginalia for me than any other book this year — just look at the layering of adjectives that describe Pip’s surroundings: raw, bleak, overgrown, dark, flat, low, leaden, distant, savage. A fearsome environment for a “small bundle of shivers.”
Here’s part of Dickens’s description of the convict: “A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars.” Textbook “good” writing — all action verbs — but the convict is the object of the actions; all these things have happened to him. What wonder then that he wants to become a man of action, to make things happen himself? What wonder then that he acts savagely to instill fear in a mere child?
(The characters for whom Dickens reserves real contempt are those who lack circumstances dire enough to mitigate their behavior: the second convict, Pip’s sister, the pompous bully Pumblechook, Herbert’s non-maternal mother.)
I’ve rambled on and only covered the first two pages of the novel — as you might imagine, the rest provoked plenty of commentary in the margins. I couldn’t help but think, as I read, that I must be missing things that would be obvious to people who specialize in Victorian literature (hi, Joanna!), people I’ve regarded with incredulity for years because they make a regular habit of reading Dickens. I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to remake Wemmick’s acquaintance, and Joe Gargery’s, and I plan on reading Great Expectations again.
But don’t count on me reading Tale of Two Cities anytime soon.
A final aside, Dear Readers, for those who’ve read Milton and those who are considering the plunge: here are the last lines of Volume I, as Pip is about to embark upon his “great expectations”:
We changed again, and yet again, and it was now too late and too far to go back, and I went on. And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me.
Compare these passages, from Paradise Lost, Book XII:
from the other hill
To their fixed station all in bright array
The cherubim descended, on the ground
Gliding meteorous as evening mist
Ris’n from a river o’er the marish glides
And gathers ground fast at the laborer’s heel
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way
See what Dickens did there? Pip may be off to find his great expectations, but Paradise is behind him. And then, we must ask, what kind of paradise was it?