Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 2: Great Expectations

The older Dickens got, the darker his books. With Great Expectations, he asks: How long can a society ignore the nefarious, corrupt or compromised sources of its wealth?

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Great Expectations begins in the place where all expectations come to an end. Little Philip Pirrip, known as Pip, sits shivering in a graveyard, looking at the tombstones of his parents and five brothers. He is wondering whether life above ground, where he quails under the thumb of his terrifying older sister, is really a preferable fate when suddenly an even more terrifying figure appears — an escaped convict, who demands that Pip help him evade his captors. It’s a moral dilemma that will change the course of Pip’s life.

The convict’s name is Abel Magwitch, and despite Pip’s help, he is recaptured and transported to Australia. That was the fashion with criminals in England in the early 19th century, when Great Expectations is set: send them on a one-way trip to a penal colony and let them try their luck at rehabilitation, just as long as they never try to come home. A transported prisoner like Magwitch returned to England on penalty of death. Once out of sight, he is out of mind — unless the mind is that of a master plotter like Dickens. Years later, Pip receives news of an anonymous benefactor who will release him from his apprenticeship to his sister’s husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery; pay for his education; and supply him with an allowance so he never has to work again. Pip can’t guess who his savior is, but the reader can. It’s the criminal-turned-self-made-man from New South Wales, funneling money back to the old world to make Pip into a gentleman.

(MORE: See all of the entries in our Blogging the Dickens project.)

What blinds Pip to the source of his fortune are the other, more promising connections he has forged. Shortly after the episode in the graveyard, he is summoned for a play date by the village’s wealthy recluse Miss Havisham, whose claim to eccentricity is that she stopped her life cold when she was jilted at the altar. She is one of Dickens’ most memorable characters, introduced through Pip’s eyes as both mesmerizing and macabre:

I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.

This frozen woman’s only forward motion has been to adopt a ward, the beautiful, haughty Estella, who lures Pip into infatuation by treating him like dirt. He feels the brute force of snobbery and realizes he’s on the wrong side of it. Joe, who has been a stalwart friend to him, begins to seem more like an embarrassment. When Miss Havisham’s lawyer, the formidable Mr. Jaggers, delivers the news of his “great expectations,” Pip jumps to conclusions and assumes that he’s been marked to make Estella his wife. He little thinks that Jaggers might have other clients too.

As a hero, Pip can be exasperating. Like his fellow first-person narrator David Copperfield, he refuses to see certain things that are clear to the reader: Estella is emotionally stunted and never going to love him; Joe’s illiteracy is meaningless when measured against his warmth. So it goes in life, that you waste precious time confusing the people who are doing you good with the people who are doing you harm. But to divert his readers from frustration with Pip’s blurred vision, Dickens provides a cast of delightful supporting characters, some of whom even succeed in diverting Pip. He is a better man when looking out for his roommate Herbert Pocket, whose gentle naiveté brings out Pip’s protective and generous side; and he is a better man when visiting Wemmick, Jaggers’ clerk, who draws Pip into a charming domestic subplot involving Wemmick’s courtship of a very nice lady called Miss Skiffins. The more Pip waffles in his own affairs, the more willing and able he seems to advance the happiness of these men, and it raises him in our estimation even as his troubles bog him down.

For Pip doesn’t have all the advantages that David Copperfield has. He gets tougher love from his creator. David chooses the wrong girl as his bride, and Dickens — in an act of wish-fulfillment on behalf of his fictional self — gives him a get-out-of-jail-free card. When Pip comes to his senses about his love life, however, the girl he desires is already taken. David follows his literary dreams and prospers; Pip’s prosperity, which arrives so suddenly and auspiciously, comes to a sudden and irrevocable end.

What changed between Dickens’ eighth and thirteenth novels? He grew older, he fell in love with a young actress and initiated a bitter, public separation from his wife, he burned all his letters. And he wrote the intervening books. Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit and A Tale of Two Cities all took him in a darker direction. Joy, when it graces their conclusions, is compromised by death and sorrow. Personal achievement flies in the face of systemic failure, and the system is at most only temporarily stayed. Fortunes become harder to come by and harder still to keep. As a novelist Dickens seems increasingly interested in meting out not happiness but justice — and justice on a broader scale than most mortals can compute. With Great Expectations, he asks: How long can a society ignore the nefarious, corrupt or compromised sources of its wealth? Pip’s resolution may not be one to celebrate, but it is fair, and fairness in the world of Great Expectations is as much as we can ask for.

Actually Pip has two resolutions, which is the source of much gnashing of teeth among scholars. Having written a definitive last encounter between Pip and Estella, Dickens was persuaded by his friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton to lighten it a little, offer a glimmer of hope for the disillusioned pair. That’s what he published, and the original ending was not known until John Forster printed it in his biography of Dickens, along with the backstory. Many subsequent editors, including George Bernard Shaw, rejected the Lyttonized version for their editions of Great Expectations, arguing that the original paragraphs are more in keeping with the tenor of the novel.

To me, it doesn’t make much of a difference. I don’t believe in the romance of Pip and Estella; I never have. I believe in Herbert Pocket and his sweetheart Clara, in Wemmick and Miss Skiffins. Great Expectations contains Dickens’ most fully realized strain of comedy in service of plot (if you don’t believe me, see the recurring antics of the tailor’s assistant, aka Trabb’s boy), and the fates of these happy couples, plus one that shall not be named, more than fulfill my desire for prosperous unions. Pip’s path lies in a different direction. Rereading the end of Great Expectations — not just the final, controversial paragraphs, but the full denouement — I’m reminded of how moving his part is. Of all the characters, he has the most to learn, and he learns it. That may not be unexpected. But it’s deeply satisfying, all the same.

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of our Blogging the Dickens project as we unveil Charles Dickens’ number one novel.

READ: The Previous Entry in This SeriesNumber 3: Little Dorrit

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