By Daniel Garrett
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
(Four Complete Novels: Great Expectations, Hard Times,
A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities)
Gramercy Books/Random House, 1982
When I was much younger I was enamored of the word “vulnerable,” seeing it as the quality of being open, sensitive, willing to experience and to change and to respond, but it does not take even a decade in a world of adult challenges, not to mention three decades in a world of such challenges, to want to have nothing to do with vulnerability—subject to the powers of other beings, facts, and forces. The old masters, such as the British writer Charles Dickens, know how terrifying and transformative vulnerability is: and in Great Expectations, the novel by Charles Dickens, a poor, ignorant boy being roughly reared by his older, resentful sister and her sweet but seemingly weak blacksmith husband (Joe) becomes involved with better-placed people—an old woman, Miss Havisham, whose long-ago broken heart has become a grotesque grief and a desire for vengeance: an adopted girl child, Estella, is expected to deliver the death blows to men.
It is hard to reconcile daily life and profound thought sometimes, but fiction gives us the semblance of both, reconciled. In Great Expectations, we see how shallow hopes give way to mature duties, friendship, love, and wisdom, when the little poor boy Pip gets a benefactor and a trip to London—he assumes Miss Havisham is his benefactor. In London he interacts with idiosyncratic and imperfect men who help him (the men are the lawyer Jaggers, his assistant Wemmick, and a relative of Miss Havisham, Herbert; and luckily, though Pip judges them he does not condemn them—he does not alienate himself from them or them from him, inadvertently harming himself). He has forsaken one world and embraced another as part of his great expectations for himself: and, at one point, when Joe wants to visit him it is a visit he is uncomfortable with because of how Joe will seem to others (a matter of social power and social shame). It is an example of how “…our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of people whom we most despise” (149). Pip thinks that when contemplating Joe’s visit—when the too well-dressed Joe brings a message from Miss Havisham that Estella is back; and Joe adds that in future Pip will have to visit him at his forge. Miss Havisham advises Pip to love the now womanly and beautiful Estella beyond reason or sense—which should be a warning to Pip regarding her complete madness and lack of concern for his ultimate safety. Yet, those who surround Miss Havisham and resent Pip are much more crude and predictable in their malice.
The first and last argument that Pip sees between Miss Havisham and Estella is like a mystical ritual—a confrontation of questions and answers, a confrontation of fulfilled and frustrated expectations, a confrontation between mother and daughter, teacher and student, benefactor and heir: between the idol and her maker.
It is devastating when Pip finds out who his benefactor is: it is a crushing rather than emboldening revelation. Both Pip and Estella have been created by others, by flawed elders. Neither quite gets what he expects, but each learns something about who they are, in multiple ways. (It has been a flaw in the vision and efforts of Pip that he had not yet found respectable work for himself, and a way of being that did not depend so much on others.) Pip is further surprised to learn that Estella plans to marry the least attractive of her suitors, a way of ending her life of charm and deception and frustration in society. She has come far from her roots but not far enough. While at dinner with Jaggers and Wemmick, Pip notices the housekeeper’s resemblance to Estella and he believes her to be Estella’s mother; and he later believes that a convict he has come to know, Magwitch/Provis, is her father—which may be too perfect a circle.
Pip’s kindness to Herbert—his secret financial investment in him (and his convincing Miss Havisham to invest also)—is the most selfless and significant thing Pip has done, as far as Pip sees it (Pip later claims something else he does is the best thing: when he is sublimely generous, he identifies that as the best thing). Herbert has a change to help Pip, when Joe’s former helper Orlick and Orlick’s rebellion—and, apparently, long-lived evil—is another surprise in a book of surprises (it may be too much of one, giving the story much melodrama). Orlick’s threat to Pip is off-putting. (It is proof of the power of Dickens that one finds certain developments acceptable.) Herbert’s coming to Pip’s rescue is one more thing that renders their friendship an ideal one.
Great Expectations brought me to tears. It contains genuine love—between men, and between men and women (between Herbert and Clara, between Wemmick and Miss Skiffins) but not between the couple at the center of the story, though Pip and Estella do not part badly. After Pip tries to leave town, after Pip becomes ill and is helped by Joe, after Pip goes into business with Herbert, Pip and Estella meet where they first met and they face their expectations and the facts they must live with.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. Garrett’s comment on Dickens previously appeared on his internet log, The Garrett Reader.