Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
rating: 4 of 5 stars
From Ovid’s Metamorphoses translated by A.D. Melville (Oxford)
There was a pool, limpid and silvery,
Whither no shephard came nor any herd,
Nor mountain goat; and never bird nor beast
Nor falling branch disturbed its shining peace;
Grass grew around it, by the water fed,
And trees to shield it from the warming sun.
Here–for the chase and heat had wearied him–
The boy lay down, charmed by the quiet pool,
And, while he slaked his thirst, another thirst
Grew; as he drank he saw before his eyes
A form, a face, and loved with leaping heart
A hope unreal and thought the shape was real.
Spellbound he saw himself, and motionless
Lay like a marble statue staring down.
As long as we prize youth and ideals, Narcissus’ spirit lives on. Like our vain, self-loving mythic hero, Beauty, Truth, Purity, and Justice seem to be just within grasp in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Pip is just as vain, just as full of pride that spoils quickly to greed, and, like Narcissus, he falls in love with the beauty and refinement represented in Estella, whose ladyship is no more real than Pip’s dream of becoming a gentleman. Like Echo and Narcissus, Pip and Estella are mirrored twins, though the gender roles may be reversed, both represent the very best ideals of youth, beauty, charm, admiration, and potential, and both are raised to redeem their benefactors, to make up for the corrupt pasts of their guardians.
Narcissus and Pip cling to their own innocence, which equals beauty. Think Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. If we truly “live, as we dream–alone,” as Conrad wrote, then we have only our self to love and our partners are mere reflections of those aspects we idolize and idealize. God made man in his image or man made God in his image. No matter how we boil it down, we essentially want to return to ourselves. Enter Plato’s Forms and Kant’s Absolute Spirit.
Great Expectations is less a story of rags to riches, than a tale about Life as hell. The novel opens with Pip meeting the living dead, first the violent encounter with Magwitch in the graveyard, soon afterward he’s ushered to Miss Havisham’s, a living coffin. Before his journey from boy to man even begins, Pip’s already condemned to live a life of sin. None of the characters have much of a chance “to live” because of their poverty or their sins, which are often one in the same. Dickens plays with duality often in this story. Scenes between Miss Havisham and Pip reflect the myth of Janus, joining the old and new, in female and male counterparts, Pip looking forward and Havisham lost in the past: “So new to him,’ she muttered, ‘so old to me; so strange to him, so familiar to me; so melancholy to both of us!'”
Dickens’ own childhood of abandonment comprises the genetic makeup of each characters’ story. Everyone in turn is abandoned. Estella’s heart is abandoned for Miss Havisham’s revenge. Miss Havisham was jolted at the altar and therefore abandons her world. Pip, our central orphan, abandons Joe, Biddy, Magwitch, and his own integrity. Yet, in their abandonment, each desperately clings to another. Havisham searches for redemption in Pip, as does Magwitch. Pip looks to Estella, his bright, distant star. Funnily enough, the only person who is true to herself, aside from Biddy and Joe, who Pip readily casts away, as cold, love-lost, and love-less as she is, Estella, an echo of Hard Times’ Louisa Gradgrind who is also over-calculating and devoid of feeling, Pip’s one true love upholds her integrity throughout the novel. Estella knows exactly who and what she is and accepts because she has no other option. Money links people together, shackling Pip to Magwitch and Pip to Miss Havisham as well as Estella. Whether poor or rich, these characters need each other; they cannot escape the necessity of human relations.
As in Bleak House, original sin permeates Pip’s universe, and Pip longs to escape his wretched past. He essentially chases his own tail, and in his pursuit we learn Pip’s principles, and perhaps are own, are far too lofty, much too impossible for anyone to meet, especially his beloved Estella. Pip soon discovers everything he longs for most is no better than his own humble origins.
Pip, like any classic hero tries to be something he’s not. Prometheus bound, he longs to be Great only to find there is no such thing. In the end, Dickens warns us, quite violently, not to cling so tightly to our ideals. Pip’s maturation means to DESTROY his ideals. Ultimately, our life is not our own, so urges Dickens. Fate and the will of others toss us about on a ravenous sea. We may be forced to give up some dreams, and we may not always be willful agents of our own lives. The conscious decisions we are allowed to make, the choices we are free to act on become that much more significant and sacred, certainly not to be taken for granted. When Pip decides to return to his loved ones, to pay tribute to Miss Havisham or Magwitch, these acts of his own volition are true signs of divine compassion. Pip learns to love what is real and true, transcending his own vanity, pride, and greed. His love for others becomes his saving grace and finally sets Pip apart from his lonely and tragic waterside predecessor.
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