Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

It is always worth meditating in an extended way on the folly of arrogance. And if only for that, Great Expectations is worth reading, but I really enjoyed this, and far more than I remembered from hearing it when I was much younger. There is so much going on at multiple levels in the book, but I will just touch on the elements that struck me particularly this time.

When I think of Dickens, I tend to expect characters like Matthew Pocket, or Pumblechook, Mrs. Joe, or Jaggers: utterly distinctive and memorable, broadly sketched with sharp definition, like caricatures. There are words, or an image, which define them, like Mrs. Joe's pin-studded apron front, and that's about all you can expect from them: they are consistent. This is, of course, wonderful for peopling a novelistic world - very often in the real world our only contact with most people is a slight one in which one dominate trait might stand out - but it has always bothered me. It is not to my taste. And I wonder about the effect of immersion in a novelistic universe in which good people are Good, and bad people are Bad.

But Magwich and Miss Havisham really are extraordinary, and they lift the whole book with them into something much more complex. Though introduced as a terrifying and repulsive criminal, Magwich has moments of the reader's understanding and sympathy. Miss Havisham's dismay over Estella and her repentance in the end lift her, too, out of being one-note, and she has a kind of tragic grandeur. In trying to exact revenge for her unrequited love by breaking others' hearts, she comes to realize she has created a monstrous force of nature. Estella is so completely lacking in human warmth that she cannot love her adopted mother, and Miss Havisham sees she herself is no different than her victims, unable to call forth love where none exists. 

Both characters, Magwich and Miss Havisham, were notable to me this time for their experience of filial ingratitude. I'm not sure the reader is meant to sympathize with this perspective, but something about the experience of being a parent made these scenes particularly poignant. They are so sure they will be loved for what they have given, and their adopted progeny seem want to do their best to shake them off. It's a useful reminder that our expectations of other people's emotions are often as inflated and misguided as Pip's hopes of his future wealth, and that giving does not necessarily generate a returning warmth of feeling. 

Much of the later part of the book dwells on Pip's regrets for his lack of gratitude and appreciation of his true benefactors - the people in his life, Joe and Biddy, who gave him unconditional love, and of whom he has spent most of his earlier years ashamed of as poor, or simple, or ignorant. Joe Gargery is a nice example of appearances being deceiving: he may be illiterate and too common in his manners and dress for Pip when he is trying to be a gentleman and separate himself from his old life at the forge, but throughout it is clear Joe is a noble, good-hearted man with dignity who deserves our admiration and respect. Likewise Biddy, who Pip comes to realize is by far the best of women he has known. And I always appreciate an author's emphasis on inner beauty and true worth when most of our lives it is too easy to judge based on the externals. But there is a danger here, I think, in romanticizing ignorance and poverty, somewhat akin to Rousseau's "man in the state of nature," and what happens when you do that is that civilization, and education, that foundational tool of civilization, can start to seem like a corrupting force. If only Pip's eyes had not been opened to the grander world of Miss Havisham and her house and Estella... If only Pip had not built himself up on his "expectations" of great wealth... He has eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, and can never go back to his simple good nature as a boy.
"How much of my ungracious condition of mind may have been my own fault, how much Miss Havisham's, how much my sister's, is now of no moment to me or to any one. The change was made in me; the thing was done. Well or ill done, excusably or inexcusably, it was done."
Ch. 14
Of course having a good heart, and integrity, and inner nobility, are human qualities that know no bounds of wealth or status. Of course everyone is deserving of our consideration and respect as human beings. I do think, though, that something can be said for education - and I should note that in the book Biddy works tirelessly at her own education and that Joe accomplishes learning to read and write - but I believe that education does refine our sensitivity, and your odds of growing into a person with a compassionate and generous heart are increased rather than diminished by it. 

My favorite line from Great Expectations is in Chapter 33. I can only say by way of apology that being a parent of a young child seems to skew what you find humorous:
"Mrs. Pocket was at home, and was in a little difficulty, on account of the baby's having been accommodated with a needle-case to keep him quiet... And more needles were missing, than it could be regarded as quite wholesome for a patient of such tender years either to apply externally or to take as a tonic."