“How does she use you?”
Author: Charles Dickens
Phillip Pirrip (Pip) is a young orphan boy being viciously “brought up by hand” by an abusive elder sister and her kindly, quiet tempered blacksmith husband, Joe. Pip enters this world with low expectations, the joy of his heart namely being anticipation of adulthood and a quiet apprenticeship with Joe and the steady pounding of the steaming forge. Everything, however, changes when his greedy relations, specifically the hateful Uncle Pumlechook in coordination with Pip’s sister, send him to entertain a wealthy but eccentric old woman and her child protégé, the stunning Estella. Introduced to the decaying grandeur of Miss Havisham’s world, Pip learns to hope above his station and sabotaged by the young Estella’s beauty and haughty ways, Pip desires a transformation in station for which he will, and does, give anything.
Promoted to the status of a wealthy, lay-about gentlemen in his early adult years, Pip leaves the forge and the farm which are now hateful to him, effectively disavowing the few that have remained true, including his childhood friend and mentor, Joe. Stunned by a world suddenly populated with expectations, Pip wonders about his mysterious benefactor but in his heart he knows it to be Miss Havisham and he also knows that the haughty Estella, the jewel constantly shown before his eyes, is to be his if only he will wait. Following the instructions of his sudden inheritance, Pip waits, wonders, anticipates ,and fears the day when for whatever reason he will have to go back to the village which knows his true, original station in life. Only one incident from his past involving an escaped convict encountered on a lonely marsh could possibly undermine Pip’s social status and freedom as a gentlemen now…
Touted as one of Charles Dicken’s greatest works, Great Expectations has become a cultural icon going from lofty presentations in theater, a pretty stunning modern re-imagining in the cinema, and even an episode on the book-themed children’s show Wishbone (which, I admit, is where I first encountered it as a child.) The story is macabre and tangled, a grotesque inspection of the human psyche and how situation is essential to formation. The story is one of love and greed and heightened snobbishness. Yes, there is a moral, and it is a hard tale with hardly a cheerful ending (regardless of which one of Dicken’s three endings you choose to accept as ‘final.’) What keeps this story going is the relatability and the very core of modern problems in a world we often mistakenly view as being too far removed, too much of a school book classic text, as to be useful in anything beyond passing a test. For instance, here we have corruption of the law for money, wealth for the sake of status, ideas that birth discontent, love and its loss, our human ability to be swayed by the lowest factors, our innate ability to be haunted by missed chances and past escapes, the pain and peace of forgiveness, the true meaning of “labels” and all the miseries of a childhood growing up unwanted. It’s very much a modern story of being inconsolable at who we are and the ramifications of chasing the glitzy promised dream instead of simply living. Most evidently, it is a story of willful self-delusion, death, and an even deeper loss.
Charles Dickens has been my favorite author since I was in grade school, although then while A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield charmed me immensely, Great Expectations was undoubtedly a little over my head and somehow too sad even for my love of morbid books. Older now and perusing through my list of “classics I never read” for that endless challenge of reading all the materials I somehow missed, I saw this one on the list again. Yes, I had already read it (technically) but that was at least a good fifteen years ago. I picked it up again, remembering next to nothing and was soon immersed in a world that was poignant and beautiful and gut-wrenching all at the same time. For days, tracking through the throng of people on the metro, driving down busy interstates, and just sitting quietly at my desk, the words of Pip haunted and the situations burned brilliantly. It was like sleepwalking, waiting for those moments when I could once again be with Miss Havisham pacing in her bridal dress, seeing the decimated room from her canceled marriage, leaving through the rejection again, training up a new generation of women for purposes of revenge. “How does she use you Pip?” I heard the hissing words in my dreams and saw the starry eyes of a young child, on the verge of crying, on the precipice of corruption brought on by adult deception and it made me think. Most importantly, it put me there in the story with all of these extraordinary characters.
Speaking of characters – what a grand lot of personages there are! Truly delightful and chilling. We have our villains and our anti-heroes. There are few that are pure evil but many that are tainted either by experience (Miss Havisham) or a career born desire to get ahead in this world (the memorable lawyer Mr. Jaggers.) Then we have our liminal figures such as John Wennick, an insidious clerk for Mr. Jaggers with a softer side at his charming home where he cares for “The Aged Parent.” There are characters for comic relief (Mr. Pumblechook) and characters of revelation and effective resurrection (Abel Magwitch). There are thieves and murderers, convicts and ladies, friends and foes, and pretty much every type of personality in an electrifying tale that has a great deal of action and tension, but ostensibly pretends to be a silent, everyman story. And so it is. It is the story of desires brought low and failure and as such, echoes chillingly as an unforgettable lesson.
The depth of Great Expectations earns it the title of a continual classic. The odd moments of brilliant, sarcastic humor keep readers laughing and crying alongside Pip. The coming-of-age preparation and the catastrophe of bad advice and cruel mentors is crushing as is the long struggle back to a state of understanding and a fomentation of the truth. The story is brutal and shocking, violent in places, emotionally piercing continually, and always there to captivate, a story unraveling like the tale of a long lost friend, the first person execution taking us down the rises and falls in Pip’s prosperity and the ultimate wrecking of his world. This novel reminds me why Charles Dickens is, and always shall be, my favorite author. I feel that this book will never leave me and although in my childhood I could not understand, reading it as an adult is world changing.
– Frances Carden
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