Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Great Expectations

Great Expectations is merely timeless. It is about all the things that life is about: how relatives can be loving, or abusive, how people can choose their own families; how a woman might be driven to destroy her child, or give her child away; how people may be corrupt, may be redeemed; how your upbringing defines your character, and how you may rise above or embrace that definition; and how, finally, love is a choice.

Great Expectations, written by Charles Dickens, is a moral book, without any clear moral directives. Its language is beautiful, its plot compelling, its characters complex and complete. People, Dickens tells us, are not always what they seem. Not simply because they've disguised or hidden or renamed themselves, like Magwitch; not only because those who seem most beautiful may be, in fact, most terrible, like Estella. People are not always what they seem because people are never only one thing. The wretched Mrs. Joe becomes nearly lovable after her injury; Mrs. Havisham melts (before she burns); Magwitch in trouble terrorizes Pip, but in prosperity is his benefactor; Wemmick's character is dependent on his location; there is a hint that even Estella, at last, is not as brightly cold as her name and nature suggests; and, of course, Pip is at first good, and then snobbish and profligate, and then, finally, good. Money changes everything except human nature. Human beings change: not for the better, and not for the worse, and not permanently. People change, then change back. Their changes do not necessarily make them happy. That is the human condition.

"That was a memorable day for me," says Pip, after first visiting Satis House, "for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause, you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."

"Great Expectations" is no less instructive for not being morally definite. That first link will change you, as the circumstances of your childhood will. It is your own duty (I believe Dickens says) to change yourself inwardly as you are changed outwardly.

God, the pleasure of reading "Great Expectations" -- pleasure being, I think, sometimes an underrated part of reading serious fiction. Everything is so right and so surprising, from plot to language to the details of character -- Pip calling himself a "connubial missile," Drummle being described as so sulky that "he even took up a book as if its writer had done him an injury." (Dickens is so often seen as a model of plot and character that it's easy to forget what a beautiful stylist he is.) Still, and of course, his characters, major and minor, are unforgettable: Joe, the Aged P., Mr. Wopsle the enthusiastic amateur, pale Herbert Pocket, even Mrs. Joe as she asks Biddy to place her arms around Joe's neck as she dies.

Still, the character who lives most in my head is Miss Havisham. She is brought into the book as a woman defined by the things she owns: her dark house, her tattered clothing, her money, her beautiful ward. If she were left at that, a splendid invention, she'd still be forever memorable. And yet she -- who has not even changed her clothing or the time on her clocks for decades -- memorably changes, is changed. It isn't that Dickens gives her a second chance; instead, he takes from her chances that she (and the reader) doesn't even realize she has. This improves and then kills her. Throughout the book there is the opportunity for heartbreak -- why is it that Pip can be destroyed by Estella, whom he barely knows, but Joe lives with Mrs. Joe and ever speaks of her with (cautious) love?

Lasting romantic love is always cautious in "Great Expectations"; every couple who marries has known each other for quite some time. It's friendship that's passionate, requited, transforming. Be careful, Dickens seems to say, of who you allow to break your heart. Mrs. Havisham is, of course, forever a symbol of heartbreak -- of heartdeath, really -- but what makes her magnificent is her passion at the end of her life. There she is, wrapped in cotton wool, on her table, kissed, but insensible to kisses. She has forgotten how someone else once broke her heart. She repents only how she has broken her own. It is the same with any life.

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