Friday, May 13, 2011

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations was serialized in Dicken’s own periodical All the Year Round in weekly installments from December 1860 to August 1861 (the American serialization in Harper’s actually began a week earlier due to lighter copyright restrictions in America). All the Year Round, unlike his previous periodical, Household Words, gave prime space to serial fiction—this was a successful move for Dickens, as AYR’s circulation ended up greatly exceeding HWs.  

Great Expectations is narrated retrospectively in first-person by Pip, who introduces himself to his reader explaining that he called himself "Pip" because his father's family names was Pirrip, and his Christian name was Philip and as an infant, he couldn't really pronounce either. Early in his life, since he was an orphan, he lived with his sister, the formidable Mrs. Joe Gargery, and her husband Joe, a poor blacksmith whose own upbringing under a tyrannical father who beat him and his mother led to his being particularly mild-mannered before the tyrannical Mrs. Gargery. One day, Pip was at the graveyard looking upon the graves of his parents, when he encounters an escaped convict, who demands that Pip bring him back some "wittles" and a "file" to saw away the iron chain around his leg. Frightened by the man's threats that he will send a young man after him to devour his liver if he fails to obey him, Pip steals food from Mrs. Joe's pantry, saves food from his own dinner, and steals a file from Joe's workshop to take to the man the next day. When he delivers the food and the file the next day, Pip encounters briefly another convict. During the course of Christmas dinner, some soldiers come and tell them that there have been two escaped convicts and that they need Joe's help to repair some broken iron cuffs that they had found. The men at dinner (including Joe, Mr. Wopsle, the church clerk, and Uncle Pumblechook, a relative to Joe, in addition to Pip) go out with other members of the village to seek out these escaped convicts. They are found in the marshes, and Pip watches as "his" convict maintained a hold on the other convict, apparently thinking it good that they had been caught in order that he might turn in this other convict. Pip's convict also frees Pip from suspicion by telling the sergeant that he had stolen food from the Gargery's. The convicts are carried back to the hulks, prison ships bound for Australia.
For the most part, Pip wasn't receiving much of an education, except for when he would go to "learn" from Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt. This aunt, however, was often asleep, so really, Pip learned more rudimentary knowledge of the alphabet from a girl named Biddy who worked for her. Eventually, the plan was for Pip to be apprenticed to Joe, but in the meantime, he is summoned to a wealthy old woman named Miss Havisham’s house. Prior to his regular visitations to Miss Havisham’s, Pip encounters a stranger in a pub while with Joe, who has the file which he gave the convict at the beginning of the novel. This stranger gives Pip some money.

At Miss Havisham’s, relatives surround her, fawning on her and clearly interested in her fortune.  Miss Havisham lives with a young beautiful girl named Estella; Pip becomes smitten with her and starts to feel ashamed of his own poverty and lack of education. This, of course, is Miss Havisham’s plan: because her fiancé had left her years ago, out of spite she has brought up Estella as a haughty temptress and torturer of men. Miss Havisham enjoys watching Pip play cards with Estella, and also engages Pip to accompany her on a circular route around a room where she has kept her (decaying, cobwebbed) bridal cake and decorations. All of the clocks in Miss Havisham’s house are set to twenty to nine, the time when her lover left.  One day at Miss Havisham’s, Pip encounters a “pale young gentleman” (later revealed to be Herbert Pocket) who challenges him to a fight. Pip has no choice but to fight, and Pip actually emerges victorious though he feels badly and fears retribution. Retribution doesn’t come, however, and he forgets the incident for the time being. 

Eventually, Miss Havisham allows Pip to be apprenticed to Joe, but having been exposed to Estella, Pip is ashamed of Joe’s illiteracy and desires a better life for himself. He engages Biddy to continue to teach him to write. One day, when Pip is given a half-day off and so is Joe’s surly journeyman, Orlick (who severely dislikes Pip) he goes back to Miss Havisham’s to catch a glimpse of Estella. She is, however, not there. On his return home, Pip finds that Mrs. Gargery has been horribly beat up and close to death. Mrs. Gargery is revived, but she is now basically an invalid. The weapon left beside her seemed to Pip to be the convict in the graveyard’s iron, but Pip doesn’t say anything. Orlick is a suspect because of a recent quarrel with Mrs. Gargery, but for the time being, they cannot find out the suspect.

About four years into his apprenticeship, Pip is met with a lawyer named Mr. Jaggers who informs him that Pip has an unknown benefactor who has intentions of making Pip into a gentleman. The one condition is that Pip should not seek to find out who the benefactor is. Pip, of course, thinks it is Miss Havisham and Miss Havisham has no qualms in making those around her believe this to be true in order to inspire their jealousies. Pip is to go to London to study under a tutor named Matthew Pocket; Pip associates this name readily with one Sarah Pocket often at Miss Havisham’s so his suspicions that Miss Havisham is his benefactor are strengthened. Pip has also seen Jaggers at Miss Havisham’s before. Armed with “great expectations,” Pip becomes a proud figure before Biddy, who has come to live with them since her great aunt Wopsle died, and Joe. Pip’s retrospective narrative perpetuates an ironic distance between the Pip excitedly making his preparations to go to London (going to the tailor and buying new clothes) and the mature narrator-Pip. The first volume closes with Pip setting off for London in a stage-coach.

In London, Pip is met by the son of Matthew Pocket, Herbert, whom he recognizes as the pale young gentleman. Later, Pip finds that his tutor (who lives in the suburbs) has a rather difficult wife, who resents that he is a private tutor, fancying herself royalty by birth. The Pockets have a household of children that Mrs. Pocket basically neglects; nurses pick up the slack. There are two other pupils of Matthew’s, Bentley Drummle, of baronet origins, and Startop. Pip soon decides to take up as Herbert’s London roommate in Barnard’s Inn and the two become great friends. Herbert is a bit naïve as far as making money goes; he wishes to become an insurance magnate but doesn’t seem to have much idea as to how to go about this. Meanwhile, Pip becomes better acquainted with Wemmick, Jaggers’s clerk who seems all business while in London, but allows Pip a look into his private life during Pip’s visit to his cottage which indicates that he is man of depth and feeling. Wemmick has made his dwellings meticulously charming and self-sufficient apart from the whirling world of London, and there, he takes care of his aged parent. Pip also visits Jaggers’s home, and gains no such knowledge of any sort of inner depth to the lawyer—Jaggers manipulates Pip and his companions (Drummle, Startop, and Herbert) to share more than they should about themselves at dinner while he himself remains tight-lipped about himself. Jaggers is every inch the professional and does all that he can to eliminate the humanity and the personal in his interactions with others. There is a mysterious female housekeeper at Jaggers’s who seems very afraid of him. Oddly, Jaggers shows to the dinner party her mangled wrists and says something about the strength of her hands.

One day, Joe comes to inform Pip that Miss Havisham would like to see him. On his way back to his hometown, Pip shares a coach with the stranger who had given him money in the public house and overhears that the money had been from the convict that he had seen in the graveyard. Pip decides to stay at a hotel instead of with Joe, and there he sees in the newspapers that Pumblechook has been opportunistically telling everyone that he had been Pip’s mentor in the past. Pip still harbors the great expectation that he will get to marry Estella and again he is disappointed when he sees her again. Miss Havisham offers no promises, and Pip has a strange interaction with Estella in which she informs him that she has no heart. Back in London, Pip confesses his love for Estella to Herbert, who gives him the good advice that maybe he should’t set too much on just “expectations.” Herbert and Pip attend a production of Hamlet (which Pip has heard about from Joe) featuring none other than Mr. Wopsle who has given up his religious occupation for acting. The next day, Estella writes him to tell him that Miss Havisham wants him to accompany her from London to Richmond. Pip of course obeys but nothing comes of his “expectations.”

Meanwhile, Pip and Herbert are getting into debts and the two of them, since neither of them are good at managing their practical monetary affairs, crunch numbers to very little purpose. Pip gets a note letting him know that Mrs. Gargery has finally died and he goes home for her funeral. The reunion with Joe and Biddy is bittersweet, and when he leaves and promises to be back more often, Biddy expresses her doubts and Pip feels her to be harsh even though she is probably correct.

When Pip reaches his twenty-first birthday, he begins to get a direct income of 500 pounds a year from his unknown benefactor. Pip decides to anonymously use his money to set up Herbert as a partner in a merchant business with a man named Clarikker. Estella, now established in London at the house of one Mrs. Brandley’s, receives visits from many suitors, Pip included. She doesn’t treat him as she does other suitors, however, telling him that she deliberately doesn’t deceive him like the others. Drummle emerges as more and more of a likely match for Estella. Two years later, at midnight one night, Pip’s convict shows up at his apartment for shelter. Pip learns that he is called Magwitch, and that he was his true benefactor, having earned money in Australia as a sheep farmer and feeling for the little boy who had once done him a kindness. Pip hides Magwitch (now under the name Uncle Provis) and involves Herbert. When Magwitch tells his life story to Pip, they realize that the other convict in the marshes, Compeyson, who betrayed Magwitch was also Miss Havisham’s betraying lover through a connection to her half brother Arthur. Pip is crushed by all of this information, decides that he should no longer use the money of his benefactor, and goes to Miss Havisham’s Satis House one more time to say good-bye to Estella before thinking to renounce his chances with her forever. At Miss Havisham’s, Pip learns that Estella has finally been engaged to Drummle. Miss Havisham seems to pity him, weirdly, but this is no solace. Pip walks all the way from Satis House to London, where he receives a note from a porter near his apartment from Wemmick warning him not to go home. The next day, Wemmick tells him that Compeyson is in London seeking Magwitch. Herbert has removed Magwitch to his intended Clara’s house, where she lives with her drunk father. Herbert and Pip plan to help Magwitch escape on the river and Pip buys a rowboat for the purpose. At the theater one night, Mr. Wopsle tells Pip that he saw Compeyson (recognizing his face from the night of Magwitch’s struggle with him in the marshes) behind him; Pip realizes that Compeyson is onto him.

More mysteries are solved for Pip when he goes to dine with Jaggers one day: Magwitch is actually Estella’s father and Jaggers’s housekeeper is Estella’s mother. Apparently she had strangled a woman to death and Jaggers had defended her successfully and set up her child, Estella, with Miss Havisham. Pip goes to Miss Havisham to confirm the story and finds her in an apologetic state. Before Pip can stop her, she has set herself on fire out of remorse. Pip manages to rescue her though she becomes an invalid. Back in London, Herbert nurses Pip back to health from his burns, and soon afterwards, Wemmick gives the signal that they should attempt to smuggle Magwitch out of town on the following Wednesday. Pip receives an anonymous summons from someone threatening his “Uncle Provis” if he did not meet them at the sluice-house near the lime-kilns near his native town by the marshes. Pip impulsively follows the note, feeling responsible for Magwitch and is unfortunately seized by Orlick at the sluice house who, before killing Pip, confesses the murder of his sister as well. Luckily, Pip is rescued by Herbert and Startop, who have found the note and rushed over.

Back in London, they attempt the escape. Unfortunately, they are caught by a galley that demands the surrender of Magwitch. Magwitch sees a man on the galley and rips off the wrap covering his face, revealing Compeyson. Pip’s boat capsizes, and Magwitch and Compeyson wrestle in the water as a steamer passes over them. Compeyson is drowned, but Magwitch emerges alive though badly wounded. In prison, Magwitch is sentenced to death. He dies before his execution however, and Pip doesn’t reveal to him that his fortune has been confiscated so that he might die thinking he has made Pip a gentleman.
At the end of the novel, Herbert’s firm does well enough for him to establish an Eastern branch in Cairo. He asks Pip to go with him to be his clerk, but before he accepts, Pip goes to his hometown once again, hoping to marry Biddy, realizing at long last that she was the one whom he should have loved from the first. He is shocked to discover, however, that she and Joe had married. Pip, Biddy, and Joe reconcile as Pip asks for their forgiveness for his pride and blindness. They graciously tell him that there is nothing to forgive.

Pip goes off with Herbert and successfully makes a living, returning eleven years later to find Biddy and Joe with a child named Pip. Pip has heard that Drummle has died, having treated Estella badly during their marriage. In the (unpublished) original ending, she has remarried a doctor, and he runs into her in London where she is in a carriage. Little Pip is with Pip, and she assumes he is his son and Pip doesn’t correct her. Pip says that she seemed changed and that “the suffering had been stronger than Miss Havinsham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.” The revised ending was more sentimental: Pip meets Estella back at the abandoned Satis House, and Estella reveals how she has changed in dialogue with Pip. They resolve, at the end, to part as friends, and as Pip watches her leave, he says he sees “the shadow of no parting but one” in the serial version (signaling the shadow of death), but cancels “but one” in the volume edition. 

One of the most commented on and interesting features of the narrative is Pip’s first-person retrospective account. Because it is a retrospective account delivered by a mature narrator who feels quite differently than the Pip he is describing at each stage of his story, a number of more complicated narrative effects are enabled. I will discuss two in particular here: first, the retrospective first-person account enables a narrative of withholding, and second, it enables a narrative which constantly ironizes and undermines Pip’s younger self.  

Withholding begins with the very first scene, in which the narrator Pip styles the Magwitch graveyard scene as if it is a random episode from the younger Pip’s life. The fact that it ends up being a kind of originary scene for Pip’s bildungsroman is withheld basically until the revelation that Pip’s benefactor was Magwitch. Also withheld is the significance of the unnamed town near the marshes which Pip grows up in: in the context of the global network, it turns out to be an important stop which connect the empire (significant because of convict deportation to Australia) to London which is further inland (I’m indebted to Jonathan Grossman’s reading of Great Expectations and transport networks here).

Pip’s depiction of his younger self is severely ironic especially when he narrates how he treats Biddy and Joe once he goes to Miss Havisham’s and begins to have “expectations.” The mature narrator makes the reader complicit in critiquing the young Pip. This early irony has a larger significance, however, when we consider the how the novel is really in the end about how his “great expectations” fail to become more than just “expectations.” The title itself becomes a bittersweet, ironic commentary on upward social mobility: a convict with the best of intentions fails at vicariously moving up on the social ladder through Pip even when he ends up with a lot of money.

Ultimately, there is something incredibly imprisoning and limiting about the entire (global) network of social relations where its players are constantly unable to exert agency to bring about the fruition of their hopes or expectations. And, it isn’t just Pip and Magwitch who get trapped—Estella is the other obvious example of a character who becomes trapped by circumstances which she is largely powerless over. The only characters who can finally live out “good lives” are those who essentially live without expectations of upward mobility or ambitions to live better: Biddy and Joe are one such example, and Wemmick is another. Biddy and Joe are content to live in the town near the marshes without knowing any more about the outside world than is necessary for a peaceful domestic life—when Pip tries to reveal more to Joe, he says that he would rather not know. Wemmick’s home away from his professional life similarly shows him extricating himself from the networks in which he cannot be but a partially blind agent: at his private cottage, though humble, he controls everything from food production (he has livestock and gardens) to the drawbridge which shuts his cottage out from the outside world every evening.


rohit said...

Must be an enjoyable read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

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