In Advent I make it a habit to re-read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. In a season of hopes fulfilled by Divine initiative, this is a story of human hopes disappointed. I was first introduced to this crowning Dickens masterpiece as a ninth-grader at the LeMars Junior High School. Margaret Hoorneman was our freshman English teacher. For a whole semester she read aloud to us the misadventures, misperceptions, and misjudgments of one Philip Pirrip, aka “Pip.” I was enchanted by the story, the writing, the language and the pathos. That has not changed in fifty years.
Years later I learned that the book was much more than a piece of the curriculum for Mrs. Hoorneman. In her retirement, she created a script for a theatrical adaptation of the work. It has been produced in dramatic and cinematic forms, but perhaps not with the passionate love which Mrs. Hoorneman devoted to the work. She was able to secure family and professional assistance in the project. It was developed into a musical that has been performed in a variety of off-Broadway venues. The charming story can be found in an article from the LeMars Daily Sentinel in 2010.
You can find the article here: https://www.lemarssentinel.com/story/1434917.html.
Great Expectations is Dickens’ second to the last completed novel. In it, we find him at his full intellectual and imaginative powers. He relies far less on character names as transparent puns and two-dimensional characters as comic foils (although a few still make their appearances). Dickens had walked some of this plot path earlier, in David Copperfield, his only other “first person” narrative. In Copperfield, the hopes of the protagonist are eventually fulfilled, and they all lived happily ever after. In Great Expectations, the ending is somewhat different and, to my mind, far more compelling.
Of course, that depends on which ending you read. The book was originally serialized in the Dickens-published weekly periodical, All the Year Round. After the original ending was “tested” with the public and the critics, Dickens wrote a second and more “optimistic” ending that can be found in many of the editions. We prefer happy endings to less than happy ones. Dickens was in the business of selling books, and he knew how to respond to his market. But he noted that he preferred the original ending, as did many critics.
I am circumspect in describing the endings because I know that the book is not as widely read as it once was. I hope you will read it, and I don’t want to spoil it for you entirely. In the past week I have listened to the recorded version on Audible.com as narrated by Michael Page. I would recommend that experience if you have about eighteen hours to devote to the listening.
The chapters show the effects of serialization, often leaving the reader hanging on some narrative cliff or another. So it is well-suited to listening in installments. If you want the actual serial experience, discipline yourself to hearing one chapter at a time (for 59 sessions). The book is filled with archaic expressions appropriate to the time. If you are new to the book, I would recommend an annotated edition that can lay out the historical setting and explain some of the most obscure turns of phrase.
Here’s an inexpensive annotated edition: https://www.amazon.com/Great-Expectations-Annotated-Charles-Dickens-ebook/dp/B00GA8DLTI.
Why do I return to it? Certainly, it is a mature and clear-eyed examination of the nature of human hopes, of self-deception, of revenge and regret, of forgiveness and reconciliation. The book offers unblinking views of the trials of class and privilege in nineteenth century England and narrates from a firsthand perspective the pains and prospects of social climbing and social collapse. The book is filled with memorable characters, some of great complexity and none more so than Pip. The artistry is worth the time by itself.
When I was young I found it a revelation of my own hopes and failings. Pip sought to leave his roots and re-invent himself in a new setting. I have traveled that sorry path too many times to count. He never knew how good he had it at home and thus never did find a real home for his heart. Pip was well-schooled in the notion that as he was he was never worthy, so he had to perform a part in order to deserve approval. Pip’s hopes were always wishes to be fulfilled rather than a calling to be answered. Thus, he was almost always profoundly disappointed.
It is a deeply theological book as well. It is, though Dickens certainly did not intend such, a meditation on the theology of the cross. Pip’s salvation always comes from the most unexpected quarters. His rescue is always hidden under the form of its opposite, and he is always looking for grace and love in all the wrong places. The one who most nearly approaches the role of Christ figure in the novel is in many ways one of the least attractive characters. He is one who reminds me of the words from Isaiah 53 — “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.“
The book is filled, in the final chapters, with affecting scenes of confession and forgiveness. After years of malice and manipulation, several of the main characters come to awareness of their profound brokenness and the havoc they have wreaked in the lives of others. In a few instances, things can be put right and are. In most cases, there is some measure of healing but little opportunity for reparation. Forgiveness may be genuine, but it may not always displace regret in the end.
Great Expectations is a meditation on the nature of personal suffering and the various ways we humans respond to that suffering. Some characters respond to their loss with desires for vengeance and acts of violence. Some are dulled into despair and made dumb in the face of their pain. Some use suffering as a bludgeon or a scalpel to control people and circumstances. And a few are softened by their suffering into a deeper and fuller humanity.
One of the great quotes in the book comes from Estella, the anti-heroine. “And if you could say that to me then,” she murmurs to Pip, “you will not hesitate to say that to me now—now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.” To be bent and broken but into a better shape — that’s a hope that I can share. I suspect that no other words in the book were closer to Dickens’ own sentiments as he wrote.
“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears,” Pip says as he recovers from his own weeping of remorse at another point, “for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.” In the face of the famed British reserve, Dickens pleads for authentic humanity to open us to life and to bind us together across our differences. Confession and repentance can cleanse our hearts. It is a pertinent plea for our time as well.