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great expectations

7 september 2011

A friend recently opined to me that Vladimir Nabokov was the greatest of all novelists. Did I agree? I had trouble thinking of one greater, and I suggested that was because Nabokov had four outstanding strengths: extreme verbal brilliance, great sense of plot, great sense of humor, and profound compassion.

Not all great novelists show all four of those qualities. Some great chroniclers of high society – Choderlos de Laclos and Stendhal, Edith Wharton and Scott Fitzgerald – don't put much energy into dazzling style. (Some American modernists, like Hemingway and Cather, put a severe rein on their brilliance in the service of austere effect; it amounts to the same thing.) It's rarer to find a great fiction writer who doesn't tell great stories, but there are some: Proust has no great sense of plot, but is extremely high-verbal, overflowingly compassionate, and can sometimes crack you up. Many great writers have no visible sense of humor: Victor Hugo, for instance, though he scores very high on plot and compassion; or George Eliot; or Tolstoy, unless I'm missing some hilarious Russian jokes. And there are great novelists whose compassion is on strict rations. This category includes satirists like Thackeray, but also creators of more comprehensive worlds, like William Faulkner – whose universe was so filled with grotesque characters and with deep-seated evil that you can scarcely find anyone in his writing you'd want to empathize with.

Charles Dickens, though, is a novelist who deploys all four qualities – brilliance, storytelling, humor, and compassion – with extreme energy, on every page of his books. They're not flawless books. In particular, his compassion could flood over into a glurgy sentimentality that washes through some of the weaker novels (The Old Curiosity Shop is the most extreme).

But when Dickens restrains his sentimentality, he is as trenchant about the human causes of suffering as any writer could be. From Great Expectations:

In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small, and its rocking-horse stands as many hands high, according to scale, as a big-boned Irish hunter. (57)
Dickens had chronicled that injustice often, in versions of his own life story like Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. When he did it again in Great Expectations, he did it perfectly. I sometimes marvel at how great literature, like almost no other artform, can inhabit our houses. Recorded music and reproduced painting are an echo, sometimes pretty good, of great cultural achievements. But if you own Great Expectations, you have the equivalent of St. Paul's Cathedral or the Moses of Michaelangelo on your bedroom shelf: one of the great works of humanity.

Once again, a poor boy is revealed as a natural gentleman; once again, he enters a world of evil, foolishness, weakness, and excesses. Great Expectations has a heavily folded and re-folded plot: there turn out to be only a few people in the world, all of whom are secretly related in ways that only Pip, protagonist and narrator, ever fully understands. As Pip discovers his great expectations and loses them, he comes to see how the world was arranged before his arrival, with the result that his Bildung is like the apprehension of a cosmic primal scene. His benefactor turns out to be the father of the woman he's been trained to love by his other benefactor, who has been wounded to the core by the first benefactor's mortal enemy. None of this makes any sense. It shouldn't; for Dickens, despite his occasional invocations of a Maker, life is an accident that makes no sense.

Character after character in Great Expectations deals with a preposterous world by pouring their energies into a greater counter-preposterousness. Dickens characters, to be sure, are either good or evil; in his last novels (Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend) there are some shades of grey, but no great ambiguities. But good and evil alike, they are stressed into neurosis by the unmanageability of existence. The compartmentalized Wemmick, with a mouth like a letterbox (good); "that ass, Pumblechook," with his monomania about having been Pip's benefactor (bad; Pumblechook is one of the few characters in the book who does Pip no good at all); the impossible Old Bill Barley, dying in bed but insisting on running his home like a ship's purser's office (good, for all his mania); the fanatically legalistic Jaggers (stand-up good, for all that he recalls the pettifogging lawyers and clerks who infest other Dickens novels); the cankerously envious Orlick (bad) . . . and of course the most neurotic of all, Miss Havisham (bad, but as Pip says, "I want forgiveness and direction far too much, to be bitter with you," 377).

Life just happens to Oliver Twist and even to David Copperfield; Pip, on the other hand, pilots his own existential course. Despite the bolt-from-the-blue quality of his association with Magwitch and Miss Havisham, Pip is not a spectator. He actively seizes his expectations, with a brio that he later regrets on nearly every page. Pip himself is the grey area of Great Expectations. He encounters, and comes to embody, the tremendous power of social class to shape, thwart, and divide people.

Few scenes in Great Expectations – or many other books – show the anguish of class divisions better than that of Pip's sister's funeral. I mean class in the lived sense, here a sense peculiarly English, not a Marxist abstraction. Class for Dickens is entirely concrete: it's a matter of what clothes you wear, how you speak and whom you speak to in what tone, what people will do for you (or how they'll take advantage of you), how you can be humiliated or propitiated. For Dickens, hurt is the everyday currency of class.

Satire of grotesque folkways is at the heart of the funeral chapter.

The remains of my poor sister had been brought round by the kitchen door, and, it being a point of Undertaking ceremony that the six bearers must be stifled and blinded under a horrible black velvet housing with a white border, the whole looked like a blind monster with twelve human legs, shuffling and blundering along under the guidance of two keepers—the postboy and his comrade. (266)
But the caustic nature of Pip's reaction to the funeral is overdetermined. He neither loves nor misses his sister – and feels guilty about that. He hasn't treated his brother-in-law and guardian Joe Gargery well, nor his potential soulmate Biddy – and Pip feels guilty about that. Pip feels ashamed of the trashy, countryfied customs he has outgrown, and feels more ashamed of them because he once was so enamored of them – and he feels guilty about feeling that shame. The whole event, no barrel of laughs to begin with, goes from bad to worse under this crushing weight of self-consciousness. And Pip, in his narrative voice, takes it out on the townspeople themselves, who, apart from "the abject Pumblechook," are doing the best they can to ritualize a death that will one day happen to them all.

Pip is a merciless self-analyzer, and not much of a hero; and we want him to succeed in everything he does, all the same. In those respects he's not far from Humbert Humbert; and Dickens not far from Nabokov among the world's very greatest novelists.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. 1861. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.