Monday, October 31, 2011

Book Thirty-Three - Great Expectations - Part Five

Charles Dickens
From The Classic Literature Library

This one, like David Copperfield, is told in first person. Pip looks back through the years and tells his story. He tries to recapture the intensity of the feelings of youth, but there is bound to be something lost when an adult tells a child’s story. How many of us remember the passion of a great Kick the Can game and the utter desolation when our moms called us in to dinner? We bolted down our food, even though we were specifically told not to, and rushed back outside to play until dark. Even as I remember those moments I know that I am not recapturing their sweetness. Playing outside with our friends was the only thing that mattered. Spending long summer days with friends or sledding down the long hill in winter felt like our entire lives, not simply the way we filled our days.

The problem with relating the past is that the narrator already knows what happens. It’s sorta like reading the last page of a book first (I know someone who does this) or, halfway through a suspenseful novel, sneaking a peek at the last few pages to make sure the hero comes out okay (I would never and have never done this! Almost never. Once or twice in a weaker moment, perhaps, but not for a really long time. Depending upon your definition of “really long.”) In any case, I suppose if a child told his story we’d miss the perspective. Any story told in first person loses the voice of every other character, but the trade off is that we are privy to the narrator’s most intimate thoughts. 

As always, Dickens writes about timeless issues. Pip is fortunate enough to see more than one side of life.* His struggles reminded me of a theory I’ve heard more than once: people become dissatisfied with their lives when they see what others have. How can you know what you don’t know? The country of Bhutan, which my friend Leanne has visited, measures the happiness of its residents. Once these people finally got the internet and television, their happiness indicator went down. Why? Because they began to see what they didn’t have? Why is it that we are so quick to envy what others have and ignore what it cost them to obtain it? Oh Pip, you are every man.

As I passed the church, I felt (as I had felt during service in the morning) a sublime compassion for the poor creatures who were destined to go there, Sunday after Sunday, all their lives through, and to lie obscurely at last among the low green mounds. I promised myself that I would do something for them one of these days, and formed a plan in outline for bestowing a dinner of roast-beef and plum-pudding, a pint of ale, and a gallon of condescension, upon everybody in the village.
In our arrogance (and perhaps in our blindness) we believe others want what we have. How many of the people in that village wanted nothing more than to live there and die there? What in this is inherently wrong or inferior? Why do some of us insist that the place to be is either where we are or the next place we plan to inhabit? And when that next place does not hold the key to our happiness and satisfaction, we must rapidly go to the next new place, believing that this place will be the one, etc. (Some people do this with spouses, too, but that’s another matter.)

… throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.
Ah, pride, why can we not let you go? Are you why we especially want the people who don’t like us (and whom we dislike) to think well of us? Why? Why do we think these things are so important when we know that with a change in circumstances we shall never see these people again? Why does the temporary feel so permanent? Why can we not carpe the diem while also retaining a feeling of perspective?

... but ever did his duty in his way of life, with a strong hand, a quiet tongue, and a gentle heart.
This describes the novel’s too good to be true figure. Dickens does like these characters. He also likes one of his characters to be redeemed, and we have that in Great Expectations, too.

… two glasses of rum and milk prepared, and two biscuits…. going out for the walk with that training preparation on us.
If I were ever inclined to endure long distance treks, this would decide it for me. The only “training” required is to eat two biscuits and drink rum and milk? You’ve got it, buddy. Of course I might have to drink the rum and milk separately as I’m not certain they would taste good together.

Stuff I noticed -

The street lamps were manually lit each night. I looked it up, and they were oil lamps rather than candles. They burned coal in the fireplaces - is this because coal was more abundant than wood?

Referring to someone’s home, Pip calls it a “fashionable crib!" What would a pimped-out Victorian crib look like? I see a suit of armor as a retro touch…

Tricked out wallpaper for my crib


Anyone up for decorating a Victorian crib?

Indeed, it demanded from him a constant attention, and a quickness of eye and hand, very like that exacted by wicket-keeping.
This seems like a reference to cricket, which I do not understand. How can you bat and bowl in the same game? And what’s an over? And a six?

In this book as in the others I've read there is much discussion of servants. Two lessons I’ve learned: when one has servants it is imperative to know how to manage "the staff," and it’s always been difficult to get good help. (I'm not real sure when these tidbits will come in handy, but one never knows.)

In a duh moment for me, I didn’t know Little Britain is a place! I suppose that’s where the show got its name.

Great unexpected quotes -

Mrs. Joe was a very clean housekeeper, but had an exquisite art of making her cleanliness more uncomfortable and unacceptable than dirt itself.
Her contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.
Why I hoarded up this last wretched little rag of the robe of hope that was rent and given to the winds, how do I know? Why did you who read this, commit that not dissimilar inconsistency of your own last year, last month, last week?
The last quote illustrates something I’ve noticed in my British friends. Rather than say “similar” they say “not dissimilar.” Why? Is there a difference? If not, why use two words when one would suffice? I realize here that I’m the pot calling the kettle black, for I have never been accused of being concise. But these are things I notice and wonder about.

Sublime prose -

But the village was very peaceful and quiet, and the light mists were solemnly rising, as if to show me the world, and I had been so innocent and little there, and all beyond was so unknown and great, that in a moment with a strong heave and sob I broke into tears.
But he never justified himself by a hint tending that way, or tried to bend the past out of its eternal shape.
There was the red sun, on the low level of the shore, in a purple haze, fast deepening into black…
Is this where Jimi Hendrix got it from?!

Oh Mr. Dickens you’re so humorous -
"And a cool four thousand, Pip!"
I never discovered from whom Joe derived the conventional temperature of the four thousand pounds; but it appeared to make the sum of money more to him, and he had a manifest relish in insisting on its being cool.

*Remember the movie “Overboard” with Goldie Hawn? Annie is sorta like a modern day Pip. At one point Roddy McDowell says to her, “Most of us go through life with blinders on, knowing only that little station to which we were born.”


  1. I love your thoughts on this one. This was the book that changed my mind about Dickens and made me love his work. You picked some great quotes from the book.

  2. Love your review. Reading Dickens was on my to do list this year - I guess I need to get going as it's already the last day of October.

  3. Interesting thoughts on this one. I love what you said about people and happiness. It's so true. It seems like it's always been that way. Kind of sad.