Yesterday I finished Great Expectations.
Now, I have read the book before cover-to-cover—twice in fact! The first time was the more memorable time, long ago in 1982 when as a senior at Western Hills High School I was hand-picked to be in Jean Michaels’ special class on Charles Dickens’ novels. I had the legendary and iconic Mrs. Michaels for AP Modern European History (and had had her the year before as well for AP U.S. History) and half-way through the year, every year, she would lead a seminar with about 6 students as they made their way through a number of Dickens’ novels. I did indeed hope I would be in this class!
We first tackled Dickens’ breakout-to-fame work in Pickwick Papers and down the road we explored Great Expectations. Oh, I could spend a whole blog entry waxing nostalgic about all the novels we read, the Dickensian-era dinners Mrs. Michaels hosted for us, the Victorian-era games she taught us—but I digress, I finished GE yesterday!!! The second time I had read the book was in a British Literature class in 1984 in college, and then it was fun to re-visit the book, but not as powerful an experience as that first time with Mrs. Michaels.
However, let‘s get back to my 2013 feat! I finished the book yesterday. I am reluctant, nay, ashamed to say, it is my first Dickens novel in 20 years that I have finished. I read 12 of his novels in the 1980s, and then I taught Hard Times a couple times in the 1990s, but it has been now, sadly, about 20 years since I have finished a CD novel. Why did I read the book this fall, you may ask? Well, my delightful niece Emma, who is 15 and in the 9th grade in an Honors English class in a new (for her) Catholic girl’s high school, had assigned to her to read Great Expectations this month and I thought I should read the book along with her.
In some ways, this cutesy assignment of uncle and niece reading the same book, talking on the phone about it over our thousands of miles apart, reminded me of film critic David Denby and an assignment he gave himself 20 years ago. Denby, an alum of Columbia University, decided to re-take a humanities-literature class he had taken as a freshman 30 years before and see what he thought of the books as an adult. He wanted to plumb the depths of his memory for what these “great books” had meant to him at age 18, and then assess whether or not the books meant much to him 30 years later. So I am about exactly at the same point as David Denby when he went back to class and re-discovered the western canon.
First of all, as much as I loved reading Great Expectations with Mrs. Michaels as a budding european historian and senior in 1982, I have never been a fan of how many schools across the US assign Great Expectations to 9th graders. I thought I was the perfect age to encounter the travails of young and impressionable Pip as a senior in high school, but I have had too many peers, and then students, assigned the novel in 9th grade, detest the density of language and plotting, and vow never to read Dickens again! That horrified me!!! I couldn’t even tell you which one was my favorite Dickens novel! I loved almost all of them so much from our close reading back in the 80s, although I would probably say Bleak House, but then no! Hard Times with Stephen Blackpool and Jane Gradgrind get me so sad, and then there’s the picaresque and comical Mr. Pickwick and his gang, and who could forget…well, I am not here to rank the novels. I gave a little rant to my sister about the follies of assigning the book to freshmen. Maybe that’s why I decided to re-read the book so I could play “Dickens Fan” to Emma in case she wavered in any admiration of his 19th century prose.
Second of all, Emma sends me the schedule of reading. Ohmigosh! We have to read the book that fast???? Within the first five days, I got behind. Great! However, I did have two transatlantic flights coming up, allowing me to spend some more quality time with the intricacies of the plot. I really remembered only the barebones of the plot, and found it fun to get caught up again in the action.
Third of all, as I re-read the book, taking a tour through the ups and downs of Pip’s life, much like David Denby, I found the book meant way much more than I remembered 30 years ago. My rediscovery and celebration of Pip’s personal odyssey has been an engaging blend of self-discovery, cultural commentary, reporting, criticism, and meditation. In other words, I must tell Mrs. Michaels at Christmas that I have been re-inspired by Dickens’ written word.
Fourth of all, I tried to think about why so many teachers assign this complex book to 9th graders. I am all for challenges—love them—but I kept trying to think why 14-15 year old adolescents are the right/best audience for this text. I am sure some teachers simply assign what they are told, but I wanted to dig down and think why, why, why, this grade and this story might match well. And yes, I came up with excellent reasons. Hopefully the book is not so rushed, the plot over-emphasized that they don’t think about these reasons themselves, those precious and volatile adolescents.
Now for those of you, dear readers, who have never read the novel, or for whom it has been a seriously long time, let me see if I can give you an overview WITHOUT SPOILERS since that would impede your desire, perhaps, to pick up the book…okay, in about a half-page here it is:
A young boy named Pip lives on the English marshes with his cruel sister and her gentle and kind husband. One Christmas Eve, Pip meets a scary, escaped convict in a churchyard. Pip steals food so that the convict won't starve (and also so that the convict won't rip his guts out). Soon after, in apparently unrelated events, Pip gets asked to play at Miss Havisham's, the creepy lady who lives down the street and cannot let go of the past. The only good thing about the mansion, as far as Pip is concerned, is Estella, Miss Havisham's adopted daughter. However, as far as we are concerned, Estella is cold and snobby, but man oh man, is she pretty!
Several years later, when Pip has been apprenticed to his brother-in-law, the blacksmith, a great surprise befalls Pip! He comes into a fortune by means of a mysterious and undisclosed benefactor, says goodbye to his family, and heads to London to become a gentleman. And it's pretty sweet at first. Mr. Jaggers, Pip's guardian, is one of the biggest and baddest lawyers in town. Pip also gets a new BFF named Herbert Pocket, the son of Miss Havisham's cousin. Mr. Jaggers says many times that with all of this money, Pip now has “great expectations.”
That’s enough to tell you. I wouldn’t want to rob you of the fun of Pip’s doings around London and what happens to everyone in the story.
I discovered that I understood Pip much better now, got madder at him, lost patience with his insensitivity, felt ashamed of his braggadocio, and yearned for him to be a better man and friend. When I was 18 I guess I hoped I might be like Pip—someone would bestow on me a fortune, I would get nice clothes, swept away somewhere glamorous, and wait for my great expectations to do it all for me. I mean, isn’t that what many of us feel? At least those on reality shows! But I don’t think I got so upset with Pip then as I did now.
I looked at Pip along the way and kept thinking, “youth is wasted on the young,” sounding every bit as decrepit as that sounds to utter! Why was Pip not kinder to his ever-patient and reliable brother-in-law Joe? Was anyone more faithful than Joe? And Herbert, his new BFF—why did Pip not appreciate him more? Don’t even get me started on Estella!!!!!!! Estella was as annoying and “mean girl”-ish as, well, as a percentage of the teenage girls I have known and taught over the years. Maybe the biggest reason why a girl’s high school should assign the book is to trumpet: Do Not Be Like Estella! How cruel and heartless and ultimately unfulfilled and empty that girl is.
Once I got through the big surprise plot point—which wasn’t really as exciting and profound this time around—I found that the book took on a poignance and profundity about gratitude and the appreciation of life. I thought of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables and Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. But mostly, I thought of my own dumb Pip moments in life, and treasured the few, truly blessed-to-know people who have helped me the most on this journey.
Isn’t it always wonderful to think of parents who sacrificed for you? Isn’t it always glorious to think of friends who have stood by you, stood the test of time, and continue to stand shoulder to shoulder as we figure out that money and fame and great expectations can be a little hollow and unfulfilling? Not that I have had a real taste of money and fame, but I have seen some who have, and I think about those moments in my non-money and non-fame lifestyle that have made me eternally grateful I pursued teaching the Pips and Estellas and other adolescents of my world.
I don’t want to give away much about the book, but there was a passage that just got to me in much the same way Jean Valjean’s purity of heart in one scene in particular has stayed with me. Let me talk about the theatrical production of Les Miz for a moment: Jean Valjean sings “Bring Him Home,” my favorite song in this show, and I have always found it the first and most genuine moment in Valjean’s life when he pleads with God to take him, and spare the young and noble Marius. Valjean had been told by the priest years and years ago to do good in the world, and Valjean had endeavored to follow those orders. But it felt a little like just the motions of it until this moment when Valjean beseeches God that he should die, and not the heroic Marius. That moment gets me every time.
In Great Expectations, Pip has found out that the seemingly great expectations are maybe less-than-great, or at least certainly not what he expected! Pip finds himself in a situation attacked, and the violence could claim his life. Pip doesn’t plead to live because of the money or the expectations. No, Dickens writes that Pip thought:
“My mind, with inconceivable rapidity, followed out all the consequences of such a death. Estella’s father would believe I had deserted him, would be taken, would die accusing me; even Herbert would doubt me….Joe and Biddy would never know how sorry I had been that night…how true I had meant to be, what an agony I had passed through. The death close before me was terrible, but far more terrible than death was the dread of being misremembered after death. And so quick were my thoughts, that I saw myself despised by unborn generations…”
Pip wished he had made things right. Pip wished he had understood what expectations are really about, not the fancy clothes, the fancy meals, the fancy entourage, but later in the book, Pip yearned to make things right. In the end, he felt for those who had supported him. Pip stated at one point, “I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe.” Pip realized his ingratitude and set out to make things as right as he could.
What do we expect from life???
Ah, but maybe the best moment of last night was talking on the phone with Emma, having an intellectual discussion about the book with my niece about symbolism, about the 19th century English penal system, about Pip’s coming-of-age, about Pip as an entitled misfit. In her 15 years we have never enjoyed such an intellectual and scholarly discussion. It was divine.
So Great Expectations destroys Pip’s great expectations. But the book reminded me of my last 30 years and my own expectations, my own sense of gratitude, and pointed me toward a sense of peace about how to expect, and what to expect from each glorious day. Go read the book and see what you think. Call Emma and have a great conversation.