Saturday, February 28, 2015

Rereading Dickens's Great Expectations Half a Century Later

I first read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens in 1966, in my first semester at the Bronx High School of Science. Almost half a century later, I listened to the audiobook of the novel, and entirely different facets of the book stood out for me.

Charles Dickens
When I was fourteen years old, I was so put off by the artificial aspects of Great Expectations. I wasn’t used to nineteenth century novels, and the exaggerated speech of Dickens’s working class characters such as Joe Gargery felt unreal to me. I was particularly troubled by the plot’s many coincidences, which seemed less than nitty gritty to me, and didn’t pass the test of strict authenticity that my adolescent self applied to everything that an adult tried to present to me as authoritative.

It’s true that novelists in the 1800s had an almost occult reliance on coincidences. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned how writers of that century serialized their novels in newspapers or magazines, publishing one chapter at a time. Once a novelist had painted a character into a corner with a particular plot device, the writer couldn't go back and correct the story—the earlier installments were already public. A good coincidence was a clever way out of a tight squeeze, but beyond that, some writers have a predilection for coincidence, maybe even an affection for it. 

Dickens is certainly one of them. In Great Expectations, for instance, it’s not necessary to the plot for Pip to find out who both of Estella’s parents are, but Dickens can’t resist including those details, even though they involve improbable serendipities. Those coincidences do add irony, since Estella is at first very haughty for a young woman whose forebears turn out to be of such humble origin.

Somehow the coincidences hardly bothered me at all this time. They seemed almost like gewgaws in a Victorian parlor, charming in their outmoded and elaborate way.

A Pre-Raphaelite frontispiece for Great Expectations
What did strike me about the book this time was how complex some of the characters are. Abel Magwitch was particularly fascinating to me. At the midpoint of the novel, I think the reader would probably identify Magwitch as the least likeable and most threatening character in the book, and there’s plenty of competition for that niche. By the end of the story, it might be fair to say that Magwitch is one of the most sympathetic, and perhaps the most compelling character. That turnabout in the reader's perceptions of Magwitch is one of the novel's many triumphs.

My favorite section in the novel is Chapter XLII, where Magwitch narrates his life story in his own words. It’s an incredibly poetic dramatic monologue, full of amazing metaphors that are perfectly suited to Magwitch’s rough-and-tumble existence, in and out of jail starting at a young age: “I’ve been done everything to, pretty well—except hanged. I’ve been locked up as much as a silver tea-kittle.…I’ve no more notion where I was born that you have—if so much.”

One character I changed my opinion of since my teenage reading of the book is Joe Gargery, the brother-in-law and dear companion of the protagonist, Pip, during the main character’s youth. Joe’s wildly uneducated speech just seemed clownish to me when I was a teenager. .Now it makes me laugh. At one point, Pip is attempting to teach Joe the alphabet, and Pip tries to get him to write his last name.

“How do you spell Gargery, Joe?” I asked him…

“I don’t spell it at all,” said Joe.

This time, Joe came across as a nuanced character. He is a big, strong guy—a blacksmith—but in some ways he’s weak, at times to Pip’s detriment. Joe is too self-effacing to protect Pip from the physical and emotional abuse of his wife, Pip’s sister. And yet, it’s hard to fault Joe. He’s loyal to Pip till the end, even though he deals Pip one of his worst disappointments, inadvertently.

I also didn’t realize as a teenager that Dickens actually wrote two different endings to Great Expectations. Dickens declined to publish the original ending that he wrote, on the advice of his friend, the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. I think Bulwer-Lytton's counsel was suspect. The ending that Dickens initially penned seems to me more poignant and more faithful to the direction of the book than the version that Dickens chose to include. But maybe that's the uncompromising teenager in me surfacing again.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

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