A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.In grade nine at Malvern Collegiate in Toronto, in the autumn of 1945, I encountered what has ever since seemed to me the perfect novel for a thirteen-year-old and a fine novel for anyone else, Great Expectations. It was my first serious novel by Charles Dickens. In its pages I discovered all the crucial themes that established him as the greatest of English novelists and our most articulate witness to Victorian England, that place and time from which so much of the modern world (including modern Canada) sprang.
-- Robertson Davies
But on the way to uncovering this material we young readers discovered more familiar motifs. Today we would say that Dickens drew heavily on genre conventions. Situations that were familiar to us from children's stories (and developed by the early comic books for our generation) constitute much of the plot.
Philip Pirrip, known mostly as Pip, the orphan who serves as both hero and narrator, is seven years old when he encounters a monster in the book's opening scene. The atmosphere echoes Gothic fiction. Pip is visiting the graveyard where his parents and his five siblings are buried, on the edge of ominous marshes, near the gallows where criminals are hanged. From out of nowhere a rough-voiced man speaks, seizes Pip, turns him upside down to empty his pockets, and threatens him with a grisly death unless he obtains what the man needs desperately -- food ("wittles") and a file.
To Pip his assailant seems a monster, but a monster he recalls in horrifying detail:
A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.
The language of Dickens has a way of turning a character from a nightmare into something vividly real. He used it well when he shaped the grotesque opening of Great Expectations.
The man on the marshes is Abel Magwitch, who will play a large part in the novel; in fact, he'll eventually turn into a kind of fairy godfather, sending money all the way from Australia to smooth Pip's way through life. At this point Pip knows only that he's an escaped convict anxious to be freed from his chains. Terrorized, Pip steals food and a file from the blacksmith's shop run by his brother-in-law, Joe Gargery, knowing it is wrong to steal but afraid to do otherwise. Nevertheless, Magwitch is recaptured, and Pip's crime remains undiscovered.
The fairy-story elements persist. Pip meets a beautiful girl, Estella, a princess who is under the thrall of an ogre, a rich and grotesque old woman, Miss Havisham. It is clearly Pip's duty, for her sake and his own, to rescue Estella from the clutches of this witch. But what power does he possess? He seems destined to live in poverty as an apprentice to Joe, perhaps someday succeeding him at the forge.
Dickens solves this problem by having a lawyer, Mr Jaggers, arrive with startling news: a patron, whose name must remain unknown, wishes to provide a large sum of money so that Pip can be properly educated and turned into a gentleman. Who can this anonymous philanthropist be?
I cherish our schoolroom discussions of this question because it was a rare occasion, possibly even the only occasion, when I had a chance to feel smarter than my best friend in that era, Glenn Gould. He was the brightest school kid I ever met, as well as a musical genius. When we were given our geometry book many of us found it challenging and took most of the school year to work our way through it. Glenn, on the other hand, mastered the whole thing in six or eight weeks, without stumbling once.
But when it came to Great Expectations, I was just a little brighter. Pip believed the secret philanthropist must be Miss Havisham. I decided it was Magwitch. Glenn hadn't thought of that but agreed it was likely true. "You must have read the ending first," he said. I truthfully testified that I was no farther along than anyone else in the class. I had just figured it out. So far as I can recall, that was my last intellectual victory over Glenn.
Patricia Meyer Spacks, in her recent book, On Rereading, says that "The sense of having it both ways, of preserving the joy that is the object of nostalgia while possessing new powers of understanding, makes the rereading of treasures from long ago especially satisfying." Rereading can break open new meanings in an old book and multiply its implications. We always discover there is more to it than we at first noticed.
We know more than we knew then, and one thing we know more about is our own lives. Reading a book we loved long ago sets up a dialogue between our younger and older selves, or, if we follow the Davies three-part formula, we set up a conversation among our young self, our middle-aged self, and our old self. We reread ourselves while rereading a text. Sometimes the text judges us. But in this case we are first asked to judge Pip.
He's a good-hearted boy, but he's swamped emotionally by two unprecedented events, the appearance of Estella and the prospect of a new life as a gentleman. Proud, beautiful Estella arouses his dreams of romance while simultaneously dashing them. "You must know," she says, "that I have no heart." Miss Havisham, abandoned on her wedding day, hates all males and has taught Estella to share her hatred. But when Pip's unknown patron proposes to make him a gentleman, he assumes that will change everything.
A gentleman, it is understood, can have anything he wants. Transformed, Pip will deserve and thus win Estella. This foolish vanity leads him into an unearned sense of pride. When he's acquired some sense of language and propriety, his new status as a gentleman overcomes his innate goodness. Dickens uses this transformation to satirize and condemn the system of money and class governing England. But he probably touched more of his readers (and, at a guess, himself) by describing through Pip's life the moral failures of those whose pride or simple forgetfulness makes them disloyal to the people who have been close to them.
At the beginning we know that Joe Gargery is Pip's best friend, companion, and model -- "ever the best of friends," as Joe always says. Pip in boyhood agrees. But Pip the gentleman finds Joe an embarrassment: when he comes for a visit Joe's clothes, his words, and his awkwardness don't suit Pip's new lodging and Pip's new friends. Joe sees the truth and abruptly ends his visit. But he knows this is simply the way it goes: "Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together."
Pip's shame over this incident, and his later avoidance of Joe, becomes part of his maturing. It is only when he regrets the crimes of his own heart that he becomes his true self. Remorse is the key to his eventual maturity and largeness of spirit. But Joe as a moral issue is relatively simple beside Magwitch. He shows up, once more a fugitive from justice, once more wanting Pip's help. "Look'ee here, Pip. I'm your second father. You're my son ... I've put away money, only for you to spend." The help he needs is difficult and dangerous, but Pip does his best.
The advice of Davies makes the greatest sense when we have accumulated enough years to value the past. At some point we see the profound silliness of people who say "Forget the past, move on." It is only when we learn to embrace the past, when we set aside that vacuous line, Je ne regrette rien, and admit to ourselves that there is much to regret -- only then can we take Pip's moral evolution to heart.
An innocent thirteen-year-old reader, as I was when first approaching this book, blundering hastily through it in grade nine, mainly anxious to know how it comes out, could only imagine the depths of Pip's remorse. At that stage we can't feel the meaning of his crime because we have never committed it, or at most have done so in such a casual way that it had little meaning. Remorse needs to marinate for a while before it has any commendable effect on our behaviour. I needed my second reading, in middle age, to understand what Dickens said about the banalities and ugliness of class. I needed my third reading, in old age, to grasp why I have always had such strong positive feelings for Pip: in my way I've shared his crimes, and learned to regret them. I've dropped friends out of impatience or annoyance or for my own convenience. My hope is that my experience of remorse (with, no doubt, some help from Pip and similarly self-searching fictional characters) has improved me.
The ending of Great Expectations is itself one of the great curiosities in Dickens' career and one I've only understood during my third reading.
Dickens originally shaped the ending as a brief, precise dismissal of the two might-have-been lovers whose relationship readers had been wondering about for many chapters. As Dickens saw it there was no future for Pip and Estella; there had been too many hard words, and too much disappointment. So it ended with them permanently separated, the greatest of Pip's expectations unfulfilled.
Strangely (at least it seems strange today), it was Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a good friend of Dickens, who read the completed manuscript and suggested a fundamental change. He urged that something resembling a happy ending be substituted. Bulwer-Lytton's great success was The Last Days of Pompeii, but today he's best remembered for writing what many consider the worst of all openings of a novel, the passage that begins the book he entitled Paul Clifford: "It was a dark and stormy night ..."
Even so, Dickens respected him and took his advice seriously. How did Bulwer-Lytton put the case (as Mr Jaggers would say) that Dickens should move from pessimism to optimism? Biographers can't tell us, but we can guess.
He saw what Dickens didn't, that a happy resolution between Pip and Estella, their total reconciliation after a long parting, was the ending toward which the whole story was pointing. The audience would demand it.
Dickens apparently agreed, but the final printed version turned out to be vague, a little grudging, not quite an affirmation of Pip-Estella love. "I saw no shadow of another parting from her," Pip tells us. But it's clear from what Estella says that she's not at all sure they have a future together. It was as if Dickens were hinting that in the nonexistent post-book future, his two frustrated lovers would find a way to wreck their relationship, and the original ending he had written would be proven the right one after all.