Classic Thoughts / All we need to know: Amanda Craig on the satire and humanity of Great Expectations (1861)
My classic is short, for a Victorian novel, and taut as a fairy-tale or detective story - both of which it is. From the first page when Pip, terrified into his wits, thinks the escaped convict who has risen out of the marshes is going to cut his throat, it is thrillingly alive. Mocked by the mad Miss Havisham and beautiful Estella; beaten by Mrs Joe, patronised by Jaggers and confused by Wemmick; befriended by Herbert, humiliated by Magwitch and humbled by Joe; the mystery and comedy of Pip's education is the greatest Bildungsroman ever written. No scene or character is deformed by that excess of melodrama which mars the earlier work, yet all, down to the unseen Bill Bailey, are shimmeringly particular against the blackest of backdrops. It is perfectly shaped: the journey that began in terror and water ends in it, with regeneration offered as an ambiguous, misty coda. The protagonist who begins as a pip, a seed, grows into a whole human being, ripened by adversity. The prose is faultless.
For this, Dickens's second-tolast completed novel, is genius mature. It contains the plot of Oedipus, towards which all literature, including the most comic, aspires if it is to have any significance. Yet if it were only, as E M Forster indicated, the story of 'the mistake made by a young man as to the sources of his fortune', it would not be so revolutionary, nor so moving.
Great Expectations is rare in English fiction in showing the deformities of spirit visited upon the socially ambitious, a deformity strangely ignored by modern novelists despite its manifest evil. One gets a whiff of it in Trollope, and more in Thackeray, but it is Dickens who shows what we know to be true, that unless we are very careful, money, education, manners and taste (though excellent things in themselves) cut us off from all that is loving and humane.
To show this in fiction is satire of the most subtle and far-reaching kind. It is also immensely brave, for it cuts across the reader's perennial desire for wishfulfilment. We do not want to be told that kind hearts are better than coronets, and we want those coronets for our imaginary selves.
Pip's real discovery, casually underlined by the fact that his story begins on Christmas Eve, is not the truth about his mysterious benefactor, nor indeed Estella's parentage, but of his conscience. He hates Magwitch, saves him because he gradually realises that to be a gentleman is to be 'generous, upright, open and incapable of anything designing or mean', and comes at last to love him and to utterly repudiate the false greatness and real snobbery with which he has been imbued. Such self-knowledge is never reached without painful struggle: I suspect everyone, unless from an unusually harmonious background, knows something of it. But without it, none of us grow into our expectations, great or otherwise.
We see Pip inside-out and outside-in, for he even tells us how the locals satirise his lordly swagger back home. He is foolish, and yet, how sympathetic] When at last he asks Joe's forgiveness, and Joe gives it - can anyone read that without emotion? I do not believe in art as therapy or selfexpression, but I think its power comes because Dickens finally felt able to forgive his own father the blacking factory: and who does not need to forgive a parent, or to ask forgiveness? Pip's voice speaks to our deepest selves. It is a masterpiece of narrative irony, at once poetic and conversational, characteristic yet authorial.
Great Expectations contains everything that obsessed Dickens - orphanage, justice, madness, meanness, beggary, inheritance and innocence - but subsumed. It teaches us about love, friendship, mercy, the things that make us human: and that is all we know, or need to know.
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