Expectations great and small

We are accustomed to speaking of Dickens as a “flawed author”. Or, at least, I am. And on the whole, it doesn’t really bother me: perfection, I’ve often felt, is such an overrated quality. But Great Expectations seems to me just about perfect. I can’t think of a single thing in it I would wish changed. Except, perhaps, for one: the character of Orlick. In a more characteristic Dickens novel – multi-stranded and multi-faceted, overflowing with life and with vigour and with figures painted in each square inch of its gloriously overcrowded canvas – such a flaw wouldn’t really have mattered: after all, who cares about a few flaws in the face of God’s Plenty? But Great Expectations is a very different sort of novel: here, a single blemish, a single vicious mole of nature, seems to disrupt the harmony of the whole. And yes, I have often wished Dickens had done away with Orlick. I have often fancied that he would have done so had he not been writing in serial form, thus committing himself in later parts to what he had already written in the earlier.

But this is, indeed, mere fancy. The possibility does exist – as it always does – that it is I who have got this badly wrong, that Orlick is, indeed, a necessary component of the whole. That is certainly the view put forward recently by novelist Howard Jacobson:

… the shock of Orlick’s brutal beating of Mrs Joe resonates through the novel: not only implicating readers in the violence (there isn’t one of us, if we are honest, that hasn’t been wishing her harm in the pages before the attack), but miring Pip further in that consciousness of crime that crowds his every thought, binding him with Orlick, an alter ego who makes a mockery of his longing to be spotless enough to deserve Estella.

Further, Jacobson contends, Mrs Joe’s pathetic submissiveness to her assailant mirrors Pip’s own relationship with Estella – “loving her for what she isn’t, and loving her the more, the more she mistreats him”. Jacobson continues: “… it asks a terrible question about the psychological hierarchy of beater and beaten.”

This deranged psychology, “the deranged fastidiousness we call romantic love”, is indeed, as Jacobson says, at the heart of the novel. And yes, there is a “savagery” and an “eroticism” that many of us perhaps fail to see because these are not the qualities we expect from a work we have come to think of as a “venerated classic”. However, I wonder whether Jacobson is being perhaps a bit unfair in denouncing the view of this novel as “a moral fable about a snob’s progress”. For it seems to me that such a view of the novel is also tenable; and that, furthermore, seeing it in such terms is not necessarily, as Jacobson claims, to “reduce” the work. After all, the search for a moral code in an immoral world is surely a big theme not unworthy of a major novelist at the height of his powers. And neither is this theme subsidiary to that of Pip’s erotic obsession: Pip learns, by the end of the novel, to love Magwitch, and this is a moral redemption – indeed, a moral victory – that seems to me every bit as significant as the failure of his erotic aspirations.

But what of Orlick? Is to omit him from adaptation to “…[wilt] before the novel’s savagery”, and to “…[dilute] its eroticism”? Perhaps. But the problem with the strand involving Orlick is that there seems no satisfactory way of resolving it. It was a problem that Dickens himself could not, I think, solve. After Pip goes to London to become a gentleman some one third of the way through the novel, Orlick, who had previously played so striking a role, effectively disappears from the narrative, and is only brought back, presumably for the sake of completeness, in a single incongruous chapter towards the end. And this chapter refuses resolutely to fit its surroundings: it is a crude episode of an adventure story set in the midst of what is otherwise a complex moral and psychological web, and seems to me a very conspicuous blemish on what is about as near perfection as makes no odds.

But Jacobson is right, I think, to complain that we have reduced Dickens to a “mincing art”. This is perhaps the fate of all works we label as “classic”: the very term seems to imply a certain gentility, a certain preciousness and over-refinement; and, in our readings, we tend, perhaps unconsciously, to reduce works bearing this label to the scale of our own Reduced Expectations. And, having reduced them to our own size, we criticise them for being too small. Great Expectations is about many things, and a “moral fable about a snob’s progress” is not, I think, to be ruled out: but yes, it’s time we saw again something of its savagery.

6 responses to this post.

  1. What, no! I didn’t fail Dickens, I didn’t reduce him to anything, I saw everything I was supposed to see.*

    If only more fiction writers were as imperfect as Dickens.

    * Gag stolen from Nanni Moretti.


  2. Posted by Brian Joseph on January 23, 2013 at 1:16 am

    Hello Brian, I think the ending to Great Expectations are wonderful – all the endings! And I never did see the final ending as “positive”: its tone has always seemed to me subdued and uncertain. David Lean, in his film version, gave it a positive ending, and it is the one part of the film that I have always found unconvincing.


  3. Himadri,

    Two comments, the first merely an odd conincidence. I am currently doing a close reading of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics for the Ethics class I teach. I am in the later chapters dealing with friendship. Reading Artistotle’s comment that sometimes we need not return a favor if the person to whom we are indebted is a base person. In teh margin I wrote “Pip and Magwitch” knowing that Dickens had, in his way, refuted the old philosopher.

    The second is to concur with your notion of reduction. You have voiced a problem I have long felt. No matter the novel (or other literary piece — except perhaps very short poems, and that I am not quite sure of), no matter how many times we read them — still, I suspect we must in the long run end up reducing them as you suggest — the postmodernist would say rewrite — but, I believe the sense of writing should adhere to our rhetorical turn as we speak of the original and not to the act of reading. So unless we have some sort of eidetic memory, our mind must somehow edit each piece to what can stay with us, what has resonance, what opened our own thoughts, what has found its home in our souls, — the reduction is unfortunate, but perhaps inevitable.

    Truth is, I cannot remember Orlick, it has been so long since I read that novel — one of the first of Dickens I read; now I wish to go back and reread it — put another and better and hopefully more sympathetic reduction in place of one that is clealry inadequate.

    Best, Mark


    • ** Spoiler alert***

      Hello Mark, it seems to me that Dickens was doing something even more interesting than refuting Aristotle: Pip, when he finds out who his benefactor is, is disgusted by Magwitch, but helps him nonetheless because he feels morally bound to return the favour, even though he thinks Magwitch a base person. But Pip truly redeems himself morally when he comes to love Magwitch as a person. Doesn’t this go a bit beyond Aristotle? (I must confess to being ignorant on Aristotle … I really should get to know at least some basics of philosophy.)

      On your other point, I have no doubt you are right. Like in that fable of the blind men touching different parts of the elephant, and claiming to know what the elephant looks like, we can all know but a few facets at most of multi-faceted works. But it does seem to me that Dickens is reduced to a much smaller size than are most other writers of comparable stature. Somehow, the artistic daring of Dickens, that wild imagination, that “savagery” as Howard Jacobson calls it, that willingness to peer deep beneath surfaces … these things are rarely acknowledged: instead, a patronizing picture is presented of a cosy, comfortable writer for whose manifold shortcomings allowances need to be made; or even, sometimes, a writer who suited those awful Victorian sensibilities, but who cannot really be taken too seriously in our (allegedly) more sophisticated times. No other major author (except possibly Austen, whose morally complex works are often taken to be 18th century “chick-lit”) has been, I think, reduced to quite this extent.


      • Himadri,

        Sorry I did not reply earlier. WordPress and my email do not seem to get along, so I never receive indications of a response where such indications would, indeed, be much appreciated — a needed, as indeed I had forgotten ai had made this comment.

        Most of my reading in philosophy of late is with the ethicists — and, in some ways, philosophers become much different writers when they tackle ethics — in some cases I would say they move toward novelists, but, to be honest, ratehr haltingly at best. Aristotle is known for his psychology, but he seems to me to fall a bit short at times in that respect. The good novelists, of course, are often wonderfully rich in their psychological plumbing — and in that respect Dickens is often at his best — even when at his most sentimentally Victorian. (We have had this debate before — I love the sentimental side of Dickens and do not think it diminishes him, but makes him more worthy of admiration. But let me come at this sentimentality a different route.

        So back to Aristotle, he is never as readable as Plato, but the Nichomachean Ethics (named for his son and really the only of the two ethics he wrote that one needs to read as the other was probably a rehearsal for this one) is worth the effort. Aristtole never, to my mind quite gets the motive of ethics right. He sees that some emotion comes into play in our movement toward the leading the satisfactory life that he calls eudaimonia (usually translated as happiness), but he errs I think in assuming that the desire that is most ethical follows from right reason, but does not precede it. This seems to me an inversion (I follow Hume in thinking that emotion always precedes reason, but for me curiosity, interest and other smaller more directable emotions are most at home with a balancing of reason and emotion).

        The emotions that follow our ethical reasoning I think grow from sources other than the act of reasoning, or, at least, not from the reason alone. And a desire to perfrom the well-reasoned ethical act seems to be less emotion than the ethical act calls for, or calls up within us. Riding with the ethical act are those sentiments that (goodness, I’ve come back around to the sentimental) allow us to extend the reasoning through the natural pull of fellow feeling, and the inward feeling of doing what is right.

        Kant seems to me to have rather laboriously set out to prove that doing the right thing was the only real point behind ethics — but his arguments seem a little too reasoned (he had after all set his hat against Hume) and what he sees as an intellectual act, to me is always as much an emotional one. Such an emotion can grow too large and overweening at times, playing off into a kind of self-righteousness — but it need not if held as a small comfortable (sentimental) urge.

        And I think that is where we can return to Dickens: as you say, Dickens is not merely suggesting that we ought not to return bad for good, simply because we judge the character of the good actor essentially bad. He is more interested in the play of emotions. By comparison, Aristotle and Kant tried too hard to make their ethical actions products of a process in which reason dominates emotin, rather than standing in harmony to emotion.

        Dickens is not lacking in reason. If he were we would probably be justified in dismissing him. His emotions are subtle but not overly so. In the long run they do not turn on themselves the way modern novelists would tell us most natural to the human condition. They so turn on themselves, in Pip’s case, only as a catalyst for the reasoning that is so essential to any robust and satisfactory ethics. Pip works out first the problem of returning good for good, then his fellow feeling comes in to move him past Kant.

        I should add here almost parenthetically that Dickens is probably more responsive to the Christian Golden Rule in this respect, which, I think, remains more important in ethics than modern ethicists seem willing to admit — if they fear the religious implicaitons then let them take it from Confucius, but this is too important a part of human ethics to have been so cavalierly set aside.

        Pip’s move past Kant (if I may be allowed to continue that line of logic) is to not merely do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, but to add to that motive the natural turn to fellow-feeling that seems to have been lost when we sought to slough-off the effects of Victorian sentiments. But under such circumstances a fellow feeling is natural even in a cynical age like that which we live in today. And so, as you point out, Pip comes to love Magwitch for the humanity that the two share. This is the product of emotion and human nature, and I am comfortable letting it be that, not in contradiction to reason, but not necessarily led about like the pig with the ring in its nose that sentimentality is at best in this age we live in. Without such emotion, ethics bcomes a rather dull and inhuman activity.

      • Hello Mark, and thanks for that. I’m afraid I shall need some time to absorb your post before replying. This is just to let you know that i haven’t forgotten!

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