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.