What is it about coming to the end of one calendar year and beginning a new one that leads us to think our lives are going to improve? We go to bed shortly after midnight brimming with great expectations and too much eggnog, and wake up the next morning the same person, in the same body, feeling perhaps a little rough around the edges. By the end of January the resolution to transform ourselves has faded, and we’ve mostly accepted that we are who we are, for better or worse. Which is probably a good thing.
Speaking for myself, I’m contemplating the new year with rather diminished expectations. This is partly the result of my own personal losses and partly due to a year of “fake news”, bizarre presidential tweets, and egregious missteps by men wielding power. If we can get to the end of 2018 without it all being smashed to smithereens – well, that at least will be something.
At any rate, it seems appropriate to begin the new year with Charles Dickens’ penultimate completed novel, Great Expectations (1861). I first made my way through my grandmother’s collection of Dickens when I was 12. Like her, I still go back to Dickens when I’m short of things to read. And they’re just as satisfying. The story of young Pip and his misguided aspirations is one of my favourites. The image of Miss Havisham in her faded, decrepit wedding gown stands out for most people, but there are so many strong characters: cruel but beautiful Estella, trained to toy with Pip and break his heart; the terrifying man in the marshes, trapped in a leg iron, who secretly plays such a vital role in Pip’s life; the gentlemanly Herbert Pocket, passionate and inept, but always hopeful of making his fortune, and the mild, sweet-natured Joe Gargery, Pip’s brother-in-law and surrogate father. They are the kind of characters who become friends as you read them, and linger on afterwards. In my case, for a lifetime.
The story opens on Christmas eve in the early years of the 19th century. Young Pip, an orphan, lives with his fierce sister and her kindly husband, Joe, who is the local blacksmith. While visiting his parents’ graves in the churchyard Pip is set upon by an escaped convict who frightens him into returning the next morning with some food and a file. Terrified to disobey, Pip does as he’s told, keeping it a secret from everyone, even Joe, who’s his closest friend and ally. The convict is later recaptured while fighting with a fellow escapee who claims the first one is trying to murder him.
A year or two later, Pip is invited to Satis House, a dilapidated manor house owned by the wealthy and eccentric Miss Havisham, an elderly spinster, and her adopted daughter, Estella. Miss Havisham has decided she wants a boy come to the house to play and asks Mr. Pumblechook to find someone suitable. When Pip arrives he sees that everything in Satis House, including Miss Havisham, is decayed and crumbling. She wears the wedding dress she wore on the morning of her wedding day, when she received word that her husband-to-be had broken the engagement. The clocks are stopped at twenty to nine; the wedding cake is home to spiders and mice; beetles and other vermin have ravaged the wedding feast. All is in tatters and ruins, including Miss Havisham. She orders Pip to play cards with Estella. He does so, becoming aware for the first time that his speech is coarse, his manners are rough, and that he is “a common labouring-boy …. [and] was in a low-lived bad way”.
These visits continue until Pip is old enough to be apprenticed to Joe in the forge. Once he looked forward eagerly to this; now, however, he finds it a demeaning occupation and dreams of finding a way to somehow improve his circumstances. In the meantime, Pip’s sister is attacked by an unknown assailant who delivers a blow to her head, injuring her to the point where she can no longer speak properly or do more than sit and smile by the fireplace. For Pip, this is not entirely a bad thing, as she was given to taking out her rages by beating him with a stick. Joe, however, is devastated, and simple, kind-hearted Biddy moves in with them to help. Biddy is everything Estella is not – sweet, caring, and down-to-earth. Bright and energetic, she cares for Pip and teaches him to read and write. Until he leaves home she’s his friend, his confidant, and his tutor.
Four years into his apprenticeship, a lawyer, the inscrutable Mr. Jaggers, arrives with the news that an unnamed person has provided money so that Pip can become a gentleman. Pip assumes his benefactor is Miss Havisham; he also assumes it is Miss Havisham’s intention that he and Estella should marry one day.
Pip then leaves the forge and settles into life in London with the amiable Herbert Pocket, who happens to be Miss Havisham’s nephew. Together they fall into bad habits, spending more than they have and acquiring a great deal of debt. While this occasionally bothers them, Herbert feels sure he will soon rise in business, and Pip clings to his expectations of wealth.
In his biography of Dickens, Peter Ackroyd calls Great Expectations a novel of “the folly of spendthrift youth”: “Dickens was a man of infinite nostalgia about himself; what is real, and what remained real for him, is the ambitious boy moving through adolescence to maturity.” He had enormous expectations of himself, and his energy – which was surely greater than most people’s – was at least partly driven by the spectre of poverty and debt which haunted his childhood. It’s no stretch of the imagination to argue that Dickens worked all his life to distance himself, not altogether successfully, from his feckless, improvident father who “all but ruined his family through his own negligence and incompetence”.
And so we have Pip, ashamed of his working-class roots, striving to “better” himself by adopting the clothes, manners and paraphernalia of a gentleman. In his new life there is a certain hatred of his past, as there was with Dickens. The author knew, however, that we never escape our pasts, and it is fitting that Magwitch, the convict in the marshes, eventually returns to confront Pip with the shocking, shameful truth: it is he, and not Miss Havisham, who is the benefactor of his good fortune. He has abandoned Joe and Biddy, and given up most of what is good and honest and true, for a chimera.
In the end, the lesson of the story may be that while expectations are all well and good, the greater they are the more likely they are to lead us astray. As I said earlier, for 2018, diminished expectations will do.