In 1860, a fifty-year-old novelist sat down to write what he later came to call his favorite story; the best he wrote. It was a story of mystery, of abuse, of abandonment and heartbreak; a story of joy and misery, and of despair. It had the gravely misleading title of Great Expectations.
Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) was no stranger to abuse, neglect and misery. From a wonderful and idyllic childhood, he was thrust brutally into the world of child labour at only twelve years of age, when his father was imprisoned for debt. He worked desperately, in filth and dust, ten hours a day, for six shillings a week: this would be the equivalent of £17 ($26) today. This would indelibly mark him for the remainder of his life, and it was only his own internal strength that kept him alive during this bleak time.
The influence of this impoverished upbringing made itself known throughout so many of his novels, from A Tale of Two Cities to Oliver Twist. Along with this misery grew an unfortunate dislike for women – born from his mother, who even after her husband’s debt was paid, would not let young Charles leave the blackening warehouses.
And in Great Expectations, we see all of this come alive. This is a story of innocence destroyed, and the greatest tragedy is that it is destroyed willfully, wantonly, malevolently, the desolate outcome of a scarred and heartbroken woman, whose sadness turned bitter, and then turned to hate.
And so from the outset, from the first page, we are shown that poor, little Pip, who has never done wrong to anyone – who feels a great guilt for stealing a single pie to feed a terrifying and starving convict – is destined for a life of torment and shame, wherein his very innocence is the thing that leads those around him to take such destructive advantage of him.
There is, awfully, no expectation of greatness in the story. Poor Pip, throughout his childhood, is torn, lost in blind admiration for the cold Estella, ashamed of his own upbringing, and bearing the agony of the emotional torture Miss Havisham and Estella put him through, daily. All the while, he lives in mortal fear of the escaped convict, haunted by nightmares that he might return, might kill him, and destroy his family.
Even his family is a failure for him. His sister, resentful that Pip should be burdened upon her, treats him as a dog, punishing him for the slightest of transgressions. Worse, she treats her own husband equally, and the household is home to misery.
As Pip grows older, and enters into a mysterious fortune, promised to him upon his twenty-first birthday, he fights desperately to become the gentleman he is certain will win Estella’s heart, never knowing that Miss Havisham, in her cruelness, has ensured from her youngest years that Estella has no heart to give. We know this, and we feel the agony that Pip relentlessly pursues this impossible dream.
As the tale progresses, we learn that even Miss Havisham, for all her cruelty, is herself only the victim of trauma herself; the wedding dress, tattered and faded, that she wears for the remainder of her life, is that which she had worn the day she was to be wed; the day her fiancé stole, and killed, her own heart.
And the greatest, most heart-wrenching tragedy of all, is that the one, the only person that would show Pip kindness – the only person who has ever truly loved him – is himself the victim of torment from none other than Pip himself. In his shame of a common upbringing, Pip shames his own father-figure, the simple, honest Joe. Joe, who bears Pip’s harsh words year upon year, and never once voicing complaint against him.
Great Expectations is, for me, the single greatest work of literature of the past two hundred years. I realize that it was merely popular fiction at the time it was written, but its tale of lost love and despair has transcended the years, and is as inspiring as it is heart-wrenching.