I have read the first two months worth of Great Expectations [on page 132/457]. I have begun reading the third month’s releases, and I have to say, Dickens is really great at the cliff-hanger. I intended to do reviews based on each section, but I now consider it might be a bit dull to just garble plot at you. I want to do some character sketches on Miss Havisham and Mrs Joe Gargery; I want to pick out the ways women, femininity, and the disavowal of woman-ness (ooooo, such a loaded invented term) is treated by Dickens and our narrator, Pip. I know that I am going to want to include Estella and Biddy, too, so I thought that I would finish my re-read before I endeavoured that task.
I’ve read to the part where Mrs Joe has been attacked by Orlick? Did he? Didn’t he? Orlick enrages me because he is that person that reverses Mrs Joe’s nature so she becomes this ideal Victorian woman in the domestic sphere, who causes no strife. Except, now she is unable to tend to the house. I suppose the point is, throughout the beginning of the novel, that Mrs Joe does very little. But that is how Pip represents Mrs Joe to us, and we have to consider Pip’s narrative unreliable. I mean, food just appears in front of Pip at Christmas without much thought given to how much work Mrs Joe put into making the meal. We are given other clues to draw the conclusion of Pip’s unreliability; when he is asked to re-tell his experiences to adults, he does not give truthful accounts that coincide to what we’ve previously been told. Consider, for example, when he describes his visit to Miss Havisham’s to Mrs Joe and Mr Pumblechook very differently than what he describes to us. Later, he confesses to Joe that he made up what actually happened. Throughout these early sections, Pip is often afraid to confess to the truth or tell Joe things because he is afraid he will not be believed because of his past indiscretions. We should keep this in mind.
That Pip confesses his lies to the adults to us works to convince the reader that we are getting the honest narration from Pip. We sympathise, or empathise depending on how well the effect works, with being young and being misunderstood or the anxiety of having to relay our experiences when in the past we’ve not been entirely honest or truthful. Thus, when Pip describes Miss Havisham, thus far, we really only get his account. Mr Pumblechook, when he offers Pip to Miss Havisham, says he has not met her. He cannot give an account of her personal character other than what he has learnt through others, including what Pip will tell him. Joe, who does meet Miss H, does not even respond to her. He does not give an account of her to collude with Pip’s description of her in a decayed wedding dress with spiders emerging from the black hole that is her wedding cake (obviously Joe did not witness this peculiarity, but the point still stands). We take Pip’s word that Miss H is what she is.
The narration functions such that we are meant to identify with Pip. And, I think that the reason many people dislike Pip is because, perhaps, they do not identify with him–so they find him unreliable, annoying, prone to terrible choices, and a bit whiney. So, I thought my earlier reluctance to re-read Great Expectations was me just being fickle to this Dickensian experience, but I think it has to do more with the ways my skills of empathy have shifted; I remove myself from Pip and his actions, rather than trying to identify with him. Of course, there are things I do identify with, and that’s what makes Dickens so clever–it’s hard to untangle the web. So, perhaps, those readers who find the book dull or difficult to read are just not convinced by Pip and the story he is telling.
Thus, an ongoing thread of discussion that I will maintain throughout this series on Great Expectations is Pip’s narration. Pip does share politely embarrassing accounts of his youth. The story with the convict will become a formative part of the plot and Pip’s (false-)actualization of being a gentleman, but he does share his role in aiding said convict to escape. He thieves from his brother-in-law, Joe, and takes the Christmas pork pie, and gives it to the escaped man. These are fairly damning acts. But they are also the acts of a child, who is alone, afraid, and who has no person(s) but us to confide (as an adult). That is something we need to remember, Pip, as a child, would not have had the language to articulate how and what he feels the way he is able to describe as an educated adult, reflecting. Joe, thus, becomes a foil to Pip’s self-expression. And we should take note of the way that Joe narrates his past (as told to us by Pip) and how Pip expresses his own sense of growing up, coming of age, and years of formulation.
If we need a clear sense of Pip’s inability to express himself, when he is young, we need to look no further than his shyness around Miss Havisham and Estella. The older Pip clads his narrative by explaining that he was gaining a consciousness of his lowly class, but younger Pip is quiet, shy, and rather upset. When he is left alone after this first encounter, he cries. He cannot verbally express his emotions, so we are told that he was overwrought. Tears are important here, too, to contrast Estella’s learned hardness, crafted and fuelled by Miss H, with Pip’s emotional display that enhances his softness and vulnerability. Pip defends his display of emotions in the description of his next visit, when he encounters the young boy who encourages him to fight him. Pip easily wins the fight against this physically soft young man. Thus, we get the older Pip forming his younger self as wronged by a particular kind of femininity that is wrong but more masculine than the supposedly genteel, young man, who performs a false masculinity and cannot defend himself against Pip. Even in this encounter, Pip cannot communicate to the other boy what he feels. He simply does what he is told to do. It is the elder Pip who constructs and contrasts the characteristics of other persons to inform us how we should read and relate to him and his story.
Alright, reader, I had better get back to reading more about Pip. Let me know what you’re reading and what you think about it in the comments.
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