Living Up to Its Expectations

The first chapter of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is pure magic. In what is perhaps the most memorable opening of any novel, it brings forth the best in Dickens’ repertoire: pathos, absurdity, innocence, and a penchant for grotesque settings that is oddly delightful. There is, for example, the typically serio-comic manner of Magwitch the escaped convict. He threatens young Pip in such ungrammatical lines as “I ain’t alone, as you may think I am. There’s a young man hid with me, in comparison with which young man I am a Angel.” Or when the ill-clad, shivering convict is looking gloomily around the marshy flats by the old churchyard, he says to himself: “I wish I was a frog. Or a eel!” Later we are bounding along in the soldiers’ twilight pursuit of Magwitch and the mysterious “young man,” which ends in a way which only heightens the mystery and expectation. We sense that we have not seen the last of this dubious pair.

Then there is character of Miss Havisham who is something out of a dark myth. She says to Pip: “Look at me… You are not afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since you were born?” Dickens depicts this jilted bride like an old crone, witchlike and haunted, hobbling around with her crutch-headed stick. She is a person overcome by vanity and a pointless fixation on the past. This does not make Miss Haversham the  tragically attractive figure of the Romanticists. Instead she is a wasted and petty creature. A little later Pip reflects on the decomposition of the spinster’s house, which Dickens renders so tangible: “In the heavy air of the room, and the heavy darkness that brooded in its remoter corners, I even had an alarming fancy that Estella and I might presently begin to decay.” It is a metaphor of mental and spiritual debility.

In my opinion, a good Dickens novel is more than just fiction. The stories have the cadence of great drama. And while Dickens’ narrative may not be “realistic” in the modern sense, there is something that is more universal and enduring in his depiction of life’s mysteries, that we all relate to yet can never fully explain:

That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

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