Great Expectations: Literary Allusions, Meanings and Metaphors
on the many strands of meaning in this extraordinary story
On November 30, Mike Newell’s production of Great Expectations is opening in London cinemas. It is a fitting tribute to Charles Dickens, the “Inimitable” in the final months of his bicentenary. Though I have seen many screen and television adaptations before, including the luscious David Lean version of 1946, I will certainly be going to see this. What is so special about the story of protagonist Pip, that makes screenwriters return to it again and again?
I first read the book more than thirty years ago and since then, I have read it many times more. From its opening clause My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip to the final sentence I saw no shadow of another parting from her, it is a compelling read. The story pulls you into its vortex at once; Pip’s terrifying graveyard encounter with the convict, Magwitch, and his bravery in stealing food for the starving man, his unrequited love for the beautiful, unattainable Estelle, his arrogance when becoming a “gentleman”, his humility in taking care of his dying benefactor.
It is a story filled with many different metaphors and meanings, of contrasts of light and dark, the beautiful and the grotesque, rampant selfishness and exquisite generosity. Most of all, I am drawn to the book because I feel that I know Pip. In the earlier part of the story, I identify with his feelings of fear and guilt, cold and loneliness, his desire to “better himself”, the shame at his horde of embarrassing relatives. I felt the same longings to leave the workaday life, to embrace adventure and arrive at fortune. And I most certainly claim kindred with Pip’s social blunders on his journey to self-knowledge.
Great Expectations is many things and yet, it is not a love story. Pip’s longing for Estelle is at least as much metaphorical as it is a passion for a real woman. Pip is the proto modern man; growing up and escaping into the world of work and money, absorbing all the bitter lessons that daily teach him who he is. His series of social blunders and brushings with authority both humble Pip and morally elevate him to something greater than he was.
Pip is the most fully rounded human in literature since Shakespeare created Hamlet. In the story, Pip is metaphorically haunted by his dead father and literally, stalked by a man who has “adopted” him (without Pip’s consent and certainly against his will) as a son. It is no coincidence that in one significant episode of the book, Pip goes to see a performance of Hamlet, his old friend-turned-actor Mr Wopsle being in the cast. The story has other ties with literature.
In his introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition, John Bowen points out Pip’s allusion to the novel, Frankenstein: The imaginary student pursued by the misshapen creature he had impiously made was no more miserable than I, pursued by the creature who had made me. Here, I question Pip’s paralleling of his benefactor, “the creature”, with the “misshapen creature”, the Monster of Mary Shelly’s novel. It seems a wretched thing for Pip to do, yet Dickens was writing from experience.
Because of his own neglectful father, Dickens had been raised by a handful of relatives who landed him by turns, in school and in bouts of menial work. Dickens suffered much from the latter, though kindly meant, and from an early age, he was aware of the power of a parent or guardian on the developing person’s character. In Great Expectations, Pip’s benefactor had been in jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail, all his life. The man had a “misshapen” character, but it was not of his own making – and that is another chilling message both in Dickens time and in ours. Children and young people are at the mercy of the adults by whom they are surrounded. When Pip gets an opportunity to study, he embraces it, whole-heartedly. He writes of his teacher, Matthew Pocket: If he had shown indifference as a master, I have no doubt I should have returned the compliment as a pupil; he gave me no such excuse, and each of us did the other justice.
If we only read the book as a moral fable, this is the lesson worth embracing. But Great Expectations is much, much more. An understanding of Pip can teach us what it is to be truly human. I look forward to watching Mike Newell's movie.
Source: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens