Saturday, 18 April 2015

On Great Expectations- a response to Caroline

This post is a response to Caroline's comment here:
I thought of writing a comment right there, and then realised that I had never written a post about Great Expectations before (except this comparison and these brief comments). So here goes:
1/ The word "real" appears 4 times in Caroline's comment.
Let me quote Nabokov: 
"The world the artist creates for this purpose may be entirely unreal—as for instance the world of Kafka, or that of Gogol— but there is one absolute demand we are entitled to make: this world in itself and as long as it lasts, must be plausible to the reader or to the spectator."

2/ "Biddy and Joe don't seem real enough."
There are different kinds of books, different kinds of writers. Some novelists create well-developed, realistic, complex characters that are like human beings, e.g. Tolstoy, Flaubert, Jane Austen, Turgenev, George Eliot, etc. Some novelists create some other kinds of characters, e.g. Kafka, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, etc. I'm fine with it. Personally speaking I like writers who create characters that are like human beings, full of life and full of contradictions, but that's not what I look for when reading a book, and I don't think it's fair to use the same standard for all novels and criticise some writers for not achieving what they don't set out to achieve.
Having said that, I think Joe is more than a caricature. In some scenes he can be ridiculous, like a big kid, such as when he meets Miss Havisham and insists on talking to Pip when she asks him questions. But some scenes give him a kind of humanity, such as when he sees the gap between Pip and himself and notices Pip's change in attitude, which makes him alter his way of speaking and keep a distance. Joe may act like a silly, childlike person throughout most of the book, but he feels nervous and embarrassed, can perceive Pip's shame, and also has his pride. His refusal to get anything from Jaggers and his cold attitude to Pip are signs of pride. These things give him complexity, make him human. In 1 scene, Pip says to Biddy that Joe is backward, and Biddy asks "And don't you think he knows that?" I think that's 1 of the saddest and greatest lines in Great Expectations.

3/ "I can appreciate the development of Pip's mind, the feeling of having risen and feeling ashamed of your humble origins".
And then feeling ashamed of having felt ashamed. Because what does Pip learn as he's educated to become a gentleman? Hardly anything worthwhile. Manners, some subjects that hardly equip him for a real job, bourgeois life, nothing at all about responsibility, kindness, nothing about how to be a decent human being. As Pip becomes a gentleman, he becomes a despicable person- has fun, gets into debt, feels ashamed of his origins, looks down on poor people, changes his attitude towards Joe, acts selfishly... It's only when everything collapses for him that he learns a lesson and becomes a better person.

4/ "Pip's feelings are the only thing that seems real to me in that novel."
If "real" means "realistic", Miss Havisham perhaps isn't real. I don't know any Miss Havisham in real life, and don't think I ever will. But that doesn't matter, she's real in that world created by Dickens. Deceived, disappointed and disillusioned, she cannot move on but chooses to be frozen in time- always in that house, always in that wedding dress, away from everyone, away from life. Her anger at 1 man extends to all men and she transfers that hatred to Estella, only to repent it later when she realises what she has done. We may not find such a person in life, but I have no doubt in her existence and the plausibility of her actions within the world of the book. I would even say that she's 1 of the greatest creations in literature. Without Miss Havisham, we wouldn't have the masterpiece Sunset Boulevard and the magnificent short story "A Rose for Emily" and perhaps some other great works of art I don't know of or can't remember at the moment.
Estella is also a good character. If Biddy lacks some complexity to seem real (though I don't find it a problem), Estella acts like a seductive, heartless, vain, cruel girl but behind it is her more sensitive and vulnerable side, her self-loathing, and Pip sees through it. She says she has no heart, but that doesn't mean she cannot feel, doesn't mean that she doesn't understand herself. 1 of the best scenes in Great Expectations is where she announces her engagement to the despicable Drummle to punish herself and Miss Havisham, saying that she is what Miss Havisham has made her.
"Great Expectations I think is considered his greatest because of Pip's feelings which seem very real to us."
More than that. As I've written above, Miss Havisham, Estella and Joe are all good characters. And then the plot, the story, the themes, the individual scenes, the language...

5/ "The big reveal about Magwitch seems anticlimactic compared to the opening chapters."
I didn't feel that way.

6/ "Miss Havisham's friends are bores".
They're meant to be.

7/ "though she seems scary".
Miss Havisham is a fascinating character not simply because she's scary. Keywords: grief, despair, revenge, repentance. How I love the 1st scene Pip meets her- all the clocks are stopped at the same time, the waxwork- skeleton woman picks something up only to put it down at exactly the same spot.

8/ "Dickens' other novels do not explore much psychological depth".
"Dickens was a master at atmosphere, caricature, Victorian world-building rather than psychological exploration".
"I think writing emotional complexity was a bit out of Dickens' depth".
Great Expectations is not without psychological depth (note: Pip), but a more important point is that psychological depth is not the only criterion of literary merit. 
Let me digress and ask: Do we read Charlotte Bronte for psychological depth? I'm going to choose the easy way- quoting Virginia Woolf: 
"... we read Charlotte Brontë not for exquisite observation of character — her characters are vigorous and elementary; not for comedy — hers is grim and crude; not for a philosophic view of life — hers is that of a country parson’s daughter; but for her poetry. Probably that is so with all writers who have, as she has, an overpowering personality, so that, as we say in real life, they have only to open the door to make themselves felt. There is in them some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently. This very ardour, rejecting half shades and other minor impediments, wings its way past the daily conduct of ordinary people and allies itself with their more inarticulate passions..."
Readers who approach Charlotte Bronte with the expectation of finding "exquisite observation of character" or "psychological depth", as can be found in the works of Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Lermontov, Turgenev..., would be disappointed. Her heroines are strong, independent women like her who are once in a while her mouthpieces. Her heroes are her fantasies of dominating men. Charlotte Bronte's strengths are in other things- her poetry, her beautiful language, striking images, powerful emotions, her spirit and overpowering personality, her passion and refusal to stay within bounds... That's what matters. There are different kinds of books, different kinds of writers.

9/ "it is clumsily written". 
If this refers to the language, the style, I don't feel that way. 
If this refers to the plot, I don't feel that way either. If there's anything that slightly bothers me, it's the fact that the girl Pip loves, the adopted daughter of a woman he meets by chance, turns out to be the daughter of the man he previously ran into as a kid and the woman that works for his lawyer. The everyone-turns-out-to-be-connected-to-each-other-and-fits-perfectly-in-the-book thing. Contrived. But Jane Austen also does this, in Sense and Sensibility especially. George Eliot does this, in Daniel Deronda. Charlotte Bronte does this, in Jane Eyre and Shirley and most of all in Villette. Fiction has its conventions, so I'm OK with it, as long as it's not too outrageous, unacceptable. The reveal in Great Expectations doesn't seem so forced. 

Now I feel like grabbing a Dickens novel. 


  1. When I say "real," I don't just mean realistic, but I mean it doesn't seem to belong to that world. You could say that David Copperfield is unrealistic (too many coincidences! Stereotyped characters!) but that world somehow makes more sense, and I can see it happening. You can feel that Dickens is loving it and living in it. Not so much for Great Expectations (except for Pip's mind and part of his childhood). The trouble about Great Expectations is that things feel forced and contrived. Even when Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte contrive at things they somehow manage to make you feel the force of their emotional truths. And so it is easier to ignore their clumsiness (except Shirley). For Great Expectations, the Dickensian world seems less alive somehow (except for Pip's internal development). His words seem to be less assured, as if he didn't know how to phrase things. And Herbert Pocket didn't make an impression on me. I can't even remember what Herbert did, except for being Pip's friend. Miss Havisham only seemed vivid in her first few scenes. After that it seemed that Dickens had got tired of her/didn't know how to write her. Betsy Trotwood is more convincing (and I don't necessarily mean realistic, but living and breathing).

    I think what spoiled Great Expectations for me was I was too young to fully appreciate it when I first read it, and I later found some of his other novels much more satisfying (David Copperfield, Little Dorrit). Now Little Dorrit is underrated. I like Clennam, Flora Finching and even Little Dorrit herself. There is even the interesting portrait of William Dorrit's pride.

    Of course it's possible this relative unrealness can be explained by the unreliable narrator. Perhaps Pip feels disconnected with the people around him and so doesn't portray them so vividly.

    What puzzles me is that Copperfield is relatively neglected nowadays. Many years ago it was one of his most popular books. It's highly enjoyable and readable, even though it's not so profound.

    1. Now I can't respond to that. You say the characters don't seem real, but I don't think so. You say the book seems forced and contrived, but I don't think so. You say the world in Great Expectations seems less alive, but I don't think so. You say Dickens gets tired of Miss Havisham and doesn't know how to write her, but I don't think so.
      The thing is, in the post above I have responded to (almost) each of your points and elaborated, or at least tried to, on each point I make, you're still being vague and, if I can be honest, subjective, unspecific. Then the only thing I can say is, well, I don't agree.
      Miss Havisham is vivid in the 1st few scenes- she's 1st represented as a caricature. Later, she develops, and it's the change, the development that makes her complex, human- she sees what Estella turns out to be (also realises that Estella is a human being with her thoughts and feelings, no longer Miss Havisham's toy and tool), sees Pip's heartbreak (similar to her own), for once gets out of her little world (metaphorically) and looks outward and sees the world beyond her private grief and her revenge scheme and realises what she has done, hates herself (her selfishness, foolishness, cruelty), despairs, regrets, repents.
      And as I've said, without Miss Havisham (such a great character), we wouldn't have "A Rose for Emily" and Sunset Blvd, though I have doubts as to whether you'll like the character/ actress in Sunset Blvd.

    2. Well, to be honest, I don't remember much of Great Expectations. I last read it in full 9 years ago, and the only sense I retain is of a weary vagueness and a dull pain (mainly Pip's). I last read David Copperfield in full around the same time (though I flip to certain chapters off and on) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Don't know, maybe I just prefer Dickens as a caricaturist and other novelists as psychological realists.

  2. Wemmick and the Aged P are unrealistic yet I find them to be entirely real. They are real in Dickens World, even if nowhere else. But I also Miss Havisham similarly real from beginning to end.

    Early in his career, Dickens has trouble with his more ordinary heroes and heroines, so he just borrows them from Walter Scott. They are utterly unreal in Dickens World, yet, strangely, similar characters are reasonably real in Scott World, even though Scott is about half the writer Dickens is.

    As for the prose, Dickens does not allow his first-person narrators to write as well as Charles Dickens. If he did, now that would be unrealistic. Almost no one writes as well as Charles Dickens.

    1. Borrows from Walter Scott? Now that's interesting. *note* I haven't read anything by Scott though.

    2. Everyone borrowed from Scott. Scott was the greatest writer in the history of the novel. Steal from the best.

      It took decades for Dickens to work through the problem Himadri describes. It is fascinating to watch him do it.

  3. The problem was that the hero and heroine had to be squeaky-clean and spotless and pure, and such characters are tremendously boring and bland. In Fielding’s day, at least the hero was allowed to be less than spotless: thus, Tom Jones is allowed to emerge as a vigorous and interesting character. Sophia Western., on the other hand, has to be spotless, so Fielding has to hide her away from the action for most of the novel. But other writers have had problems as well with the spotless heroes & heroines demanded by convention: Smollett’s “Roderick Random”, say, is a great read except for the romantic chapters, where both Roderick and his beloved (Narcissa, if I remember correctly) emerge as deadly bores.
    Dickens’ later heroes and heroines are more interesting because he allows them to be morally flawed. But they had to remain virgins: unlike Tom Jones, they could not be sexually active. If Pip did indeed visit brothels (as young men about town were apt to do, especially in those times when prostitution was rife) we don’t hear about it.

    1. Interesting. Thanks for that.

  4. Look what I saw yesterday:

  5. Thanks for bringing this post to my attenion, Di; I'm glad I stopped by to read it. I really enjoy the way your posts bore into issues as they come up for you and explore them in the way that is most useful to you at the time. It makes them all the more interesting - at times, I think, I get constricted by the format of reviewing and it'd be nice to just talk about books.

    I can't say I have much to add to what you've written here - I must confess I've never rubbed along with Dickens too well for some reason and I'm by no means a competent commenatator (I'm more of a Hardy man, as Victorian lit. goes). Odd though, as I'm a big Martin Amis fan and I think there's a shared instinct between the two. I'm not sure I could agree that David Copperfield is a better book than GE but I do sometimes find Amis a little problematic when he tries something that isn't the open, rambunctious satire that probably represents his best work. When he turns towards a style more serious something doesn't quite work for me. I wonder if it's the same for Caroline here.

    Very interesting point above re. Victorian sensibilities and how they took all the fun/sex out of heroes/heroines. Imagine Defoe getting away with Roxana in the mid-19th century!

    1. Hello Matthew.
      Sorry about my late response. It's been hectic around here.
      Other people (you, for example) are better at writing reviews than I am. Guess I can do it once in a while but can't have a blog only for reviews- as you say, I feel constricted by the format. Just a note, if you stop by again, I don't "know" the concept of spoiler alert. It's difficult to write the way I do without revealing many things so I just go ahead and write what I'd like to write. Haha.
      No comment on Martin Amis, I haven't read anything by him.

  6. Oh, also, although not a chart of his best, this is a bit of fun for seeing the most Dickensian of Dickens's novel: