Thursday, February 11, 2010

Great Expectations

This week I read my first real classic since Oliver Twist was forced upon my grade six english class. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I honestly didn't really know what to expect diving into the first few chapters, but this book is a classic for a reason. I realize now that Great Expectations is perhaps the most advanced book I have read so far, for it is woven together with complex underlying tones and ideas, symbols and foreshadowing. It was not only a remarkable story, but it was abundant in though provoking ideas, and made me challenge some of my previous ideas about human nature and character.

I like to think of this as the "boy version" of 'My Fair Lady'. Pip is an orphan who is to grow up and become a blacksmith, until he is offered a chance to leave behind his childhood of misery and poverty and become a true gentleman. Great Expectations is filled with transcendent excitement from the moment of Pip's first terrifying encounter with the convict, Magwich in the gloom of a graveyard, to the splendidly morbid set pieces in Miss Havisham's mansion, to the magnificently realized boat chase down Thames. This book is filled with ambition and desires for self improvement, guilt, criminality, and innocence, as well as maturation and the growth from childhood to adulthood, the importance of affection, loyalty, and sympathy over social advancement and class superiority, and the difficulty of maintaining superficial and social categories in a constant changing world. Throughout this book Dickens managed to constantly change the tone of the story from comic and wry, sentimental and foreboding, always kept things invigorating and compelling.

It definitely took a while to get used to reading old english, having not been exposed to it much. I watched the NFL Super Bowl on the weekend and thought....this is just like reading Great Expectations. I have a general idea of what's going on, but I don't understand all the details. However, there were a few key moments that continue to plague my mind.

Dickens writes with such powerful descriptions and symmetries. There were many passages that were so beautiful and eloquent, that he was able to turn a phrase or statement into true poetry. One of my favorite lines was "...heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are the rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts....' Another example of his ability to put a picture in your head is the phrase "....You're not in a fit state to come here, if you can't come here without spluttering like a bad pen...." There are so many great books and remarkable and talented authors out there, but there is something to be said about the ability to put such strong images into a mind with only words.

There were so many moments throughout Great Expectations that I realized that people have had the same characteristics over a vast amount of time. One of the first examples I came across was the idea that we have the unattractive ability to become judgmental or embarrassed of the people in our lives. This idea was first introduced after Pip had begun his journey to become a gentleman. Joe had come to visit Pip and was trying to fit into his new social circle. At the end of their time together, Joe says the following to Pip; " and me is not to figures to be together in London; not yet anywhere else but what is private, and beknown, and understood among friends. It ain't that I'm proud, but that I want to be right, as you shall never see me no more in these clothes. I'm wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off the meshes. You wont find half so much fault in me if you think of me in my forge dress, with my hammer in my hand, or even my pipe. You won't find half as much fault in me, supposing as you should ever wish to see me, you come and put your head in at the forge window and see Joe the blacksmith, there, at the old anvil in the old burnt apron, sticking to the old work.....' Why is it that we can know a person for years, share experiences and grow with them, but we can so easily become ashamed of them the second they are "out of their element"? It's a disappointing thought, but I guess the only way to get over it is first to be aware of it.

"....I am ashamed to say it, and yet it is no worse to say it than to think it. You call me a lucky fellow. Of course, I am. I was a blacksmith's boy but yesterday; I am -what shall I say I am today?...... say, a good fellow, if you want a phrase, a good fellow, with impetuosity and hesitation, boldness and difference, action and dreaming, curiosity mixed in him...." In this passage Pip is perhaps suffering from a lack of self confidence, and self worth. He feels a bit lost in his new world. His friend, Herbert then goes on to explain what he sees in Pip. This was quite profound to me actually. It's amazing the difference we see in ourselves and then what others see in us. Any one person cannot be squished into one characteristic category. Honest, compassionate, risk taker, shy, bold........ I think that every person has countless characteristics, and although some come out more than others, it is still impossible to describe someone with one word, and I think that it is also unfair, and is kind of limiting in a way. I think that experiences change people, and will build their different characteristics into something special and personal for them. It's like the tide moving over the beach. Even though every grain of sand is having the same "experience" of the water moving over it, not one inch of sand looks identical to another. So even though we may have the same experiences as someone else, we will be effected in various ways.

Other things that came up in the pages and words of Dickens that show the similarities of people from the 1800's to today, were things like gossip, and "the grass is always greener on the other side". "...I assured him of my keeping the secret, and begged to be favored with further particulars. he has spoken so sensibly and feelingly of my weakness, that I wanted to know something about his strength...." Knowledge makes us feel powerful, as it should, but it's humorous to see that even is Pip's time, he wanted to know the secret detail of an acquaintance. Today there are entire magazines and television shows devoted to gossiping about other peoples lives, and even though we know deep down that most of it is not true, it still gives us this feeling like we know something, and from that we get some sort of power. The fact remains that knowledge does give you power, however knowing things about other people, and spreading the knowledge often leads to people being hurt, and relationships being lost. Grass is always greener....."I used to think that i should have been happier and better if I had never seen Miss Havisham's face, and had not risen to manhood content to be partners with Joe in the honest old forge. Many a time of an evening, when i sat alone looking at the fire, I thought, after all, there was no fire like the forge fie and the kitchen fire at home...." This is probably something that we have all faced, and felt at some point in our life. We look at somebody who has something we don't, perhaps it's money, a big house, or even lots of shoes, and we desire that, if only for the reason that we don't have it. However once we have crossed the fence to the other patch of grass we usually find that what we had before was in fact quite great. As people we are always learning, and even tough friends and acquaintances can try and tell us about different life lessons, we need to experience them for ourselves before we can truly understand them.

Great Expectations has been the most challenging book for me so far. As I said, I am not used to the old english writing style, but in the end it was well worth the effort. I found myself enjoying the words of Dickens the most early in the morning, while I was alone, the house was quite, and when my mind was fresh and awake, and not contaminated with thoughts and problems of the day. While sitting at my kitchen island, with a fresh cup of hot and highly caffeinated coffee, I was able to really become immersed in Pip's story, and his narration began to make more and more sense. I look forward to reading more great and timeless classics, because like most things, the more you are exposed to them the more normal and recognized they become.

My Tip for this book is stay away from the Knopf Publishing Group version. Within the first day it started falling apart, and by the end of the week my book was in about twenty different sections. If you are like me and love having books around to display, re-read, and share with friends, this will just not suffice. When I bought this book, it was a buy two get one free deal compiled with other classic, and perhaps it is because they are such poor quality. I would suggest investing a little bit more money to get a copy that will endure the passing of hand to hand.

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