Monday, May 01, 2006

Expectations Exceeded

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, Read by John Lee, Books on Tape, Inc., 2002

I have to admit, to my great shame, that I first encountered Dickens’ story as a modern day film adaptation starring Ethan Hawke and Gwynneth Paltrow. It was a beautifully shot movie with virtually no memorable sequences save Paltrow disrobing for a portrait painted by Hawke’s Pip (made Finn for the film). I was rather certain that a great number of liberties had been taken with the plot (not just the setting, etc.) but what I was really certain was that the major element of the plot was new.

Well, you could have bowled me over with a feather to find out that sweet little Mr. Dickens actually did write a character vicious enough to raise a girl to be heartless in love to get revenge for her own sufferings. Great Expectations is considerably darker than most of the other Dickens’ works I’ve read save for certain rather terrible parts of Nicholas Nickleby. Something about the plot, even knowing that the book’s publication post-dated the splendidly wicked Wuthering Heights, seemed far too modern for those days. I’d always kind of understood the name Miss Havisham to refer to a kind of heartless person, made so by past hurts, but it remained this vague and tenuous association.

Dickens had been, for quite some time, on a list of writers who early exposure to had filled me with revulsion even for their names. Each successive book I read obliterates one more brick or so in the wall I’ve built up against the man, yet there remains still a residual flinching of my interest when a book of his finds its way to me. If the dreadful Hawke and Paltrow vehicle had any positive impact, it was in nudging me closer to reading the source material.

Part of what made Great Expectations such a stunning novel was that I’d come to expect a certain kind of book, a Dickensian story, filled with all the bizarre comic relief characters and the exaggerated types that populated the rest, and, instead, the novel left most of that alone. There also was left out the rather heavy handed polemical qualities of books like Nickleby and Oliver Twist, where Dickens is advocating against orphanages and badly run schools.

Sure, there are fanciful caricatures and Dickens is unable to not to speak out on behalf of the poor and oppressed, but it is more muted in this book, less the message and simply part of the story. Uncle Pumblechook is a devilishly fun portrait of a man who wishes to take credit for everything even remotely connected to him that turns to success; Drummle captures the vicious, unthinking cruelty of the upper classes that Dickens abhorred; and Biddy, as the total opposite of Estella, is almost one-dimensionally good, noble, and kind. What’s quite pleasant is that none of these characters are too broadly and easily drawn and none are major characters of any note. They may have their chapters of prominence, but they don’t rise to major character status as a Fagin or Wackford Squeers.

Miss Havisham, the vendetta bearing old maid, jilted by her fiancĂ©, eventually does come to understand the sting of the cruelty she has created for the rest of the world in the character of Estella. While Havisham might come across a bit thin, long on the revenge, short on humanity, the scene where she herself is rebuffed by Estella after demanding the girl love her has a bitter ring of at last uncovering a long understood truth. She had created her own monster and wept that the monster didn’t thank her for it. You actually feel sorry for the bitter crone at that moment.

Since Great Expectations is a bildungsroman, we get to see quite a bit of Pip as he grows to maturity. He may be rather slight himself, in that he’s almost too perfect at times, idealistic to a fault, forgiving past all endurance, but there are great insights into a child’s mentality when he speaks of his earliest youth. There are few enough novelists, especially for Dickens’ time, who can so particularly capture the curious nature of a child’s mind, the strange mistakes in terminology and logic, and in Pip the author nails this curious age perfectly. Not without faults, Pip, in his ignorance, often behaves according to how he thinks a “type” should behave, such as his high-hat treatment of Joe and Biddy when Pip returns to the Kent marshes. It’s unlearning this kind of handed down “wisdom” that is Pip’s greatest achievement, as he comes to understand in spite of his rise in the world that it is just his inner goodness itself that is of inestimable value.

Estella too learns that lesson by the novel’s end, though she was less fully developed in my lights. Partly this is because she had been made such a mechanistic “heartless creature” by Miss Havisham, and even all her warnings to Pip to this effect don’t undercut that she has been raised with one goal in mind, to cruelly break some man’s heart. That she does this, then has it done to her, is supposed to be her lesson; this reads less as natural character growth than as a theoretical mirror for Pip’s learning experiences. That functional quality cheapens her power a little.

If there were any character that made the most favorable impression on this reader it was the dual-natured Wemmick, as scurrilously a sarcastic type in his professional life as ever there was, but a sweet charmer in private. Even through his most biting public pronouncements there is always peeking through that home-nature of his, that cherubic lover of life quality. This tender clerk’s best moment comes in this scene near the book’s end when he’s out walking with his friend, the narrator:

We went towards Camberwell Green, and when we were thereabouts, Wemmick said suddenly:
“Halloa! Here’s a church!”
There was nothing very surprising in that; but again, I was rather surprised, when he said, as if he were animated by a brilliant idea: “Let’s go in!”
We went in, Wemmick leaving his fishing-rod in the porch, and looked all round. In the mean time, Wemmick was diving into his coat-pockets, and getting something out of paper there.
“Halloa!” said he. “Here’s a couple of pair of gloves! Let’s put ‘em on!”
As the gloves were white kid gloves, and as the post-office was widened to its utmost extent, I now began to have my strong suspicions. They were strengthened into certainty when I beheld the Aged enter at a side door, escorting a lady.
“Halloa!” said Wemmick. “Here’s Miss Skiffins! Let’s have a wedding.”

This little scene unlocks Wemmick as a romantic who’s outside is merely the mask he uses to hide his vulnerable insides. That the other characters could learn a thing or two from how gentle even his outer side is would be a good thing all around.

John Lee reads this straightforwardly in a rich English cadence that runs through a gamut of accents and vocal inflections without ever a question as to how he’s doing it so beautifully. His commanding performance comes right to you, gentle as need be, but forceful when necessary.

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