Great Expectations: 10th Installment
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By the time Charles Dickens put pen to paper to begin his 13th and penultimate completed novel there was indeed ample reason for Great Expectations.
Although he hadn’t pioneered the serialized novel, Dickens certainly popularized the form and his expectant audience now ranged far beyond the shores of his native Great Britain. The plot line he later called “a very fine, new and grotesque idea” centers around the dingy marshes of Kent and London in the early to mid-1800s but the novel’s themes of wealth and poverty, love and rejection and the eternal battle between good and evil relate to readers everywhere and ensured the book’s enduring popularity.
Seen through the eyes of an orphan named Pip, the world often seems a very scary place, bleak with convicts, prison ships and bloody violence. It’s not like the dark deeds creep up as a great surprise - the story famously opens in a grim graveyard where our hero barely escapes with his young life.
Along the way we meet colorful characters such as the eccentric Miss Havisham, Estella, the icy beauty and escaped convict Abel Magwitch who have long cemented themselves into popular culture. Pip’s wide-eyed observations ensure that he - and the reader - are never down for long.
The first installment of Great Expectations was published on December 1 1860 in Dickens’ weekly magazine All The Year Round and was serialized until August of the following year. The short chapters and the mathematical structure reflect the way it was published in stages to keep readers satisfied with complete stories within a story while thirsting for more. There are three key stages - Pip’s childhood and his dreams of escaping poverty, his life in London having received an inheritance through a mystery benefactor and his disillusionment at discovering the grand life he had sought was not all it was cracked up to be - and these in turn are further divided up into 12 parts or roughly equal length, making the novel’s structure “compactly perfect,” according to George Bernard Shaw.
The novel is a Bildungsroman, a coming of age story focusing on the moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood, a genre that encompasses such classics as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and much more recently, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
Dickens was persuaded to change his original ending to offer Pip a more hopeful future but literary critics and readers are split over the decision. In NoteStream’s new 21st Century serialization, Book Club members will get to choose which one they like best.
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My mind grew very uneasy on the subject of the pale young gentleman.
The more I thought of the fight, and recalled the pale young gentleman on his back in various stages of puffy and incrimsoned countenance, the more certain it appeared that something would be done to me. I felt that the pale young gentleman's blood was on my head, and that the Law would avenge it.
Without having any definite idea of the penalties I had incurred, it was clear to me that village boys could not go stalking about the country, ravaging the houses of gentlefolks and pitching into the studious youth of England, without laying themselves open to severe punishment.
For some days, I even kept close at home, and looked out at the kitchen door with the greatest caution and trepidation before going on an errand, lest the officers of the County Jail should pounce upon me.
The pale young gentleman's nose had stained my trousers, and I tried to wash out that evidence of my guilt in the dead of night.
I had cut my knuckles against the pale young gentleman's teeth, and I twisted my imagination into a thousand tangles, as I devised incredible ways of accounting for that damnatory circumstance when I should be haled before the Judges.
When the day came round for my return to the scene of the deed of violence, my terrors reached their height.
Whether myrmidons of Justice, specially sent down from London, would be lying in ambush behind the gate; —whether Miss Havisham, preferring to take personal vengeance for an outrage done to her house, might rise in those grave-clothes of hers, draw a pistol, and shoot me dead:—whether suborned boys—a numerous band of mercenaries—might be engaged to fall upon me in the brewery, and cuff me until I was no more;—it was high testimony to my confidence in the spirit of the pale young gentleman, that I never imagined him accessory to these retaliations; they always came into my mind as the acts of injudicious relatives of his, goaded on by the state of his visage and an indignant sympathy with the family features.
However, go to Miss Havisham's I must, and go I did.
And behold! nothing came of the late struggle. It was not alluded to in any way, and no pale young gentleman was to be discovered on the premises. I found the same gate open, and I explored the garden, and even looked in at the windows of the detached house; but my view was suddenly stopped by the closed shutters within, and all was lifeless.
Only in the corner where the combat had taken place could I detect any evidence of the young gentleman's existence. There were traces of his gore in that spot, and I covered them with garden-mould from the eye of man.
On the broad landing between Miss Havisham's own room and that other room in which the long table was laid out, I saw a garden-chair,—a light chair on wheels, that you pushed from behind. It had been placed there since my last visit, and I entered, that same day, on a regular occupation of pushing Miss Havisham in this chair (when she was tired of walking with her hand upon my shoulder) round her own room, and across the landing, and round the other room.
Over and over and over again, we would make these journeys, and sometimes they would last as long as three hours at a stretch.
I insensibly fall into a general mention of these journeys as numerous, because it was at once settled that I should return every alternate day at noon for these purposes, and because I am now going to sum up a period of at least eight or ten months.
As we began to be more used to one another, Miss Havisham talked more to me, and asked me such questions as what had I learnt and what was I going to be? I told her I was going to be apprenticed to Joe, I believed; and I enlarged upon my knowing nothing and wanting to know everything, in the hope that she might offer some help towards that desirable end.
But she did not; on the contrary, she seemed to prefer my being ignorant. Neither did she ever give me any money,—or anything but my daily dinner,—nor ever stipulate that I should be paid for my services.
Estella was always about, and always let me in and out, but never told me I might kiss her again.
Sometimes, she would coldly tolerate me; sometimes, she would condescend to me; sometimes, she would be quite familiar with me; sometimes, she would tell me energetically that she hated me. Miss Havisham would often ask me in a whisper, or when we were alone, "Does she grow prettier and prettier, Pip?"
And when I said yes (for indeed she did), would seem to enjoy it greedily.
Also, when we played at cards Miss Havisham would look on, with a miserly relish of Estella's moods, whatever they were.
And sometimes, when her moods were so many and so contradictory of one another that I was puzzled what to say or do, Miss Havisham would embrace her with lavish fondness, murmuring something in her ear that sounded like "Break their hearts my pride and hope, break their hearts and have no mercy!"
There was a song Joe used to hum fragments of at the forge, of which the burden was Old Clem. This was not a very ceremonious way of rendering homage to a patron saint, but I believe Old Clem stood in that relation towards smiths.
It was a song that imitated the measure of beating upon iron, and was a mere lyrical excuse for the introduction of Old Clem's respected name.
Thus, you were to hammer boys round—Old Clem! With a thump and a sound—Old Clem! Beat it out, beat it out—Old Clem! With a clink for the stout—Old Clem! Blow the fire, blow the fire—Old Clem! Roaring dryer, soaring higher—Old Clem!
One day soon after the appearance of the chair, Miss Havisham suddenly saying to me, with the impatient movement of her fingers, "There, there, there! Sing!" I was surprised into crooning this ditty as I pushed her over the floor.
It happened so to catch her fancy that she took it up in a low brooding voice as if she were singing in her sleep.
After that, it became customary with us to have it as we moved about, and Estella would often join in; though the whole strain was so subdued, even when there were three of us, that it made less noise in the grim old house than the lightest breath of wind.
What could I become with these surroundings? How could my character fail to be influenced by them? Is it to be wondered at if my thoughts were dazed, as my eyes were, when I came out into the natural light from the misty yellow rooms?
Perhaps I might have told Joe about the pale young gentleman, if I had not previously been betrayed into those enormous inventions to which I had confessed.
Under the circumstances, I felt that Joe could hardly fail to discern in the pale young gentleman, an appropriate passenger to be put into the black velvet coach; therefore, I said nothing of him. Besides, that shrinking from having Miss Havisham and Estella discussed, which had come upon me in the beginning, grew much more potent as time went on. I reposed complete confidence in no one but Biddy; but I told poor Biddy everything.
Miss Lily Elise, Author Unknown
Why it came natural to me to do so, and why Biddy had a deep concern in everything I told her, I did not know then, though I think I know now.
Meanwhile, councils went on in the kitchen at home, fraught with almost insupportable aggravation to my exasperated spirit.
That ass, Pumblechook, used often to come over of a night for the purpose of discussing my prospects with my sister; and I really do believe (to this hour with less penitence than I ought to feel), that if these hands could have taken a linchpin out of his chaise-cart, they would have done it.
The miserable man was a man of that confined stolidity of mind, that he could not discuss my prospects without having me before him,—as it were, to operate upon,—and he would drag me up from my stool (usually by the collar) where I was quiet in a corner, and, putting me before the fire as if I were going to be cooked, would begin by saying,
"Now, Mum, here is this boy! Here is this boy which you brought up by hand. Hold up your head, boy, and be forever grateful unto them which so did do.
Now, Mum, with respections to this boy!"
And then he would rumple my hair the wrong way,—which from my earliest remembrance, as already hinted, I have in my soul denied the right of any fellow-creature to do,—and would hold me before him by the sleeve,—a spectacle of imbecility only to be equalled by himself.
Then, he and my sister would pair off in such nonsensical speculations about Miss Havisham, and about what she would do with me and for me, that I used to want—quite painfully—to burst into spiteful tears, fly at Pumblechook, and pummel him all over.
In these dialogues, my sister spoke to me as if she were morally wrenching one of my teeth out at every reference; while Pumblechook himself, self-constituted my patron, would sit supervising me with a depreciatory eye, like the architect of my fortunes who thought himself engaged on a very unremunerative job.
In these discussions, Joe bore no part. But he was often talked at, while they were in progress, by reason of Mrs. Joe's perceiving that he was not favorable to my being taken from the forge.
I was fully old enough now to be apprenticed to Joe; and when Joe sat with the poker on his knees thoughtfully raking out the ashes between the lower bars, my sister would so distinctly construe that innocent action into opposition on his part, that she would dive at him, take the poker out of his hands, shake him, and put it away. There was a most irritating end to every one of these debates.
All in a moment, with nothing to lead up to it, my sister would stop herself in a yawn, and catching sight of me as it were incidentally, would swoop upon me with, "Come! there's enough of you! You get along to bed; you've given trouble enough for one night, I hope!" As if I had besought them as a favor to bother my life out.
We went on in this way for a long time, and it seemed likely that we should continue to go on in this way for a long time, when one day Miss Havisham stopped short as she and I were walking, she leaning on my shoulder; and said with some displeasure,— "You are growing tall, Pip!"
I thought it best to hint, through the medium of a meditative look, that this might be occasioned by circumstances over which I had no control.
She said no more at the time; but she presently stopped and looked at me again; and presently again; and after that, looked frowning and moody. On the next day of my attendance, when our usual exercise was over, and I had landed her at her dressing-table, she stayed me with a movement of her impatient fingers:—
"Tell me the name again of that blacksmith of yours."
"Joe Gargery, ma'am."
"Meaning the master you were to be apprenticed to?"
"Yes, Miss Havisham."
"You had better be apprenticed at once. Would Gargery come here with you, and bring your indentures, do you think?"
I signified that I had no doubt he would take it as an honor to be asked.
"Then let him come."
"At any particular time, Miss Havisham?"
"There, there! I know nothing about times. Let him come soon, and come along with you."
When I got home at night, and delivered this message for Joe, my sister "went on the Rampage," in a more alarming degree than at any previous period.
She asked me and Joe whether we supposed she was door-mats under our feet, and how we dared to use her so, and what company we graciously thought she was fit for?
When she had exhausted a torrent of such inquiries, she threw a candlestick at Joe, burst into a loud sobbing, got out the dustpan,—which was always a very bad sign,—put on her coarse apron, and began cleaning up to a terrible extent.
Not satisfied with a dry cleaning, she took to a pail and scrubbing-brush, and cleaned us out of house and home, so that we stood shivering in the back-yard.
It was ten o'clock at night before we ventured to creep in again, and then she asked Joe why he hadn't married a Negress Slave at once? Joe offered no answer, poor fellow, but stood feeling his whisker and looking dejectedly at me, as if he thought it really might have been a better speculation.