Great Expectations: 47th 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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From Little Britain I went, with my check in my pocket, to Miss Skiffins's brother, the accountant; and Miss Skiffins's brother, the accountant, going straight to Clarriker's and bringing Clarriker to me, I had the great satisfaction of concluding that arrangement. It was the only good thing I had done, and the only completed thing I had done, since I was first apprised of my great expectations.
Clarriker informing me on that occasion that the affairs of the House were steadily progressing, that he would now be able to establish a small branch-house in the East which was much wanted for the extension of the business, and that Herbert in his new partnership capacity would go out and take charge of it, I found that I must have prepared for a separation from my friend, even though my own affairs had been more settled.
Painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner, oil on canvas, c 1842.
And now, indeed, I felt as if my last anchor were loosening its hold, and I should soon be driving with the winds and waves.
But there was recompense in the joy with which Herbert would come home of a night and tell me of these changes, little imagining that he told me no news, and would sketch airy pictures of himself conducting Clara Barley to the land of the Arabian Nights, and of me going out to join them (with a caravan of camels, I believe), and of our all going up the Nile and seeing wonders.
Without being sanguine as to my own part in those bright plans, I felt that Herbert's way was clearing fast, and that old Bill Barley had but to stick to his pepper and rum, and his daughter would soon be happily provided for.
We had now got into the month of March. My left arm, though it presented no bad symptoms, took, in the natural course, so long to heal that I was still unable to get a coat on. My right arm was tolerably restored; disfigured, but fairly serviceable.
On a Monday morning, when Herbert and I were at breakfast, I received the following letter from Wemmick by the post.
"Walworth. Burn this as soon as read. Early in the week, or say Wednesday, you might do what you know of, if you felt disposed to try it. Now burn."
When I had shown this to Herbert and had put it in the fire—but not before we had both got it by heart—we considered what to do. For, of course my being disabled could now be no longer kept out of view.
"I have thought it over again and again," said Herbert, "and I think I know a better course than taking a Thames waterman. Take Startop. A good fellow, a skilled hand, fond of us, and enthusiastic and honorable."
I had thought of him more than once.
"But how much would you tell him, Herbert?"
"It is necessary to tell him very little. Let him suppose it a mere freak, but a secret one, until the morning comes: then let him know that there is urgent reason for your getting Provis aboard and away. You go with him?"
It had seemed to me, in the many anxious considerations I had given the point, almost indifferent what port we made for,—Hamburg, Rotterdam, Antwerp,—the place signified little, so that he was out of England. Any foreign steamer that fell in our way and would take us up would do. I had always proposed to myself to get him well down the river in the boat; certainly well beyond Gravesend, which was a critical place for search or inquiry if suspicion were afoot.
As foreign steamers would leave London at about the time of high-water, our plan would be to get down the river by a previous ebb-tide, and lie by in some quiet spot until we could pull off to one.
The time when one would be due where we lay, wherever that might be, could be calculated pretty nearly, if we made inquiries beforehand.
Herbert assented to all this, and we went out immediately after breakfast to pursue our investigations. We found that a steamer for Hamburg was likely to suit our purpose best, and we directed our thoughts chiefly to that vessel.
But we noted down what other foreign steamers would leave London with the same tide, and we satisfied ourselves that we knew the build and color of each. We then separated for a few hours: I, to get at once such passports as were necessary; Herbert, to see Startop at his lodgings.
British passport issued in 1860
We both did what we had to do without any hindrance, and when we met again at one o'clock reported it done. I, for my part, was prepared with passports; Herbert had seen Startop, and he was more than ready to join.
Those two should pull a pair of oars, we settled, and I would steer; our charge would be sitter, and keep quiet; as speed was not our object, we should make way enough.
We arranged that Herbert should not come home to dinner before going to Mill Pond Bank that evening; that he should not go there at all to-morrow evening, Tuesday; that he should prepare Provis to come down to some stairs hard by the house, on Wednesday, when he saw us approach, and not sooner; that all the arrangements with him should be concluded that Monday night; and that he should be communicated with no more in any way, until we took him on board.
These precautions well understood by both of us, I went home.
On opening the outer door of our chambers with my key, I found a letter in the box, directed to me; a very dirty letter, though not ill-written. It had been delivered by hand (of course, since I left home), and its contents were these:—
"If you are not afraid to come to the old marshes to-night or to-morrow night at nine, and to come to the little sluice-house by the limekiln, you had better come. If you want information regarding your uncle Provis, you had much better come and tell no one, and lose no time. You must come alone. Bring this with you."
I had had load enough upon my mind before the receipt of this strange letter. What to do now, I could not tell. And the worst was, that I must decide quickly, or I should miss the afternoon coach, which would take me down in time for to-night. To-morrow night I could not think of going, for it would be too close upon the time of the flight. And again, for anything I knew, the proffered information might have some important bearing on the flight itself.
If I had had ample time for consideration, I believe I should still have gone. Having hardly any time for consideration,—my watch showing me that the coach started within half an hour,—I resolved to go.
I should certainly not have gone, but for the reference to my Uncle Provis. That, coming on Wemmick's letter and the morning's busy preparation, turned the scale.
It is so difficult to become clearly possessed of the contents of almost any letter, in a violent hurry, that I had to read this mysterious epistle again twice, before its injunction to me to be secret got mechanically into my mind. Yielding to it in the same mechanical kind of way, I left a note in pencil for Herbert, telling him that as I should be so soon going away, I knew not for how long, I had decided to hurry down and back, to ascertain for myself how Miss Havisham was faring.
I had then barely time to get my great-coat, lock up the chambers, and make for the coach-office by the short by-ways. If I had taken a hackney-chariot and gone by the streets, I should have missed my aim; going as I did, I caught the coach just as it came out of the yard. I was the only inside passenger, jolting away knee-deep in straw, when I came to myself.
For I really had not been myself since the receipt of the letter; it had so bewildered me, ensuing on the hurry of the morning. The morning hurry and flutter had been great; for, long and anxiously as I had waited for Wemmick, his hint had come like a surprise at last.
And now I began to wonder at myself for being in the coach, and to doubt whether I had sufficient reason for being there, and to consider whether I should get out presently and go back, and to argue against ever heeding an anonymous communication, and, in short, to pass through all those phases of contradiction and indecision to which I suppose very few hurried people are strangers.
Still, the reference to Provis by name mastered everything. I reasoned as I had reasoned already without knowing it,—if that be reasoning,—in case any harm should befall him through my not going, how could I ever forgive myself!
It was dark before we got down, and the journey seemed long and dreary to me, who could see little of it inside, and who could not go outside in my disabled state. Avoiding the Blue Boar, I put up at an inn of minor reputation down the town, and ordered some dinner. While it was preparing, I went to Satis House and inquired for Miss Havisham; she was still very ill, though considered something better.
My inn had once been a part of an ancient ecclesiastical house, and I dined in a little octagonal common-room, like a font.
Illustration by John McLenan, 1861 edition.
As I was not able to cut my dinner, the old landlord with a shining bald head did it for me. This bringing us into conversation, he was so good as to entertain me with my own story,—of course with the popular feature that Pumblechook was my earliest benefactor and the founder of my fortunes.
"Do you know the young man?" said I.
"Know him!" repeated the landlord. "Ever since he was—no height at all."
Illustration by by F. A. Fraser, 1876 edition.
"Does he ever come back to this neighborhood?"
"Ay, he comes back," said the landlord, "to his great friends, now and again, and gives the cold shoulder to the man that made him."
"What man is that?"
"Him that I speak of," said the landlord. "Mr. Pumblechook."
"Is he ungrateful to no one else?"
"No doubt he would be, if he could," returned the landlord, "but he can't. And why? Because Pumblechook done everything for him."
"Does Pumblechook say so?"
"Say so!" replied the landlord. "He han't no call to say so."
"But does he say so?"
"It would turn a man's blood to white wine winegar to hear him tell of it, sir," said the landlord.
I thought, "Yet Joe, dear Joe, you never tell of it. Long-suffering and loving Joe, you never complain. Nor you, sweet-tempered Biddy!"
"Your appetite's been touched like by your accident," said the landlord, glancing at the bandaged arm under my coat. "Try a tenderer bit."
"No, thank you," I replied, turning from the table to brood over the fire. "I can eat no more. Please take it away."
I had never been struck at so keenly, for my thanklessness to Joe, as through the brazen impostor Pumblechook. The falser he, the truer Joe; the meaner he, the nobler Joe.
My heart was deeply and most deservedly humbled as I mused over the fire for an hour or more. The striking of the clock aroused me, but not from my dejection or remorse, and I got up and had my coat fastened round my neck, and went out.
I had previously sought in my pockets for the letter, that I might refer to it again; but I could not find it, and was uneasy to think that it must have been dropped in the straw of the coach. I knew very well, however, that the appointed place was the little sluice-house by the limekiln on the marshes, and the hour nine. Towards the marshes I now went straight, having no time to spare.