Friday, October 15, 2010

Great Expectations: Revisiting a classic through a religious lens.

I wrote this little ode to my favourite Dickens novel quite some time ago. However, I knew that I wanted to post about Great Expectations at some point because one of my very favourite bloggers happens to be dusting off old classics and reading them for her Everything Old is New Again Challenge. I am jumping the gun: the binary reading of GE with Jack Maggs by Peter Carey isn't slated 'til next week. I have read all of the books she is partaking in for her challenge but Great Expectations remains my favourite and while I had shared of it on my other blog, it was as of yet uncharted territory here:

In the 19th century ( my niche and the subject of my degree), books were published with a high sense of morality: sunday school readers and children's verse and adult cautionary tales which drove home the same bleak and brimstone ideas as predecessing days of chap books and loose pamphlets. In fact, as long as there has been print, I think we can safely say that Christians have tried to devise a way to spread the Gospel to the masses--- through the filter of the written word. Some parable, some philosophical, sermon, epistolary, Biblical commentary and history..... we Christians have a long written tradition to meet our thriving oral and musical one.

The wonderful thing about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and living a lifestyle completely driven by Christian thought is your happily tainted eyes seem to find kernels of Christianity everywhere. You wear rose-coloured glasses that tip your mind's eye in a way privvy to any and all: symbolism, threads of grace, morality, Biblical reference, allegory, etc., that lead you back to the One who propels you forward.

Lucky for this Christian, I have the very great fortune of finding said Grace throughout my favourite era of literature.

Wholly conscious or not, the Victorians were steeped with Christian ideals and their literature is veritably drenched in it....

which brings me to the subject of
Great Expectations: a novel where threads of Grace are far more prominent through my rose-coloured glasses than the romance between a blacksmith's apprentice and the cold Estella; the illusory value of riches and the Cinderella-yarn of a young man coming into his own. No, Great Expectations always brings me closer to God because it is, above all, a novel of unconditional love.

Unconditional love is first represented through Joe Gargery: narrator Pip's brother-in-law: a simple and good-natured blacksmith. When Pip is a child, Joe explains to him why he decided to marry Pip's harsh sister and take on a family not quite his own. He explains how he immediately thought of the orphaned Pip left to be raised by his sister and knew that he could find a place for both of them. Constantly reminded of the treacherous way in which his abusive father treated him and his mother, Joe is willing to atone his father's past wrongs by embracing Pip and his sister. Pip mentions looking up to Joe " in his heart" as he deciphers that he was the main reason for Joe's marriage to his cruel and abusive sister.

As Pip grows up and starts to visit Miss Havisham's, his view of Joe changes. The callous Estella: brought up to wreak havoc on the male sex, drives Pip with negative force. First, Pip develops a disdain for his life at the forge and Joe's work and for his home : a place once sanctified by Joe, as Pip recalls, but now a reminder of his shamefully low circumstance.

When Mr. Jagger's informs Pip that he is a young man of great expectations, Pip far too eagerly leaves Joe and new housekeeper Biddy to establish himself in London. On one occasion when Joe visits Pip in London, we see for the first time the ramifications of Pip's wealth and status. Pip treats Joe abysmally and Joe bears it like a saint. At the end of a tragically awkward meeting, Joe tells Pip inasmuch as it is a pleasure to see him anywhere, he knows that their social circumstances are severed. He cannot blame Pip for his treatment of him because he believes it is a relationship now welded by societal norms.

As far as his love for Pip ..... it remains unchanged. It even remains unchanged when Pip returns for his sister's funeral --- choosing the Blue Boar in his hometown as lodging rather than the home of his youth with widower Joe. Pip's airy promise to visit often prompts Joe to show unabashed affection. No matter how ungrateful Pip is, Joe will never scorn him or turn him away.

Perhaps the most Christianized ( if I may pen a word) segment of the novel occurs near the end. Pip has discovered the benefactor of his great expectations and been driven to near-ruin and heavy debt. All of his friends have deserted him and he lays deep in an encumbered illness... lugubrious prospects awaiting him when he awakes.

Joe, of course, becomes Pip's steadfast companion and nurses him through the illness. Further still, hardworking Joe ( for whom money and life are hard come by due to the nature of his occupation) has willingly paid all of Pip's debts; debts accumulated by money squandered on seeming propriety and wealth.

The second testament of unconditional love is not as innocent and pure as Joe's love for Pip. It is instead proven by Pip for the oft unworthy Estella. Pip first meets Estella when he is ordered to attend Miss Havisham at Satis House: an instrument for her masochistic amusement. Rejected by a man on her wedding day, Miss Havisham has brought up Estella as a mechanization of destruction. Estella, beautiful and proud, will break hearts and afflict the same suffering Miss Havisham endured.

Pip falls hard for Estella as a boy...perhaps for no other reason than that she represents a life so beyond the one laid out for him as a blacksmith.

In fact, all of Pip's actions ( good and not so good ) are borne of something relating to Estella. Estella first inspires Pip to rethink the way he was brought up when she scolds him for calling knaves "jacks". From there, Pip knows that his life at the forge will never be good enough for a girl of Estella's pedigree.

When Pip learns of his great expectations he becomes blinded by his (false) assumption that Miss Havisham is prepping him as a life mate for her ward, Estella. Pip's ingratitude toward Joe and his extravagant lifestyle and blatent snobbery burgeon out of Pip's need to make Estella love him.

While Estella is far from perfect: cold, callous, heartless and more stone than woman , Pip loves her unconditionally. Even when Estella becomes engaged to Bentley Drummle ( a suitor as hopelessly detached from emotion as she), Pip waits in the sidelines for a turn of events.

Unconditional love is a theme oft explored in theology, in Christian fiction, in the Bible and in secular fiction. However, its resonance as a Christian principle remains intact in a book published more than a century ago.

I think the conviction at the novel's core stems from Pip's treatment of Joe and Joe's treatment of Pip---good-hearted and true. In turn, Pip's steadfast love for Estella in spite of Estella's inability to feel warmth or care.

When Joe pays Pip's debts and refuses to hear anything about how they were accredited, I am always reminded of intrinsic Christian theology. There is nothing in the world that Pip can do that would make Joe love him less----- a continual reminder of Christ's sacrifice and his unconditional love for us.

1 comment:

Kailana said...

I really need to reread Great Expectations!