Sunday, May 27, 2012

In which I learn a lesson about wanting things. (Sundays With The Classics)

Be careful what you wish for.

I think that's the moral of Great Expectations. I finished the part today where Pip goes back to Miss Havisham's with Estella, and there he sees them get into a fight -- the only fight he's ever seen them have-- when Miss Havisham reproaches Estella for not loving her, and Estella points out that Miss Havisham raised her to be incapable of loving, and so should not take it the wrong way when Estella loves nobody.

In the end, Miss Havisham's heart is going to get broken again: she adopted Estella and raised her to get revenge on men, and wanted Estella to love only her, but Estella can't even do that.

Be careful what you wish for.

Pip wished, of course, for riches, to be a gentleman, to be in a position where he might win Estella and have a life of ease and reading and ribald nights of toasting to the ladies with the Finches, and he got that, delivered to him by his uncle Provis, the returned Abel Magwitch, coming back to risk death just to see the gentleman he raised.

Again, I'm kind of amazed at how gothic Great Expectations is.  I watch comedies these days and I think to myself how thin of a line separates comedy from tragedy.  There was an episode of The Big Bang Theory last week that I watched and in it, Sheldon is at first scared by a blue jay that lands outside his window, and then he's more scared when the jay gets into his apartment.  He calls the girls over and they point out to him that the blue jay is tame and he grows to like it, only to have it then escape when he opens the window.  At the end of the show, he's brought the bird's nest in and plans on hatching the eggs himself to have a new friend.

Read that a certain way, and you'll be crying.  The show was very funny, and yet I recognized the entire time I was watching it how sad it really was.

There's a scene in Stranger in a Strange Land where Valentine Michael Smith goes to the zoo and watches the monkeys.  A monkey finds something, a banana or something and is about to enjoy it when a larger monkey comes and steals the thing.  The deprived monkey gets upset and goes and beats up a smaller monkey.

And Valentine Michael Smith starts laughing uncontrollably, and says that humans laugh at pain, laughing, maybe, so we don't cry.

Try watching a comedy once and paying no attention to the laugh lines, and see if it isn't one of the saddest things you've ever watched.

That's kind of what's going on with Great Expectations: there is comedy, to be sure, but it's all so very sad and the sadness isn't even well-hidden.  Pip's entire family is dead, his sister most recently felled after a unsolved attack.  Pip's best friend is poor and would remain so if Pip didn't help him out.  He's in love with a woman who was raised by a deranged madwoman.

And the parts that aren't sad are actually quite frightening, or would be: Great Expectations is kind of like the Fall of the House Of Usher or other tragedies of manners.  Part of the scene I read today saw Pip spooking around Satis House in the middle of the night, watching Miss Havisham go on her ghostly, ghastly rounds -- and then being unable to find his way out, he sleeps the night in the dark hallway, listening to her ramblings.

Be careful what you wish for, though, is my theme tonight, and in the book, a part that Pip drives home through repeating a story that the reader was apparently expected to be well-acquainted with. 

In the Eastern story, the heavy slab that was to fall on the bed of state in the flush of conquest was slowly wrought out in the quarry, the tunnel for the rope to hold it in its place was slowly carried through the leagues of rock, the slab was slowly raised and fitted in the roof, the rope was rove to it and slowly taken through the miles of hollow to the great iron ring. All being made ready with much labour, and the hour come, the sultan was roused in the dead of night, and the sharpened axe that was to sever the rope from the great iron ring was put into his hand, and he struck with it, and the rope parted and rushed away, and the ceiling fell. So, in my case; all the work, near and afar, that tended to the end, had been accomplished; and in an instant the blow was struck; and the roof of my strong hold dropped upon me.

 And the roof of my strong hold dropped upon me; having built his palace, he was killed by it.  But what Eastern Story is Pip talking about?

Apparently, it's the Tale of Genji, called by some people the first modern novel,  but I wasn't able to find in the summary where the heavy slab comes in.  Whatever the story was, Dickens' readers were assumed to know it, because he didn't have Pip say "Boy, I'm like that Sultan in Tale of Genji," he just had to reference it and people would get it. 

So I'm up to the part where Pip has just confirmed with Jaggers that Miss Havisham never had anything to do with his coming into property; he knew it, he believed Abel Magwitch/Uncle Provis, but he wanted to try to check anyway, in hopes that maybe this was all a big trick, and I keep thinking not only be careful what you wish for, but kind of also that Pip really, really really is unlikeable. 

I've spent a long time believing that Pip was this nice guy, the little kid on the marshes who bolted his bread and helped out the conwict and all, but reading this book from a perspective of a 43-year-old, I can see I was wrong.

Yes, Pip's got this albatross around his neck: Provis/Magwitch intends to stay and Pip has to hide him and Pip might even get in trouble for harboring him and if he's caught he dies, and sure, in Pip's time it wouldn't have been great to get your money from a returned felon, but still, I couldn't help thinking, as Pip was being horrified into a sleepless night when Abel first shows up, Man, Pip is a real bastard.

So now, one of my treasured memories of literature-- Pip = Nice guy -- has been destroyed, all because I thought I'd re-read Great Expectations.

Say it with me...


PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

I remember reading a book once where I kept laughing inappropriately because it was either that or be really depressed.

Andrew Leon said...

I don't really remember thinking Pip was a nice guy. I remember thinking that's what happens when things are just given to you.

I think if you look at lottery winners, you see the same kind of things.

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