Thursday, July 6, 2017
Why we love this flawed hero
Warning: Plot Spoilers
Great Expectations is one of my favourite Dickens' stories, and Pip is one of my favourite young Victorian gentlemen. The main reason why we cheer for him from page one is pretty obvious.
He's an optimist and a survivor. We love him from the start because he manages to keep thriving in very harsh conditions. The boy himself shows us how guilty he was made to feel for his very existence. Five baby brothers didn't survive infancy, and his adult sister pays him out for being an extra mouth to feed, using physical punishment to emphasise her frustration. Pip reflects, 'I was always treated as if I had insisted on being born, in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, morality, and against the dissauding argument of my best friends.' His forlorn existence makes us want to shout out, 'Yeah, you go, boy!'
But as Pip grows older, Dickens brings out some not so nice aspects of his character. To me, these just add to the reasons why he's so easy to empathise with. Pip is not only to be pitied, he's also flawed and relatable.
He's suggestible. From the day he first meets Estella, Pip lets her shape his self-concept. He falls into the old trap of letting others determine how he sees himself. On their first day together, Estella calls him uncouth and backward, so young Pip immediately accepts that it must be true. He doesn't stop to gauge whether or not she's a sound judge of character. He doesn't consider her critical nature in pointing out his supposed defects with such contempt. He doesn't reason that the things she mentions have nothing whatsoever to do with his worth or character. So what does he do? He goes off crying and feeling terrible, because he has coarse hands and thick boots! But I understand him. Even adults have trouble not getting upset at mean jibes, and Pip was just a kid.
He cares about appearances. For the first chunk of the story, Pip is in no position to be an actual snob, but he's a wannabe snob. He assumes that changing his circumstances to win the approval of the world will boost his personal satisfaction. He admits as much to Biddy, who he's always open with. 'I never can or shall be happy and comfortable unless I lead a very different life from now.' 'Great expectations' is another, more old fashioned way of saying he got a lucky break. Imagine Pip's story being cast in the twenty-first century. I doubt 'The Lucky Break' would have quite the same ring. But sentiments never change from one generation to the next. He wants to stop being a nobody, so maybe then Estella will admire him.
He fools himself into believing his murky motives are noble. Pip learns that we can deceive even ourselves with our selfish decisions. When he visits his old town to see Estella, he decides not to return home to stay with Joe for all sorts of decent sounding reasons. It would be too unexpected, they'd have to find clean sheets and make their food stretch, it'd be better for them if he stayed away. He convinces himself that it's all true, and what a nice, thoughtful guy he is. But deep in his heart, Pip knows the truth. He wants to distance himself from Joe and the old life of drudgery, not to mention it's plain embarrassing to be seen with him. People like Bentley Drummle would sneer at him forevermore. That's another of Pip's revelations. We shun our true friends for the sake of impressing our enemies. It's refreshing to see that one of my favourite characters shares the parts of my human nature I'd rather keep hidden. I love Pip because he allows us to acknowledge our own shadow sides, and that's such a relief.
Of course the best thing about fictional heroes is that they often learn their lesson. They do heroic stuff, and prove that difficult experiences are never wasted.
He gets an epiphany when he believes it's all over for him. Pip is tied up in the bleak marshes on a lonely night, looking down the barrel of Orlick's gun. He sees no hope for himself, and in a flash, he sees clearly what's been most important to him all along. It's his unassuming loved ones, like his dear old brother-in-law Joe Gargery, his BFF Herbert Pocket, and faithful old Abel Magwitch, who Pip now understands was more of a true friend to him than he himself was to Joe. Basically, Pip has a desperate revelation along the lines of, 'My intentions really were all the best, but everything went pear shaped, and it's all my own fault.' I honour him for saying so, especially at such a desperate moment.
His overall character development is so satisfying. That's what I love about coming of age novels. We know there'll be character development because that's the nature of growing up. Pip's takes more of a circular than a linear movement, which I really like. He starts off as a kind, small and humble seven year old. Later he decides he hates being small and humble, so sets out to be worthwhile and noteworthy instead. And he comes to see that his social progression has come at a cost. Keeping up appearances has rubbed the edge off what's really important. So by the end of his story, he's come full circle, content to be obscure, hardworking, humble and kind. I love his gracious response to the penitent Miss Havisham, who really did set out especially to ruin his life.
So hooray Charles Dickens, for creating a hero like Pip. It makes me convinced that he was essentially a decent type of bloke himself, or he could never have pulled it off. If you haven't read it and would like a good classic to get stuck into, I'd recommend it. (Also, see here for some intriguing chat about the ending.)