Friday, January 31, 2014

how strange it was - the Dickens sleight of hand

An English merchant living and working in Egypt, likely in the mummy export business, although he never specifies,  writes the strange story of how he was subject as a child to not just one but three conspiracies.  This is substance of Great Expectations.  We are all victimized by one conspiracy, the one where so-called grown-ups manipulate our lives – force us to go to school, prevent us from doing whatever we want whenever we want – for secret reasons of their own.  But Pip, the narrator, was by bad luck the target of two additional conspiracies that almost ruined him.

As a result of the conspiracies Pip is elevated in social class and has romantic troubles.  He also becomes monstrously self-absorbed, but that is perhaps an ordinary result of adolescence.  Eventually the conspiracies, all three, collapse in on themselves.  The usual childhood conspiracy is escaped by becoming an adult; the others end in rather more exciting ways.  A thrilling boat chase!  What is it with Victorian novelists and boat chases.

The narration of the central mysteries of the novels involves some of the most skillful sleight-of-hand moves I have ever read, invisible upon the first reading, obvious on the second.  Pip never cheats.  But of course he is writing from the distance of many years and knows how the story goes.  He knows the solutions to the mysteries.

See, for example, the penultimate paragraph to Chapter 32.  Young Pip has just visited fragrant Newgate Prison and is about to meet cold, beautiful Estella, the source of his romantic troubles.  At this point, Pip believes that there is only one unusual conspiracy at work.  Yet this is what the older Pip writes:

I consumed the whole time in thinking how strange it was that I should be encompassed by all this taint of prison and crime; that, in my childhood out on our lonely marshes on a winter evening, I should have first encountered it; that, it should have reappeared on two occasions, starting out like a stain that was faded but not gone; that, it should in this new way pervade my fortune and advancement.

Here Pip, and I suppose Dickens, is, a little past the halfway point, directly declaring the solution to the mystery plot but in a way that the first-time reader likely just nods along with Pip – “Yes, that is strange.”  Now, Great Expectations is not actually a mystery novel, meaning that the solution to the mystery will be handed over to the first-time reader two-thirds of the way into the novel, just seven chapters later, since the mystery itself is not all that important.

Still, here we have just one reason that a reread of Great Expectations is so much fun.  The magician is so skilled.

The last paragraph of that chapter is just one line.  It remains mysterious, even on rereading:

What was the nameless shadow which again in that one instant had passed?

It is a mystery to the fictional author.  It is the reason he is writing the book.


  1. The next chapter, 33, Pip and Estella out on the town, is so good - I should have written about it instead.

    "Some ancient trees before the house were still cut into fashions as formal and unnatural as the hoops and wigs and stiff skirts; but their own allotted places in the great procession of the dead were not far off, and they would soon drop into them and go the silent way of the rest."
    Just as an example.

  2. It hasn't been that long since I read Great Expectations, but I have forgotten a lot about it already. What I do remember is the prison theme: the prison ships, the blacksmith's house, Newgate, Miss Havisham's house (a cage for Miss Havisham *and* Estella), Pip's adventure to become a gentleman in London, etc, all prisons of one sort or another. Pip escapes prison by voluntarily transporting himself to Egypt. I wish I remembered more specific imagery from the novel. The opening section in the fens is quite vivid, I recall. Dickens was really good with landscape, especially so with rivers.

    I like the idea of Pip becoming involved in the mummy trade. There's a good bit of fan fiction to be written in that.

    1. I like how you elaborated on the theme of many examples once you think about it.

    2. GE is, come to think of it, the third Dickens novel in a row that is full of prison imagery. He introduces it in bulk in Little Dorrit (1857), continues to explore it in Tale of Two Cities (1859), and keeps going here.

      The idea of what it means to be a gentleman is also a major part of Little Dorrit. Dickens is always revising.

    3. The idea of the gentleman is one of the central themes of Our Mutual Friend, too.

    4. The image of prisons must have been a powerful one for Dickens: it occurs almost unceasingly throught "Little Dorrit", written a few years earlier. "Little Dorrit" is dominated by the Marshalsea, of course, but there are all sorts of prisons: it opens in the quarantine building in Marseilles, a sort of prison. There's a marvellous sequence where Arthur Clennan, sitting in a coffee shop in Ludgate Hill, sees the entire city of London as one vast prison. Clennan's mother, an imaginary invalid, has imprisoned herself in her own house. And (I'm afraid I can't remember the exact point) there's a wonderful moment where the financier Merdle grasps his left wrist with his right hand, as if taking himself into custody (I can't remember the exact words).

      And as you say, "Great Expectations" is full of shades of the prison house closing upon the growing boy...

  3. Criticism is mostly a more efficient fan fiction. Mine is, I mean,

    Dickens must have spent a good deal of time watching the Thames.

    The prison theme is a good one. It links curiously to a garden and greenhouse theme - Newgate is Wemmick's "greenhouse," where he is the gardener. But at home, he is also a gardener, a real one. Miss Havisham's house has, it is specified, an abandoned greenhouse and garden.

    Dickens was just roaring along with this novel.

    1. "Criticism is mostly a more efficient fan fiction." That's my feeling too. De Quincey, writing about Macbeth, has written a mystery, and Woolf, writing about the diaries of two dead men in Two Parsons, has written a tragedy. Beckett, writing on Proust, has written a compressed philosophical novella.

    2. Criticism cuts out all of the phony baloney fake dialogue & gets straight to the good stuff.

  4. I just read somewhere that Dickens hired a boat to take him along the banks of the marshlands so he could better write those opening scenes about the prison break. I imagine he spent a lot of time on the Thames preparing for Our Mutual Friend, too. That's got some terrific river scenes.

    Great Expectations is really dense; so much interconnectedness on each page. I'd love to see his notes for this one.

  5. If it is like his other books, there are almost no notes. It is mostly improvised. But at this point, Dickens is John Coltrane. Or whoever. Franz Liszt. He can set some themes going and then keep them all in play at the rate of 5,500 words per week, every week, with no going back.

    The Penguin edition includes a handy summary of two existing pages of notes titled "Dates," which is mildly useful. Miss Havisham is 40 when the novel begins and 56 when it ends. She is often portrayed older.

  6. Fate?

    I just watched (well a few weeks ago) the latest version of GE with Helena Bonham Carter, and it struck me how much younger she was than all the other versions I've watched, but after from your notes (above) that makes sense given the time frame of the non-wedding and Estelle's emotional grooming.

  7. Boats in Our Mutual Friend, too: well, a boat of the dead.

    Interesting that you're reviewing Great Expectations in view of your name!

    It is, I think, Nick Hornby's favorite. I'm more of an Our Mutual Friend gal, but it's been a few years since I've read GE. Didn't know about the movie.

    Will have to get to GE soon. If only I'd gone to Dickens Universe then...

  8. Helena Bonham Carter has spent a good part of the last 15 years playing grotesques - witches, apes, etc. - but her role as Havisham caught my attention. Isn't she too young? I thought. No, it turns out, not at all. Just right, actually.

    True, Kat, more good boating action in Our Mutual Friend. I am not surprised that GE Is Hornsby's favorite - it is the Dickens novel that is most like a Hornsby novel. Except Hornby's self-involved teens are 30 years old.

    I somehow had never heard of Dickens Universe - OMF this summer! A much better way to spend a vacation than a visit to Dickens World.

  9. There should be more boat chases in modern entertainment! Car chases have become so boring.

  10. Edwardian adventure writers must have thought the reverse - thank goodness for cars! An alternative to those ridiculous boat chases! But we have obviously taken the idea too far. Back to the boats.