Saturday, February 1, 2014

now dogs, now cats, now pigs, now men - a parade of unwritten posts about Great Expectations

Pip is writing Great Expectations long after its events, maybe thirty-five years from the first scenes and twenty years from the end of Chapter 58.  Some of this is explicit, some I am inferring.

Thus Pip’s ironic tone towards his own life story.  He has achieved some critical distance.

So many problems are solved by this device.  In many earlier novels, Dickens has trouble creating interesting, non-stereotypical heroines.  He has trouble with heroes, too, but it takes him longer to figure out what to do with idealized, too-virtuous women.

But when Pip idealizes the perfect, wise Biddy, I am learning something not about the limitations of Charles Dickens but about the psychology of Pip.  It makes sense for Pip to make Biddy perfect, or, in particular, to always make her sound like an adult even when she is nine years old.  Maybe that is how Pip remembers her.  Maybe that is how he wants to remember her.

Similarly for the idealized father-figure Joe, who admittedly also has a lot more personality; similarly for the idealized (quite differently idealized) Estella.  Pip is telling the story his way.  And see that quotation about Biddy and the black-currant leaf, just the kind of action that gives the illusion that the character has a life outside the book.

Dickens writes a character a certain way in the third person and it is a flaw.  He writes her the exact same way in the first person and it is clever.  Yes, that’s right.

A new problem is created: why is Pip such a good writer?  Like the other Dickens first person narrators, David Copperfield and Bleak House’s Esther Summerson, Pip is not quite as good a writer as Charles Dickens, but he is still awfully good.  Scott Bailey has been writing about the case of Bleak House, where he works on the difference between Esther and “Dickens.”  This is the one place in Great Expectations where I really have to suspend my disbelief.  But it is a familiar problem.

I do not remember third-person Dickens spending too much time with the dreams of his characters, but both Pip and Copperfield (also writing in distant retrospect) report their own.  Here is fourteen year old Pip on the eve of leaving his family to be educated in London:

All night there were coaches in my broken sleep, going to wrong places instead of to London, and having in the traces, now dogs, now cats, now pigs, now men – never horses.  Fantastic failures of journeys occupied me until the day dawned and the birds were singing.  Then, I got up and partly dressed, and sat at the window to take a last look out, and in taking it fell asleep.   (Ch. 19)

Pretty strange, like a Breughel painting.  At the end of Chapter 31, Pip dreams that he has to “play Hamlet to Miss Havisham's Ghost, before twenty thousand people, without knowing twenty words of it.”  There are some other examples.  This might have made a good blog post.

Here is the core of another post I thought about writing: Great Expectations is a straightforward parody of the “benevolent patron” device that Dickens has leaned on since The Pickwick Papers (1836), where a jolly rich fellow swoops in and fixes whatever can be fixed at the novel’s end.  Dickens has been undermining his own device since Bleak House, where he is more subtle about it, but by the time of Great Expectations the mine has apparently been dug and it is time to fill it with gunpowder  and demolish the benevolent patron for good.

I guess I will wait to write that post after the next time I read Bleak House.  For this one, the credit goes to Dickens, not Pip. 


  1. Since I always see Copperfield as a stand-in for Dicken's I'd assumed he grew up to be a writer of some sort. I've probably felt the same about Pip while reading Great Expectations. Esther is an interesting point. I'm going to play through and read the Scott Bailey article you link to. It's an interesting question.

    But why shouldn't Esther be a good writer? She always struck me as the sort of young woman who would be more than capable of writing her own story. I confess, It's been a long time since I read Bleak House. Is there something in her that makes it uncharacteristic for her to write a book?

  2. You raise such a good question regarding Pip and other Dickens protagonists being such good writers.

    It has been a while since I read Great Expectations, but I am thinking that it is more believable talent in Summerson then it is with Pip. I think this way due to Esther's sensitive yet precise personality might lead to such ability.

  3. David Copperfield is a writer - a novelist, although he writes triple deckers, not serials. This is explicit in the text. If Pip becomes a writer, it would have to be in the 7 years or so between the end of the novel and the composition of GE. Possible but if so Pip keeps it a secret.

    The key issue, though is not Esther Summerson or the others should not be good writers. No no no. It is that they should not be as good as they are. They are almost as good as Charles Dickens.

    Perhaps the difference of opinion is as characterized by Brian, who seems to believe that a world-class style is simply a matter of talent. It is true, all of these narrators (and Nick Carraway, and Charles Kinbote, and Ellison's Invisible Man, and etc.) all turn out to be hugely talented.

    Esther Summerson's text is the least likely to be so well written - this is an aside - because of its purpose, not because of the writer. Given what she is asked to do - clear up her role in a police matter - she really overdoes it. Which is psychologically interesting.

  4. It is perhaps a convention (challenged by, I think, "The Good Soldier") that first person narrators should be good narrators. One finds this in "Wuthering Heights", say, where Nelly Dean, the narrator for most of the novel, speaks not only correct English (unlike the other servants who speak in dialect), but has a novelist's eye for the significant detail, and can pace and structure her narrative with tremendous sophistication. Similarly when Isabella narrates her experiences in the long letter: she narrates very well - far better than we might have expected her to do. We no more object to this than we object to every character in a novel by Austen or by James being tremendously articulate.

    The interesting point you raise is that Pip is *almost* as good a writer as Dickens - *almost*. It's not that Pip is foolish, or imperceptive (as is the narrator of "The Good Soldier"): on the contrary, Pip is perceptive, and writes well; but we are, nonetheless, allowed to look beyond Pip's narrative, and see what Pip can't *quite* see for himself. This really is tremendously sophisticated, isn't it?

  5. Well, I object, I object to all of it. No free passes. But I am a true Fordist.

    I believe that Dickens switched to first person in David Copperfield in order to tamp down his own style. There are places in Dombey and Son and in that crazy "Haunted Man" Christmas book where the style had become too thick, like a self-parody. First person acted as a thinner, or as a safety valve, or whichever metaphor I am on now.

    But of course then Dickens kept going, developing the first person instrument, perfecting it.

    It is possible that older Pip, Writer Pip, in fact does see the things that younger Pip can't see for himself, but is now too much of a ironist to say so directly.

    1. Ha ha! Have you considered subtitling this blog "No Free Passes"?

      Much to consider here. I like your idea that Dickens turned to first person narrative to keep in rein a style that was threatening to run out of control.

      Also, if, as you suggest, Older Pip, the writer, is presenting with irony the adventures of Younger Pip, the protagonist, then that seems to me to add extra resonance to that enigmatic final sentence. An optimistic reading of that sentence would suggest that Pip and Estella do indeed come together beyond the final pages. But it could just as well be that the Older Pip is commentig ironically, and even bitterly, at Younger Pip's inability to see, even after all that he had been through. He could not see the shadow of another parting from her? When had he ever been able to see *anything*? And with this, we touch upon the emotions of the Older Pip as well as those of the Younger.

    2. Exactly - although it is still ambiguous what Older Pip sees. He could say directly. He does not.

  6. If the old timey novelists were dragged down by the Scylla of their characters speaking or writing at a level beyond what we should rationally expect of them, our post-everything contemporary wits crash against the opposite Charybdis, to wit:

    My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name… I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother. Father used to dub me Shapka, for the fur hat I would don even in the summer month. He ceased dubbing me that because I ordered him to cease dubbing me that. It sounded boyish to me, and I have always thought of myself as very potent and generative. I have many many girls, believe me, and they all have a different name for me. One dubs me Baby, not because I am a baby, but because she attends to me. Another dubs me All Night. Do you want to know why? I have a girl who dubs me Currency, because I disseminate so much currency around her. She licks my chops for it.

  7. Are you saying Perchov's Ukrainglish is actually better writing than what Foer is normally capable of? That is, as the kids say, or used to say, harsh.

    And it might be true; i was certainly the best part of that novel.

  8. Yes sir. You got that right! It's hard to believe that a good but middle of the pack writer like Foer (no offense meant), by trying to write something ridiculously over the top (who'd think that in English the opposite of hard is flaccid instead of easy?) could surpass his normal level of writing.

    On a side note, allegedly, there's a huge precedent for a book which started as a joke ending up being great. Some scholars have claimed that the Gospel according to Mark was written as a prank, using as its basis a collection of Cynic's sayings. It was intended to seem clumsy, unbelievable and unmanly, so that it would be clear to educated Roman and Greek male readers that the whole thing was just a joke on a little sect of foreigners, women and slaves. If this theory is true, and I seriously doubt it, well, the joke's very much on the pagan pranksters.

  9. It is a fine Borgesian story at least. Just telling the story makes it true.

  10. I enjoyed this one very much--the thread is as appealing as the post. The whole business of how clever a word-spinner a narrator ought to be is infinitely interesting, especially since the whole business of realism (if a book was able to be entirely realistic, surely it would be or replace reality) is in question.

    You didn't talk so much about Copperfield, but I think that's a curious book--a great success for some hundreds of pages while he lets David go free but then tainted by Dickens the man creeping in, closer and closer, with his ideas about a "proper" school (no doubt due to his own distress about his schooling) and ideal women and so on dictating events and forcing him to do things like toss fallen women to Australia (where they and theirs can succeed wonderfully) and revel in a baby-woman, etc. Well, I haven't read it in eons, but memory says that I would like to take a knife to the book and lop off a good portion.

  11. Why thanks.

    I wrote a little David Copperfield series way back in 2010, so I apparently just wrote here as if every possible reader had read those posts. I need to learn to repeat myself more, to just say the same thing over and over again and be more repetitive.

    No one likes the Copperfield women. They are a drag. But - now here is my defense - remember who is likely to read Copperfield's work, I mean his memoir. That is right, his wife Agnes. Of course she is a perfect angel. Of course the previous baby-wife was unbearable and a mistake. What else is he going to write? What choice does the man have?

  12. Hah, hah! Point taken and swallowed. Well, a man ought to stop writing the story at the point when they make him go to a "proper" school because becoming proper is going to ruin everything...

    Shall look at those later... My nose is stuck to the grindstone.

  13. Well, those posts are more or less like these, except for the stuff about Proust.

    Dickens becomes increasingly skeptical about the idea of the "gentleman." I was not really thinking of that when I read Copperfield. I wonder if the schooling stuff is related. Dickens often writes about whatever was weak or soft-headed in his previous novels.