‘Great Expectations’

Victoria O’Brien
Desert Island Dispatches

When I first started this column, I touched on the idea that sometimes the works of art we love change with time. Rather, it isn’t the work, but how we receive it having lived more life. I think this is one of the things I’ve always liked best about books — because we bring our own minds and experiences with us when we read, we never read a book the same way the person beside us does and, because of time, we never read the same book twice.
I read “Great Expectations” when I was 13 years old and loved it. I’m not sure Charles Dickens is what most teenage girls go for, but I did: I loved his characters and the moral lessons at the heart of his stories, and “Great Expectations” was my book. When I left home at 18, my copy went into a box, I went about living, and time did what it does.
I found it a couple weeks ago while moving those boxes, sat down and began to reread it for the first time since I was a teenager, remembering how I’d sneak in a chapter before being taken to church by my grandparents or late at night when I should have been sleeping. What I didn’t remember was finding Pip so smug, or recognising the characters who surround him as patronising, classist, or duplicitous. Surely I understood, at 13, that Pip was a bit rude, and surely I understood, at 13, that the people around him weren’t nice, but was it all so plain and visceral then? Probably not. I hadn’t been a smug teenager long enough to be embarrassed of myself, and I hadn’t lived enough life to recognise all the hallmarks of a fake friend, or been used by others for another’s gain yet. At 30, I have all the right experience to see Pip for what he is and know the casual cruelty of the people he spends so much time chasing and emulating. At 57, I expect to laugh a lot about what I thought I knew at 30 just like I cringe at all the horrible things I said and did at 13, but then that’s the point of it all and the book itself. Who would we be, if one thing were changed?
This is a story written at a time when social class was all-important. It concerns itself with the good fortune of an ambitious little boy who is born into poverty and, through the generosity of an anonymous benefactor, raised into the upper echelons of polite society. Pip flounders and struggles, and the lessons he learns over the intervening years are timeless parts of growing up. He must ask himself what makes a man a gentleman: is it money and finery, or is it something more, something deeper? He must ask himself, too, if his dreams were worth his sacrifices, if what he had to start was, in the end, its own kind of heaven, more rare and more real than all he ever wished for.
It’s a sad book (I love sad books), but looking at it with the benefit of hindsight, I see something else in it that I couldn’t articulate at 13, which is my affinity for Pip and how parallel our stories have often proved to be. For these are the things I have learned myself and these are the questions I ask myself now. But for all that has gone not-as-planned in life, I don’t know that I would change it. To start, I’m superstitious — what are the odds I would find and return to this book now? Still more important than that, however: if I could change the past, what might I lose in turn?
One of my favourite passages from Dickens comes from “Great Expectations” and I’ll close with it now: “Imagine one selected day struck out of [your life], and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”