Great (Thwarted) Expectations

Choosing to read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations now of all times felt satisfyingly ironic. After all, my expectations for this season of life have been consistently frustrated. Like Pip, the novel’s protagonist, I spent the last year building grand, beautiful, ambitious plans only to have them come crashing down in painful succession.

In reading Great Expectations, I found myself continually annoyed by Pip, for he is a blank-slate personality. For the greater part of the novel, his character is completely absorbed in his relationships and ambitions. From his obsessive love for the cold-hearted Estella to his wholesome friendship with Herbert to his ashamed attitude toward his uneducated guardian, Joe, Pip’s entire character seems to be solely informed by his relationships with others. Apart from them, he does not appear a dynamic or overly engaging character.

As the novel goes on, however, each of these other characters develops alongside and apart from Pip, forcing him back to himself. Rejected by Estella, Pip is forced to discover his identity apart from an unhealthy, consuming romance. Excelled by Herbert, Pip works for him in a position below his previous ambitions. Weakened physically by the emotional weight of his many disappointments, he relies upon Joe’s care as he did as a child.

In order to avoid spoilers, I will not reveal the greatest thwarted expectation of them all. It is safe to say, though, that every expectation upon which Pip hung his hat is completely shattered. Indeed, while his story appears to be that of an orphan coming into the happiness of wealth, it takes a sharp downward turn which continues until the very end. The title, Great Expectations, is thus poignantly ironic. Each seemingly-fortunate plot twist is disappointed, each endeavor turned to a surprising end, and Pip is beaten down back into the humility with which his story began.

I easily read myself in Pip’s first-person narration, alternately feeling his buoyant hopes and sinking despair. Perhaps, though, Pip’s story is not so very tragic. Indeed, there may be a hint of comedy in the ending, for he finally grows into himself. Had he continued in his fortune, ignorance, and well-meaning pride, he never would have reached contentment. Unlike the rich man of great expectations we encounter in the Gospels, Pip goes away and sells all he had. He puts himself at the mercy of a dear friend, and learns to live humbly, quietly, and—ultimately—happily.

“Many a year went round…I lived happily…and lived frugally…We were not in a grand way of business, but we had a good name, and worked for our profits, and did very well. We owed so much to [my friend] Herbert’s ever cheerful industry and readiness, that I often wondered how I had conceived that old idea of his inaptitude, until I was one day enlightened by the reflection that perhaps the inaptitude had never been in him at all, but had been in me.”

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

It is not until Pip surrenders and humbly accepts what comes to him—after a 600 page journey of discontent and frustration, of course—that he achieves not only contentment but true character. Although by means of tragedy, in the manner of a true comedy, Pip finds himself and his place in society. Only through thwarted expectations does he become his own person; only through utter failure does he find happiness in moderate success.

Although not shown explicitly, Estella, too, undergoes a transformation via frustration. Meeting Pip in the final pages, she seems an older and wiser woman; she has lost the sheen of arrogance and beauty, but, in its place, demonstrates a more admirable strength and dignity.

“The freshness of her beauty was indeed gone, but its indescribable majesty and its indescribable charm remained. Those attractions in it, I had seen before; what I had never seen before, was the saddened softened light of the once proud eyes; what I had never felt before, was the friendly touch of the once insensible hand.”

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

The final chapter presents an intimate scene of contented friendship where once frustrated romance reigned. This resonated so strongly with my heart, for in the simplicity of this scene, the beauty of thwarted expectations is at last revealed. It is perhaps not often that we see this in our own lives until much later on. I do not know, for instance, what opportunities await me in a place I did not expect to be, nor what friendships may grow from the softness of a battered heart.

Reading Great Expectations within a relatively brief period of time, however, reminds me that I cannot now know what will be the scope of my existence, the arc of my life. I can read ahead to the end of Pip’s story, but I cannot yet know the future of my own. I can, however, find solace in Estella’s words:

“…suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.”

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Perhaps it is not that Pip’s expectations were too great to be fulfilled but, rather, that they were not great enough. Perhaps his wisened friendship is more desirable than his tempestuous relationship. Perhaps his honest work is better than a gentleman’s debt. Perhaps the comfort of coming home again and of becoming at home in oneself is more fulfilling than desiring all the world and the prestige of society.

In any case, it seems that Pip’s thwarted expectations were, if not for the greater, for the better. I can only hope and trust that the same will be true of my own.

Unmasking Cognitive Dissonance

It is difficult lately to know which contemporary issue to address. Every morning, I wake to discover another potential disaster. (Today, it was the threat of “meth-gators,” which thankfully do not seem to be a likely threat as I’m pretty sure Steve Irwin would have been the only person capable of dealing with that.)

Today, my hometown mandated mask-wearing in public places and the uproar I’ve perceived—particularly within conservative circles—is frankly astonishing. I myself have an assortment of masks which make me feel like the world’s most floral-printed robber whenever I go to Costco, and I like to think that I’m making the best of it. My concern here, however, is not COVID-19, but cognitive dissonance. Mask-wearing is not the core issue here, but merely another manifestation of the deeper problem of human selfishness.

In more liberal crowds, I’ve seen the phrase “My Body, My Choice” recycled to support an individual’s decision regarding whether or not to wear a mask in public. However, I’ve seen people of the same liberal worldview declare that this mantra does not apply when that person’s choice might put another’s life at risk.

Pro-life advocates will readily see the irony here. (After all, it is human nature to see the flawed logic of the other side.) If total bodily autonomy is not ethical if it harms others, how can we condone abortion, especially beyond the point of viability? If it is not “my body, my choice” in this instance, why is it in another, when the death of a vulnerable human being is not accidentally infected but intentionally terminated?

Vulnerability is another point worth emphasising here. It seems a thing of the not-so-distant past to excuse ourselves from mask-wearing by insisting that only the medically vulnerable are actually at risk. If we are truly caring for “the least of these” in society—as current cultural movements, as well as a Christian ethic of neighbourly love advocate—this ought to move us to exercise even greater caution.

On the left, submitting to mask-wearing in order to protect the vulnerable is an act of great kindness, however, it is also an act of incredible irony. If caring for the vulnerable at the cost of our own bodily autonomy does not extend also to the most biologically vulnerable (e.g. the unborn, the newborn, the differently-abled, and the elderly) then this act of humility and respect toward others represents a cognitive dissonance worth careful consideration.

Now, as I’ve said before, it is remarkably easy to point out the logical fallacies of those with whom you disagree. However, it is vitally important to honestly consider the irrationality and flawed thinking of those with whom we more closely align. Until we examine our own cognitive dissonance, we can achieve neither harmonious dialogue nor rational disagreement.

I have observed many conservatives express anger that mask-wearing has been mandated. The irony here is that the very people who are most often pro-life are, in fact, exercising the same harmful autonomy which they claim to oppose. I am not here to debate the science or effectiveness of mask-wearing. It seems, though, that the refusal or reluctance to wear masks as demonstrated by certain conservatives is evidence of an underlying cognitive dissonance.

Another point worth considering is modesty. Many conservatives advocate dressing with a certain degree of propriety. A popular argument for the fittingness of this is that modesty is considerate of others who may find revealing clothing distracting or discomfiting. For the sake of consistency, these same people ought to endorse mask-wearing as covering-up out of consideration for others’ comfort and well-being.

I turn my attention now to conservative Christians in particular, who hold scripture as their moral authority and yet are subject to the same desire for autonomy as all of fallen humankind.

We all desire freedom, individuality, and comfort. While the Christian Gospel proclaims liberation from sin, is does not preclude liberation from civic and communal responsibility. Indeed, Jesus preaches submission to authorities and humility toward others, except in the case of moral wrong; unless government mandates would force us to harm our neighbour or renounce our Lord—and thus to break the two greatest commandments—we are not to oppose them. Put simply, Christianity does not provide political rights but, rather, bestows spiritual fruits; we are not promised autonomy or luxury, but are instead granted love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

In a way, Christians might adopt the phrase “My Body, My Choice,” inversely. If we are members each of the Body of Christ, our choices impact one another seriously and intimately, and we are called to love our weaker members as ourselves. Whether or not we find mask-wearing effective is irrelevant; what matters is whether or not we make serving our neighbours a priority. I wrote a year or so ago on the “radical” love of 1 Corinthians 10-11, in which Paul advises members of the Church to abstain from certain foods if they cause another member to struggle. The food itself was amoral—neither good nor bad—but caring for others through was and is essential.

The same approach might be taken with masks, which are—in and of themselves—amoral, though much-debated. Refusing to wear a mask in spite of the ethical or physical well-being of others, however, becomes an act of selfishness. Were Paul alive today, I have no doubt that he would wear a mask. To cling to our assumed “right” to wear or not wear a mask is to arrogantly disregard the humility and compassion to which we are called as believers. Regardless of whether or not going without a mask puts others at risk, is it really worth risking our Christian witness to rebel in anger against such a minor inconvenience?

As usual, my only hope with this article is to encourage you, dearest Reader, to honestly examine first yourself and then the culture which surrounds you. I am in no way innocent of irrationality, though I hope that together we can work to combat the cognitive dissonance which creeps into our reasoning, regardless of parties, positions, or preconceptions. Most of all, I hope that we will graciously challenge each other to think critically and to act considerately.

Dear Mr. Potter: An Open Letter on Cancel Culture

Mr. H. Potter
The Cupboard under the Stairs
4 Privet Drive
Little Whinging
Surrey

Dear Mr. Potter,

We at the Ministry of Magic are writing to inform you of a significant occurrence of which it is imperative that you be informed. To put it bluntly, you are now thrice-orphaned.

The passing of your heroic father and mother, Lily and James, is a loss we still mourn here at the Ministry; their deaths represent a sacrifice—a light which guided us through dark days and which continues to inspire us in the growing chaos of this new era.

Now, it is with great sympathy that we must inform you that not only are you parentless, but also author-less. Your single authoress, who so confidently created and raised you and, in so doing, broke ground for women, single parents, and abuse survivors, has been caught in the crossfire of a spell which we never expected to see used in our modern, educated era: the dreaded ignorare vim extermina curse.

While we are all no doubt aware of the evils of the banned avada kedavra curse—we apologise for even having penned it!—the ignorare vim extermina is even worse. While the former leads to bodily death, the latter enacts a sort of “cancellation,” in which the victim is erased from culture but not from existence. It is perhaps similar to the effect of dementors—those horrid soul-sucking beasts which are only unleashed on the worst of criminals. Worse, though, your Author is allowed to keep her soul and her body, she has been denied the exercise of her voice, mind, and pen; she has suffered the most devastating of vanishing spells.

Just think, Mr. Potter, how cruel the fate of an Author who is denied the freedom of her pen! It is worse than having your wand snapped and your tongue tied by a misused hex. You must accept our sincerest condolences.

Doubtless this is terrible news for you; we are assured, however, that although your Author is suffering the cancellation curse, you will be permitted to continue managing mischief as usual. The perpetrators of the ignorare vim extermina spell are, as of now, willing to spare you, though we advise you to exercise extreme caution. One ill-quilled Howler will no doubt send you into oblivion as well. As awful as it is to be thrice-orphaned, it would be undoubtedly worse to also be obliterated.

We want also to leave you with the final words of your dear Author, penned just before she was miraculously erased from societal recognition:

“It would be much easier to tweet the approved hashtags . . . scoop up the woke cookies and bask in a virtue-signalling afterglow. There’s joy, relief, and safety in conformity.”

Clearly, although conformity would be the easy choice, your dearly-disappeared Author is choosing to uphold the courage which she sought to imbue in her children, her characters, and her many beloved readers. Now, we at the Ministry are not entirely sure what “tweets” and “hashtags” are, but believe them to be similar to posting on the Hogwarts notice boards or sending messages via owl. Regardless, we hope that these words encourage you, restoring you to the moral of your own story: to be as courageous as a Gryffindor, as kind as a Hufflepuff, as discerning as a Ravenclaw, and as determined as a Slytherin.

We again express our deepest regrets for having to be the bearers of bad news, but we are choosing to trust that, as your dear Professor Dumbledore once said, “Happiness can be found in even the darkest of times, if you remember to turn on the light.”

Perhaps your Author will return. Perhaps her words will prove stronger than the magic erasers of a culture of cancellation. Until then, Harry, remember to turn on the light.

Yours Regretfully and Respectfully,

Ryanne McLaren

Literary Representative
Phoenix Division, Ministry of Magic
Ravenclaw Class of 2015