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.