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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Pip Comes Home Like Truth... Dickens and Hypergraphia

A lot has been written about Pip as a likable character. As a matter of fact, all the research I've done in my reading of "Great Expectations" yields very little (actually close to nothing) regarding Pip as an unlikeable character, or a self-centered, selfish, etc. persona. It is so perhaps because he speaks to us, and about us. Who hasn't at one time or another felt that the whole world is looking down on us from a high place, and that the worst of our actions are continuously put to trial by unyielding judges. I think early on Pip is aware of this fact--that his actions are, for better or worst, being judged continuously. Who could possibly live like that? And yet we all seem to have managed to survive that terrible age of indecision and loss. Here's a passage of Pip's torture:

Conscience is a dreadful thing when it accuses man or boy; but when, in the case of a boy, that secret burden co-operates with another secret burden down the leg of his trousers, it is (as I can testify) a great punishment. The guilty knowledge that I was going to rob Mrs. Joe--I never thought I was going to rob Joe, for I never thought of any of the housekeeping property as his--united to the necessity of always keeping one hand on my bread and butter as I sat, or when I was ordered about the kitchen on any small errand, almost drove me out of my mind. Then, as the marsh winds made the fire glow and flare, I thought I heard the voice outside, of the man with the iron on his leg who had sworn me to secrecy, declaring that he couldn't and wouldn't starve until to-morrow, but must be fed now. At other times, I thought, What if the young man who was with so much difficulty restrained from imbruing his hands in me should yield to a constitutional impatience, or should mistake the time, and should think himself accredited to my heart and liver to-night, instead of to-morrow! If ever anybody's hair stood on end with terror, mine must have done so then. But, perhaps, nobody's ever did?

And it really doesn't end there. Pip moves on to his episode with Ms. Havisham at her estate gives entry to Pip's most challenging interlude (a crast understatement, since this is the entire plot line... delayed a bit, perhaps, but masterfully introduced by Dickens). Meeting Estella is another example of the excruciating part of our own personal growing pains. The things we do for that early crush of love, how seemingly unaccountable we think we are... how it is readily dismissed as "puppy love." I felt that pain written all over Pip's face... reading this story has been an experience, really. Ms. Havisham cross-examines Pip about Estella: "Is she pretty... do you find her proud, nice, etc.? Do you wish to come back, if not then, do you think you can deal without seeing Estella again? I mean, didn't you just say she was pretty? Then why not see her again?" Ms. Havisham strikes me dead, really, because I knew (or may even know presently) people like her. It is Pip's young pride that is hurt in the end, and his reaction to Estella's behavior makes me think of those early days of tormenting emotions:

She [Estella] came back, with some bread and meat and a little mug of beer. She put the mug down on the stones of the yard, and gave me the bread and meat without looking at me, as insolently as if I were a dog in disgrace. I was so humiliated, hurt, spurned, offended, angry, sorry,--I cannot hit upon the right name for the smart--God knows what its name was,--that tears started to my eyes. The moment they sprang there, the girl looked at me with a quick delight in having been the cause of them. This gave me power to keep them back and to look at her: so, she gave a contemptuous toss--but with a sense, I thought, of having made too sure that I was so wounded-- and left me. But when she was gone, I looked about me for a place to hide my face in, and got behind one of the gates in the brewery-lane, and leaned my sleeve against the wall there, and leaned my forehead on it and cried. As I cried, I kicked the wall, and took a hard twist at my hair; so bitter were my feelings, and so sharp was the smart without a name, that needed counteraction.

Pip comes home like truth, like a chain of memories wrapped around one's neck. They just won't go away... run away and hide all you want, Pip... it just won't stop. Which brings me to the other issue: Charles Dickens is a master because of his ability to sustain a story like this one. Critics who presently challenge his inclusion into the Canon say he is "too easy to read," or "not challenging enough." I think that's like something I heard while in Graduate School about how John Steinbeck is not taught at the college level because "he is over-done in high school." I found this to be an insulting reason for keeping an author out of the Cannon or the classroom altogether. At any rate, the other sort of critic claims that Dickens' ability to sustain a story for this long has nothing to do with mastery or genius, but more to the fact that he--Dickens--got paid by the word. I'd admit there might be a certain truth to that, but you still have to write the story and make it real, make it relevant and not repetitive or lacking in focus. Was it hypergraphia (a mental condition that makes people write profusely, a claim leveled at Dostoevsky, among other Classic authors)? I am still trying to determine that. At any rate, off to do some more reading (and writing, and grading, and class prep, and....)

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