Great Explorations

Two of the most famous and influential writers in the English language existed at the same time in London during the Victorian era. The elder writer, too busy churning out new material to satisfy a hungry readership and the demands of his growing family to have actually read the younger writer, had nevertheless probably heard about him. It is quite likely that the younger writer, sympathetic to the themes and politics of the older writer, had embraced many of his novels, particularly the early ones.

Charles Dickens and Karl Marx, the former a prolific and prodigious teller of tales, the latter an academic, a philosopher, an economist, each began with a passion for his subject that grew into a consuming swirl of energy, the literary equivalent of a black hole. Marx is well known for “Das Kapital,” a study of capitalism that posited the focus on product at the expense of the worker. Workers, he argued, were vulnerable forces in the battle of productivity; they had been, were being, and would continue to be exploited. These views led Marx toward a manifesto for a classless state. Similar views, but ones less forged in academic theory, led Dickens to a wide range of novels that are read and, indeed, reread to this very day.

It is the rare literate Western reader who has no experience with the works of Charles Dickens, nor is it likely for the literate Western to have read and favored only one novel by Charles Dickens. My own preference is “Great Expectations,” written in 1860, toward the end of his energetic and prolific career. No other of his works is so well organized, is quite so plausible, and with the possible exception of “David Copperfield,” so acutely draws on events from Dickens’s life. Although many of Dickens’s novels – “Hard Times,” for example – embark upon and exploit what we could consider Marxist themes – “Great Expectations” effectively demonstrates class structure and differences through an effective series of reversals and revelations.

Nearly 150 years after its publication, “Great Expectations” remains a nearly unrivaled example of first-person narrative. Pip, a young boy from the working class, nurtures dreams of becoming a gentleman, a man of property. His major reason for such dreams is that he might impress Estella, the manipulative and attractive young ward of Miss Havisham, a wealthy eccentric. Having apprenticed himself to his blacksmith brother-in-law, Pip is miserable and conflicted in his working class lot, his few comforts being his fondness for his brother-in-law, his admiration for Biddy, the plain-but-likeable servant girl who clearly adores him, and his ongoing commitment to improving himself through learning.

Used to writing his novels in serial installments for magazines, Dickens by this point in his career was well able to manipulate plot lines and agendas, expertly planting bits of information and social commentary, then bringing them forth with full dramatic flourish. In many of his earlier novels, Dickens was more forceful than deft, more driven by a sense of social injustice than the desire to exploit the more sophisticated aspects of human nature. Certainly he was more apt in his earlier work to satirize social and professional types than he was to present his characters as more plausible eccentrics. “Great Expectations” is the culmination of a lifetime of writing and of understanding a basic law of dramatic composition – every character believes and acts as though he were right. The reader accepts without question the appearance of the lawyer whom Pip met once at Miss Havisham’s home, further joining Pip in the belief that the great expectations of wealth and position, which are now to be his, have come from Miss Havisham. The reader will go on to believe with Pip that marriage to Estella is also a part of the design.

Pip goes forth to enjoy his newfound position, having been freed from the legalities of his apprenticeship, thanks to Dickens’s deft hand-changing from a likeable and sensitive young man to a priggish fop, now imbued with a growing sense of entitlement.

The relevance of “Great Expectations” for the social circuitry of our times can be seen through a comparison with a TV series now in its fifth season, owing some debts direct and indirect to Dickens. Set in Baltimore, a medium-sized metropolis, “The Wire” shrewdly uses an ensemble cast to portray political and social strata. This season in particular, with a heavy focus on four 13-year-old boys whose prospects for meaningful advancement in school and society are severely at stake, “The Wire” dramatizes, as Dickens dramatized, the minefield existing between the affluent and the working class. As Dickens did, “The Wire” too emphasizes the potentials inherent in an effective education process. Although propagandistic, both “The Wire” and Dickens are rendered with enough shrewdness and dramatic oversight to recognize the difference between screed and story.

Yet another modern example of effective Dickensian touch is seen in the novels of Carl Hiaasen, a Florida-based journalist whose literary skills and imagination are hard put to keep up with his observations of contemporary behavior. In a lovely calculus in which life imitates art, Hiaasen has produced a quirky dramatis personae to rival such favored Dickens types as Sam Weller, Uriah Heep and Seth Pecksniff. “Great Expectations” has its own eccentrics, its villains, and its flawed protagonists.

This novel, every bit as vibrant and observant now, is an entry in the highly favored category of the bildungsroman, the coming-of-age novel in which a young woman or man, racing toward maturity and guaranteed to fall perilously in the bog of puberty, engages our readers’ heart by virtue of the struggle and the goal. Of course, Dickens, through sheer energy, virtuosity, and competitiveness, imparted a bildungsroman spirit to all of his works. Indeed, his attempts in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” to outdo his friend Wilkie Collins, proved fatal and he died not yet 60, still trying.

Pip’s discovery of the identity of his benefactor, his resolve to return to his old life and propose marriage to Biddy, and his return to the unbridled esteem in which he held his brother-in-law represent a significant and splendidly dramatic coming of age in the most dramatic and human terms. Most modern editions of “Great Expectations” will contain an ending Dickens was put upon to write, a sentimental and more politically correct one. But modern editions will contain the ending Dickens settled upon as being most apt. “Great Expectations,” going on 150 years, and still a novel to cherish.