Yesterday I completed reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations as part of my reading challenge to read 16 books that have most impacted my life.
I will say, that while it was a lovely to re-read this book, the experience was slightly dulled down by the fact that I read it in my Virginia apartment rather than in the flat I resided in London back in 2011. Turns out, reading Great Expectations – which largely takes places in London – is a little more fun to read when you’re actually in London.
One of the reasons I love reading so much, is the depth of connection you find within someone else’s words. It never fails to give me a zing of thrill when I come across a story, a sentence, or even a brief phrasing that strikes me so particularly. In such moments, all boundaries and constraints that divide myself from the writer dissolve away and I feel pulled by an inextricable connection to that individual and creator. The fact that I may know nothing about that person is superfluous and for some reason only further strengthens my appreciation for what they have created and its ability to transcend time and all other boundaries.
Charles Dickens, I believe, is such a beloved author for being able to strike this feeling within so many people, across so many decades of time. While my very first experience with this novel was largely unrememberable, my second and now third read through have struck quite a hit.
I first came into contact with Great Expectations when I was a freshman in high school, but I have almost not recollection of that encounter. However, when I found it listed as the first book of my syllabus in British Literature, I was thrilled to commence my experience abroad in London with Dickens as my guide.
About the book (can skip if you’ve read the book):
First published as a serial in Dickens’ weekly periodical from 1860 to 1861, Great Expectations is a story centered around the orphan Pip and traces his life from its meager beginnings as well as his ardent efforts to become a gentleman. As a young boy, Pip is invited to the eccentric Miss Havisham’s manor – Satis House – where he meets the beautiful, but terribly cold-hearted Estella. Through her disdainful remarks and jeering reproaches, Pip begins to see his life with shame and becomes desperate to climb out of his common status.
Several years later, Pip receives a large gift from an anonymous benefactor, immediately freeing him from the life he disavows and allowing him to commence his education to become the gentleman he believes he must become. However, it is a much more complicated journey than that, as things are not as they seem. It does, however, become clear that this is not so much a Cinderella story, but rather a story about moral redemption.
Reaction at age 20:
When I arrived in London in the fall of 2011, I was about a month out from the collapse of my relationship with my mother who had told me not to return home after I announced that I was going to attend a family gathering on my father’s side.
For years I had taken on the role of counselor and supporter for my mother, long trying to quell her meltdowns and attempting to create an atmosphere of stability with an adamance of loyalty. Despite my keen and resolute efforts, that summer I had begun to splinter under her increased tone of derision. When that final storm plowed through, I no longer had the emotional adhesive or conviction to hold on; and so I did as I was told. I did not return home.
Unsurprisingly, a cloud continued to hover over me in those initial weeks and months as I began to figure out what my life would now be without my mother’s unyielding and belittling presence.
It would seem, my study abroad program in London was perfectly placed. Almost like a pause, my time in London gave me the space away from my parents and family to come to terms with what had just occurred, without the confusion of other opinions to blockade my own. Stepping into Great Expectations as my first tour guide not only allowed me to see the city through Dickens’ literary lense, but it also touched parts of my own story that began the processes of self-reflection.
When I read this novel about 7 years ago, I was most struck by the storyline surrounding Miss Havisham’s coachining of her adopted protege, Estella, to ensnare the attention of men so that she may in turn break their hearts. As a result of her own heartbreak, Miss Havisham lives frozen in the past; she remains in the yellowed wedding gown she adorned many decades ago, stays in a room with the decomposed, pest infested cake, with clocks that no longer track time.
A peculiar backdrop for any child to grow up in.
As a result of this rearing, Estella is presented as equal in beauty and coldness. Like Pip, I was both put off by her prejudice, mockery, and rude disdain for those of she deemed less, while also intrigued by her aloof and snarky qualities. Throughout their interactions, Miss Havisham gleefully goads Pip into enamoration of Estella while urging her to maintain his awe so that she may some day reject him with brutality.
(Not the best parenting on record)
Yet, ultimately, the very teachings Miss Havisham instilled in Estella ultimately took a stronger, more resilient hold of the girl than she wanted. In the scene that most captivate me, Miss Havisham becomes aghast when the monster she created is just as heartless towards her as the many men she was trained to abuse. In response Estella says:
“I am what you have made me. Take all the praise, take all the blame; take all the successes, take all the failure; in short, take me (page 304).”
It is not surprising to me now that this relationship, and most specifically, this moment, gave me pause and stood out most prominently when I read Great Expectations in 2011. I was in the very early stages of coming to terms with how my mother had treated me and was still sorting through the many distorted and delusional perspectives she had raised me on.
But more than anything, this moment captured for me a sentiment that I, like Estella, felt. How could it be that after years and years of altering myself and adjusting my behaviors to my mother’s specifications, that she could be so dismissive of the person that I had become? I was all that she had ever requested and had sold so much of my own identity away to better suit what she found appropriate or worthy. Yet, in the end, what she saw in me was not what she wanted.
I can see this situation clearer now that I’m about 7 years past, but I can still feel that ache in my stomach from when I read this passage back in 2011. I did not know then how much healing was going to come and how much growing would take place. It was all still so fresh and I had no idea if I would remain stuck in heartbreak like Miss Havisham, or if I would ever be fully free of it all.
I read what I needed to at that time. And I do believe it was an experience that allowed me to begin to see things in a true manner. Not to say that it caused some astonishing and instantaneous emotional healing, but it may have nudged me forward to get there.
Reaction at age 27:
Today, I see a very different story than the one I read back in 2011. I recall not particularly liking Pip towards the end of his story and having little compassion for the challenges he ultimately faces. Yet, now I see how deeply shame played into his experiences and how it manifested into truly devastatingly transformative ways. At 27, I can now empathize with the long lasting effects shame can have on your life and understand the infectious hold it can have on you. At 20, I was still too wrapped up within its grasp to see that.
Pip certainly did not grow up in a supportive household. While loved and cared for by his sister’s husband, Joe, Pip is beaten, admonished, and verbally lacerated by his sister daily for merely existing. He is not unaware of the misery she instills nor the obnoxiousness of those she holds acquaintanceships with. Yet, early in the novel, Pip holds no particular rejection for his lifestyle or his future as an apprentice to Joe to become blacksmith. That is, until Estella gives him insight to think otherwise.
After Pip’s first visit with Miss Havisham and Estella, Pip walks away realizing two things. One, that he is “common”; and two, that such a life is beneath others and is therefore something to be ashamed of. From the moment he learns that he calls knaves “Jacks” – which Estella asserts to be disgraceful – he sees his life in a completely different way. He thinks to himself:
“I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it (page 60)”
When I read that, I instantly felt my own sources of shame and better understood the less than kind behaviors Pip would later embrace. I can see within myself the less than kind behaviors I’ve adopted in reaction to my own embarrassment.
Shame is as Pip describes: infectious. And once you catch it, it can be incredibly difficult to innoculate.
I can still recall being in first grade and finding out that I was to be placed in a reading group for “slower” students. As my classmates were assigned their different groups, designated by colors, I was pulled aside by a class assistant and informed that I would not be placed in one of them. I was utterly stunned. Until that moment, I had zero perception that I had been doing anything wrong or that I performing and differently than my peers.
It was in no way the school’s fault and I don’t hold any anger against my teacher for making that decision, but from that moment on I knew I was less than the other kids. And they knew it too.
I can still feel the gut-punching shame I felt as that young girl. And it was infectious. Like chicken pox, shame started popping up everywhere and showed up in all of my classes and in my friendships. People knew they were smarter than me and some classmates seemed to derive pleasure in reminding me of that.
Of course, that situation should have no hold on me now as I am a voracious reader and have so many books, that their piles line my walls. However, I can still feel the slight snags of discomfort when I meet new people, or when I have to speak up at work. Even today, I still get these whispered reminders that I’m not as smart as the other people in the room and that I’m “slower” and would be better off not speaking up or sharing my opinion.
I imagine we all have a similar moment (or moments) that has triggered shame. It may have been a small bite, but it has had a long lasting effect and may still bring these moments of discomfort that stifle your true self. It seems ridiculous that I could have given so much power to something that happened over 2 decades ago, and I want to do what I can to let it go.
I wish someone had stepped in and given my younger self the assurance that, even though I needed help, I was no less worthy than my peers. And while that person did not exist, I can be that person for myself today and you can do the same for yourself.
Unfortunately for Pip, he had to go on quite a journey to see himself clearly. I wish for myself and for everyone else, that we can learn from his story, and cease giving power to others who make us feel less or unworthy. And when we cannot do it for ourselves, I hope that we have the friends, family, and community who can help hold up the light for us until we are ready to.
For those who want to dig more into the subject of shame, I suggest looking to Brené Brown as a resource. Below is her TED Talk from 2012 on the very subject.
I think folks often back away from books like Great Expectations because it’s something you would see on an AP English reading list and was written in a time or place that may be unfamiliar. Yet despite those factors, it is an incredibly relatable – if not quirky – tale of growing, learning, self-discovery, and gratitude. There’s a reason why it stood out to me back in 2011, and I’m so happy to have come back to it now more than half a decade later.
For the next book of my reading challenge, I’m crossing the pond back to my native country for Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
As a reminder, below is the schedule of books that I’ll be reading and reflecting upon, if any of these books are your favorite, please pop by and share your experience!
February 14: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – originally read at age 20
February 17: Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver – originally read at age 18
February 21: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley – originally read at age 17
February 24: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – originally read at age 16
February 27: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko – originally read at age 15
March 4: The Odyssey by Homer – originally read at age 14
March 11: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – originally read at age 13
March 14: A Time for Dancing by Davida Wills Hurwin – originally read at around age 11/12
March 17: Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip – originally read at around age 11/12
March 20: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – originally read at around age 10/11
March 23: Squire by Tamora Pierce – originally read at around age 10
March 25: Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – originally read at around age 10
March 27: Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne – originally read at around age 8
March 29: The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen – read to me at around age 5/6
See you on Thursday!
Source: Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Penguin Books, London, England. 1996
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