JAN / FEB 2012: BY RACHEL McMILLAN
“There was a long hard time when I kept far from me the remembrance of what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth.”
When Dickens was 10 years old, his family moved from Kent (the setting of Great Expectations) to Camden Town, London after having experienced financial difficulties. Continuously living beyond his means, his father was imprisoned in Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison (immortalized in Little Dorrit). While at the Marshalsea, Dickens was introduced to a myriad of personages who later provided inspiration for characters in his colorful books. Eventually required to supplement their income, his childhood stint at a blacking factory and the injustice he underwent there provided the canvas needed for his later fictional endeavors and his stories of orphans dealt a cruel blow at the social injustice of London society.
The plights of many of his characters led them to form makeshift families away from the traditional confines of home. In Our Mutual Friend Bella Wilfer becomes an heiress when provided for by the generous Boffins; Oliver Twist settles in with Charley Bates, the Artful Dodger and the other ragtag pickpockets under the watch of the conniving Fagin before finding true happiness with his distant relative, Mr. Brownlow. And in Great Expectations, the orphaned Pip longs for his family now deceased. The opening scene sees Pip spending Christmas Eve at the gravesite of his departed folks. Saved from destitution by the kindly blacksmith Joe Gargery who admits to partially marrying Pip’s older sibling to provide for them both and offer Pip a future at the forge, Pip is given the unconditional love of a gentle father figure. Abused as a child, Joe wills to treat women and children as he wished his father had treated him and his mother. He makes up for his own misfortunes tenfold in his love for and rearing of Pip.
When Mr. Jaggers makes an announcement that Pip has a mysterious benefactor and great expectations that will take him to London, the ungrateful and naïve Pip leaves the forge in hopes of gleaning the fortune that will allow him to marry the ice cold Estella. In town, Pip’s makeshift family broadens to include Herbert Pocket, a kind-hearted young man who becomes a friend and brother and the stalwart Magwitch, who underwent back-breaking work as a sheep-farmer in the colonies to secure a fortune.
In true Dickensian form, certain matters of parentage and mysteries of birth are unraveled as the compelling plot unwinds and the origin of Estella, as well as Magwitch’s bond to Pip are revealed. While Pip’s life is undoubtedly molded by these interactions and subsequent revelations, his path takes him back to the beginning: as an educated young man derived of fortune, chained to the forge. Pip’s Cinderella story and the characters and circumstances therein only result in his recognizing that his true family is Joe and Joe’s new wife Biddy.
While watching the most recent adaptation of this, I was struck yet again by Joe’s unconditional love for Pip and the realization that there is no crime Pip could commit nor sin so great that he could not return to Joe at the forge. Even as a wayward prodigal, Pip is always welcomed in Joe’s family with open arms. At the end of his rope having squandered his fortune and burned the bridges back to the marshes, the misplaced Pip (too haughty for the life he knew as a blacksmith’s apprentice and too lowly for the whir of the gentleman’s clubs) can always go home. From a Christian standpoint, this is the very embodiment of Grace: a gift extended and received when completely unwarranted: steadfast love which withstands the slight and snobbery of Pip’s wayward London attitude and leads to Joe’s paying Pip’s careless debts in full.
For me, the most heart-wrenching scenes in Great Expectations counter Joe Gargery’s steadfast devotion to Pip when Pip treats him horribly, seeming to forget the sacrifices Joe has made and the love he has for him. One unsettling circumstance finds Joe in London visiting the new gentleman Pip at his lodgings. Whereas Herbert Pocket strives to make Joe feel comfortable; Pip is an unpardonable snob, forcing Joe to recognize in humble wisdom that the forge sees them equals whereas Pip’s new station separates them. Later, Pip returns to his hometown for business and rather than staying with Joe, opts for a room at the Blue Boar. Pip spurns his family while struggling to become the gentleman he wants to become, but is forced to soon realize through his trials that the true act of a gentleman is remembering one’s background, kith and kin.
The Bible’s caveat that storing treasures on earth will wield moths and corruption, where storing treasures in Higher places reaps goodness and riches binds well with the thematic morality of Dickens’ work. Pip sets much store in the things he wants, abandoning his home and his salt-of-the-earth upbringing with Joe to explore the gilded world of London: its Gentleman’s clubs, fancy furniture and revelry. Yet, at the end, as broke as when he started, his expectations crumbled at the feet of death and loss, Pip is able to go home, no questions asked, debts completely paid.
I sat watching the BBC adaptation in my parent’s living room by the lights of the Christmas tree thankful that there is no place like home, that wherever I went and whatever I did I could return to their small-town house with no questions asked, arms wide open. The same is true of Christ: there is no sinner who can wander too far or prodigal who can so prodigiously stray that the love and grace of their Creator will not find them no matter how ungrateful they were or how the flashes and lights of a seemingly better circumstance momentarily turned their heads. ♥