Thursday, January 15, 2015

Grim Expectations

You should know when you start out reading Great Expectations that you aren’t going to get the usual happy Dickensian ending. The dinner spoiled near the beginning by soldiers and runaway convicts and feelings of guilt is a Christmas dinner. This from The Man Who Invented Christmas. One of Scrooge’s lessons comes from seeing that in every place, even in the most abject circumstances, people can always find some joy in Christmas. But Dickens found little joy in this imagined Christmas. He must have been in a dark place indeed if he needed to ruin Pip’s holiday dinner even before the novel has really taken off. So it should come as no surprise that we soon meet a crazed, unforgiving old woman who keeps her unenjoyed, ages-old wedding cake, now covered with cobwebs and feeding fat, blotchy spiders. And we shouldn’t be surprised at the ending. Dickens’s publisher made him tack on a happy wrap-up to this book, but it makes absolutely no sense. Whatever your edition includes, when you read this great classic, make sure you read the original, dark last page.

Yes, the road to Pip’s final disappointment is dark. But none of this suggests that Dickens doesn’t dazzle us with light and humor along the way. There’s good-natured Joe Gargery, always fumbling to find the wrong word. There’s the crazy Pocket family, whose children don’t grow up but tumble up. And there’s the astonishing Mr. Wemmick, who, among other delightful eccentricities, fires off a cannon at nine o’clock each evening just to please his deaf Aged Parent.

One of my favorite happy scenes involves young Herbert Pocket, who, upon meeting young Pip one day, challenges him to a fight. “By the rules!” he cries. “Choose your field!” The pale young Herbert dances and poses and squirts himself from a water bottle just like a professional pugilist. But to no avail. After Pip lands four solid blows while his opponent fails even to make contact, Herbert grabs his vinegar-soaked sponge and throws it. “That means you won,” he explains with a grin.

Herbert doesn’t fight out of anger, and he isn’t disappointed when he loses. He boxes because the pageantry and paraphernalia all delight him. As I read the familiar scene again the other day, I thought about hockey games with my junior-high pals. Like Pip and Herbert, whom I take to be just about junior-high age, we didn’t just play to score goals. We had intermissions between periods. We had self-appointed broadcasters calling the play. No puck ever went in a net without at least one of us boys yelling, “He shoots . . . he scores!!” in exactly the rhythm and intonation that we had all heard Blues announcer Dan Kelly use hundreds of times. We even had fake fights. We routinely saw players square off at professional hockey games, so that’s what we did, too. Every once in a while – for little reason or for no reason – two players from opposing teams would throw down their gloves, grab each other, and roll to the ground. Naturally, the rest of us, mimicking the NHL players we idolized, immediately stopped playing and found an opponent to wrestle with. When it was all over, we would assign five-minute penalties to the originators and have a new face-off. It was glorious.

The fight scene between Pip and Herbert must have come from experience. And if remembering my adolescent hockey adventures brings me such joy this morning, surely writing that chapter must have brought a smile to the author even in the middle of composing his grimmest work.

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