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Myth and the 'Now' Part Fifteen: Great Expectations


In examining Great Expectations, what exactly should our thesis lead us to look for? The same kind of things that we have been finding all along: two poles, a set of archetypes, and a motion toward one of the poles. In Myth, the image presented is usually either of an eternal battle or balance between Light and Dark; in Romance, the forces of each are arrayed in terms of supernatural virtues and vices; in the High Mimetic, the same forces struggle with each other, often resulting in an overturning and the death of the protagonist; in Low Mimetic fiction, the poles are normally cleverly disguised but can still be detected, as we have seen. Following the logic of all this, in an Irony, the motion would be towards the darker pole and away from the light, probably in the form of some kind of subversion of the bright pole. In other words, whereas in another kind of story the protagonist might die but no one questions the value system or background order of the story world, in an Irony the story world itself is undermined as well.

Instead of a pull upwards, as we saw in Pride and Prejudice and as is common to 90% of the tales with which we are familiar, which show a general trend for things to go into orbit around a bright outcome (‘and they lived happily ever after’), as we enter the Ironic world the pull is downwards: the archetype of the Emerging Warrior King, whose destiny in another mode might have been to take up his crown, is in an Irony doomed to lose; the Submerging Female Companion, who otherwise might have been ‘rescued’ and end her days happily married, is here doomed to live a phantom life and eventually die horribly; Shadow Protagonists abound and get their way; and the Protagonist drifts towards orbiting the dark.

Protagonists in Ironies never have a happy time of it, even from the start, and Pip is no exception:

My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

The tale of Pip is the story of an orphan (no surprises there for a Protagonist) and his apparent rise from the borderline of poverty and abuse into the realms of London life as a gentleman. But the emphasis is on apparent. His infatuation with Estella, and his consequent misunderstanding about the sources of his sudden fortune, underpin the whole book. They lead Pip to construct a world in which present wealth and future love are going to haul him slowly to the top of the scale, towards the Light. But this turns out to be illusory, a fabrication which comes crashing down and winds up with him having nothing except the ghost of a hope in the final line of the novel (a line Dickens revised to make it less grim than in his original draft). In other words, Great Expectations follows the arc of an Irony perfectly - it is the fall towards the lower pole, disguised as a progression to the upper.

As for the archetypes, you may have spotted them already, keeping in mind that they are ironically disguised and subverted. Jaggers the lawyer, who outlines the plot to the protagonist and who turns out to have had a remarkable influence behind the scenes of most of the events of the novel, is a darker version of the Wise Old Man:

'Now you are to understand, secondly, Mr. Pip, that the name of the person who is your liberal benefactor remains a profound secret, until the person chooses to reveal it. I am empowered to mention that it is the intention of the person to reveal it at first hand by word of mouth to yourself. When or where that intention may be carried out, I cannot say; no one can say. It may be years hence. Now, you are distinctly to understand that you are most positively prohibited from making any inquiry on this head, or any allusion or reference, however distant, to any individual whomsoever as the individual, in all the communications you may have with me. If you have a suspicion in your own breast, keep that suspicion in your own breast.’

Herbert Pocket performs his role as the Comic Companion perfectly, assisting the Protagonist to the last. The Emerging Warrior King is a degraded convict, returning from transportation to Australia; the Submerging Female Companion is the phantom-like Miss Havisham, stuck in the past in a decaying wedding dress, who ends up burning to death. Her protégé is the cold and aloof Estella:

Estella was always about, and always let me in and out, but never told me I might kiss her again. Sometimes, she would coldly tolerate me; sometimes, she would condescend to me; sometimes, she would be quite familiar with me; sometimes, she would tell me energetically that she hated me. Miss Havisham would often ask me in a whisper, or when we were alone, 'Does she grow prettier and prettier, Pip?' And when I said yes (for indeed she did), would seem to enjoy it greedily. Also, when we played at cards Miss Havisham would look on, with a miserly relish of Estella's moods, whatever they were. And sometimes, when her moods were so many and so contradictory of one another that I was puzzled what to say or do, Miss Havisham would embrace her with lavish fondness, murmuring something in her ear that sounded like 'Break their hearts my pride and hope, break their hearts and have no mercy!’

As we might expect, there is more than one Shadow Protagonist: first, as a kind of Hyde to Pip’s Jekyll, comes Orlick, the smith’s apprentice who violently maims Pip’s older sister and places Pip’s life in danger; then, as a counterpart to Pip’s gentlemanly life, there’s Bentley Drummle, who arrogantly takes Estella as his wife then beats her.

The mysterious Compeyson, whose machinations have resulted in almost every drama in the plot, fulfils the role of Antagonist.

Everything goes wrong for Pip: his mentor, not whom he expected it to be, perishes; his fortune is seized by the courts; even his Comic Companion goes overseas, though he does provide Pip with paying work. As the Irony plummets towards the darkness and emptiness which is its wont, we have only that brief glimmer of hope at the end, and even that is subjective, from Pip’s point of view:

‘We are friends,' said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench.

'And will continue friends apart,' said Estella.

I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

In Great Expectations, the emphasis is on emptinesses, losses, gaps, mysteries, unknowns. They are left for the most part unfulfilled. But in leaving them empty, Dickens allows the bones of Myth to show through. We have again witnessed the play of archetypes across the bi-polar field of primal Story.

This became even clearer in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Stay tuned.

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