“Not everyone appreciates the magic of Great Expectations, but that’s the thing about magic: it doesn’t work on everyone.” —Karen Swallow Prior, “Booked”
I started Prior’s “Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me” and took a detour to read “Great Expectations.” I’d always been scared of it (although the “South Park” version did loosen me up a little), but I finally tackled it. In the spirit of “Booked,” I’m not going to go all English major on you, but I want to talk about how this book affected me, how it worked its magic.
(In case you’re wondering when the magic began to take effect, it was probably this line of Joe’s: “life is made of ever so many partings welded together.”)
Throughout the first, oh, three quarters of the story, until the Big Mystery is revealed, I was frustrated with Pip. Why was he so mean to dear old Joe and Biddy? Why on earth was he falling for Estella? What possessed him to keep going back to the wretched Miss Havisham? And why did he act so horrid once he had money? I didn’t like him at all. Just stop being so weird, Pip!
And then. After the Big Mystery was revealed, things were not what they seemed (and any Dickens fan would’ve seen it coming).
That’s when I realized that I am Pip.
I am this way to this person and that way to that person. I think I am completely consistent, and instead I am leaving a trail of squashed souls. And like Pip, I don’t evaluate people rightly. I think the bad ones are good and the good ones are bad. Really, I expected better of myself after reading the entire “Redwall” series by Brian Jacques, in which befriending an enemy or showing an enemy a kindness often ends up saving your life at just the right moment. But the lesson didn’t take.
Pip has to go through all sorts of suffering—much of it avoidable—before he comes to his senses. He has to lose people and come close to death himself before he develops what Provis always had: patience. Provis is described as “playing a complicated kind of Patience with a ragged pack of cards of his own,–a game that I never saw before or since.” That’s it. I’m buying a deck of cards.
Pip says to Miss Havisham, “You made your own snares. I never made them,” but she could just as easily have said it to him. There’s no reason either of them had to create further problems for themselves and others, yet they both did. And that’s what I’ve been finding—land mines I’ve strewn everywhere. People are stepping on them. Dear God, I thought they were just rocks.
I had no idea what I was doing, who I was becoming and yet, there it is, right in the book: “I thought how miserable I was, but hardly knew why, or how long I had been so, or on what day of the week I made the reflection, or even who I was that made it.”
The same sentiment is expressed in the song “Some Nights”: “Oh, Lord, I’m still not sure what I stand for oh, What do I stand for? What do I stand for? Most nights I don’t know anymore” and in the next verse, “She stops my bones from wondering just who I am, who I am, who I am, oh, who am I?” Yeah. I’m sure Pip would totally have been into the band Fun.
Near the end of the book, Pip says, “I felt that I was not nearly thankful enough,–that I was too weak yet to be even that,–” Ann Voskamp has tried to teach me to be thankful, and although I’m on my second list of 1,000 gifts, I’m still not where she is. Maybe I needed Pip sooner. Pip recognizes that he’s too weak to be thankful. I’m pretty weakened, too. It may take a little longer to get my gratitude on.
“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”
That’s what happened in my case—evidence showed up. Evidence of my own wrongdoing and that of others as well. It forced me to re-evaluate everything. Of course, it’s not all bad stuff; there’s good evidence, too.
“The June weather was delicious. The sky was blue, the larks were soaring high over the green corn, I thought all that countryside more beautiful and peaceful by far than I had ever known it to be yet.”
It’s not June, but the weather we’re having now won’t come around in many parts of the country until then. The sky, the birds, the vineyards (no corn around here), the wildflowers that will soon cover the countryside—those are evidence, too. There is beauty and peace I did not have eyes to see.
Thanks, Karen. And thank you, too, Pip.