“Now, I return to this young fellow. And the communication I have got to make is , that he has Great Expectation.” — Mr Jaggers (Great Expectations by Charles Dickens)
Note: If you haven’t read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, this article might contain a few spoiler-ish things so read at your own discretion. Or, read the book instead of this article because it would be totally worth it and I wouldn’t mind at all.
I recently read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and I must say, it is one of the best and most moving books that I have ever read. Initially, what feels like just another “Tom Sawyer-ish adventures of a young boy” book, turns into a fascinating emotional roller coaster that leaves a bittersweet aftertaste in your heart when you complete it.
This article is not a summary of the book nor is it a critique of it. It is merely an account of certain feelings and thoughts the book evoked in me while reading it. While reading the book, I felt like I was Pip. When Pip comes to know that he has Great Expectations, I felt like Pip and I were in the same situation. Because you see…I have come across Great Expectations of my own fairly recently.
I’m just a regular guy from a small city in North India. And I recently flew all the way across the Atlantic ocean because I got accepted to grad school in the United States of America. This opportunity to be in a great place with great people and do great things is what I call my Great Expectations that the universe has bestowed upon me. Now, I know it is not a big deal but to me, it is. Just like Pip always believed he might get Great Expectations someday and would become a gentleman one day, in the same way, ever since I was a child it was my dream to come to the States and become a great person and do great things. And just like Pip, here I am. A regular guy with dreams who has come across Great Expectations.
But that is not the entirety of what I have been given. I have also been given great expectations. Great expectations that I have from myself and that my family has from me. Expectations that I will do something great and make something of myself. And these expectations can be terrifying. Especially when the people you love are thousands of miles away and you need about a $1000 to reach them.
Sacrifice is the price of Great Expectations, I suppose. When Pip was told that he has Great Expectations and was moving to London, what he felt in his heart about leaving Joe and Biddy behind was similar to what I felt about leaving my family behind. The excitement of a new adventure and fulfillment of a childhood dream was accompanied by the heaviness of leaving my loved ones behind. One heart stretched in two opposite directions, and I might have remained behind if it were not for my legs that kept on walking. One last glance at them…and then I turned and walked along.
Here, though, is what terrifies me about Pip’s story. Pip was given Great Expectations and he squandered the one-in-a-lifetime chance that he was given. He left his loved ones behind as he thought they didn’t fit into his new world. He fell in love with the girl he knew was wrong all along. He was profligate in spending his fortune. He was living his dream and yet was the unhappiest he had ever been. So what is his story? Is it a cautionary tale? Perhaps. Is it a story of redemption? Yes, it is. And so when I was reading through Pip’s story, I couldn’t help but wonder what if I squander my Great Expectations as well? What if I waste this great opportunity that I have been given? Would I end up in a similar story arc as that of Pip’s? It is my belief that I will. You could argue that even though Pip messed up a lot of things, in the end, things did become okay for him. He learned and grew through his mistakes and misfortunes. His insufficiencies made him sufficient. His wrongs made him do the right things. His failures lead to his mild success. If so, I ask, is it necessary to bear through pain so as to get to joy? Is it necessary to make mistakes and meet misfortunes in the journey to success? Perhaps. Great philosophers have argued for a long time that failures are inevitable. Jordan Peterson, in many of his lectures, has said that life is suffering and yet, we have to push through to make life and the world a little bit better. Stoics have long said why worry about what is inevitable? But even though failure is inevitable, it is still possible to save yourself a lot of pain by not being like Pip. Pip, although redeemed in the end, is a bad role model. Pip is a cautionary tale. Great Expectations, I believe, is a cautionary tale about life and success.
I believe the story tries to teach us what is important in life. It can’t be money because Joe was the happiest in the story even though he was the poorest. At the same time, it doesn’t mean that money is inherently bad and will make you unhappy because Wemmick had money and was happy as well. Dreams becoming true also isn’t the measure of happiness because Pip lived two of his dreams and was equally unhappy living both. He was unhappy with the money he dreamt about and he was unhappy being with the girl he had always wanted to be with. So, it is not money nor dreams that may lead to happiness. Then what actually leads to happiness? To true joy? The answer is simple and very apparent in Pip’s life. It is the people. The only true happiness that Pip experienced was with people. And not just any people but the right kind of people. People who he loved but more importantly, people who loved him. People like Joe, Biddy, and Herbert who loved him with all their heart gave Pip true joy in his life. He was just too blind to see that, at least initially, but even Pip realized this by the end of the story. The story had other people as well who were around Pip and contributed to his story but they didn’t lead to Pip’s joy. What then, was so special about Joe, Biddy, and Herbert? They were neither rich nor famous. They didn’t have much to offer Pip. Except for unconditional love and kindness and patience and humility and generosity. And perhaps these are the virtues that matter most in life. Perhaps, the most important thing in life is to be a good human being. Money and fortunes can turn into ash and misfortunes at a moment’s notice, as Pip would tell you. When people live with hate and hurt in their hearts instead of love and care, it can lead to devastation in their lives, as Miss Havisham and Estella would tell you. It is my belief that the only thing that redeemed Pip was the love of Joe, Biddy, and Herbert. That he would be lost and reduced to nothingness if it wasn’t for these three people. Billions of people in the world and it took just three kind people to save a life. To save Pip’s Life.
And this is what puts my own heart at ease. That even though I might end up squandering my own Great Expectations, I have good people around me: my family, friends and my best friend, who might just save and redeem me. And just like Pip, in the end, I might learn and grow and find true joy as well.
“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.” — Great Expectations