November 20, 2016 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens.
I recently finished Stuart Dybek’s wonderful book of short stories, The Coast of Chicago. It has an epigraph that sticks with me, by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “De toda la memoria, solo vale / el don preclare de evocar los suenos (Out of the whole of memory, there’s one thing / worthwhile: the great gift of calling back dreams).”
That’s an evocative, marvelous, ambiguous, highly arguable line, but I don’t mean to tangle with it here. I mention it, instead, because it’s been coming back to me throughout the first quarter of Great Expectations: the book (at least, so far) is like a recounted dream, as much as a recalled childhood.
And since it is, quite deliberately (and famously), a story framed as a memory of childhood, that makes sense: our dreams and our childhoods — when so many sensations are new and confusing, when so many of us are often confused and conflicted, when everything seems larger than life — are so closely connected. As with most of Dickens’s books, there are archetypal figures and scenarios from folklore and fairy tales near the surface of the text, particularly at the beginning when his protagonists are children. But to a greater degree than most of Dickens, from its very beginning, the emotions in GE feel heightened, jumbled, confusing, as they do in dreams. Pip introduces himself in the graveyard holding the tombstones of his parents and siblings, and then, by page two, we have abruptly shifted to Pip being accosted by an escaped convict.
That abrupt shift itself struck me as rather oneiric, but what follows is really the stuff of nightmares: the pervasive sense of being trapped and compelled to commit what seems a grievous sin (even if it is actually not, seen in the light of day), and the overwhelming fear of being exposed for your wrongdoing. The first seven chapters or so of the book are essentially an anxiety dream with melancholic interludes. I don’t mean that to seem negative. It’s shockingly effective. (The setting of the marshes also adds to this sense; I happened to begin the book on a very foggy day in Chicago, and reading on the train as we passed through white clouds made me feel slightly less than real.)
Then there’s Miss Havisham and her ramshackle house. The strangeness of Estella’s conduct toward Pip, the bizarre scene of Pip’s one-sided fight with the “pale young gentleman,” and of course of Miss Havisham herself, all feel like dream sequences. I can’t get over the weirdness of the scene that Dickens creates in Chapter XII. Pip’s routine upon his visits to her home is to “walk” Miss Havisham around her suite of two rooms, and then to continue by pushing her in her “garden-chair.” “Over and over and over again, we would make these journeys, and sometimes they would last as long as three hours at a stretch,” Pip says, and then states that he does this “every alternate day at noon… [for] a period of eight or ten months.” Finally, Miss Havisham commands that Pip sing as he’s pushing her in her chair, in an endless loop around two rooms, and so he sings the song that comes first to mind, the tune used by blacksmiths to keep time at their work, “Old Clem.” Miss Havisham likes it, so she joins in, and so does Estella at times.
This scene, of a boy pushing an old woman in a bridal gown around a closed circuit of two rooms, accompanied by a beautiful girl, all three of them chanting “With a thump and a sound — Old Clem! Beat it out, beat it out — Old Clem!” Amazing. Set it in Mississippi and I’d believe it was written by Faulkner.