The City Slicker Returns Home

November 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Great Expectations.

There’s a theme throughout the second book of GE that feels uncomfortably familiar. It also feels very American, and very modern. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it handled quite so well.

Pip comes into money and leaves his rural home for the big city. He is ashamed of where he comes from, and who his people are — which is to say, who he is (and claims no longer to be).

It is the narration of GE that makes this so effective: since Pip is narrating the story from far into the future, as a bildungsroman, he realizes how shameful his earlier attitude is.  On the other hand, he has also made great hay out of the homespun, undereducated ways of the folks back home, and will continue to do so with great clarity of vision. This beautifully written (fictional) memoir is a testament to precisely the good that comes from leaving home, and seeking wider cultural pastures.

Pip wants to “confess exactly” his attitude toward his hometown and the people he knew there: for instance, he receives the news that Joe, the man who has been both best friend and father-figure to him, is going to visit London, “with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity.”

The elder narrator Pip twists the knife in his subject — his own younger self — in a variety of ways in chapters XXVII through XXX. The excuses he makes for himself not to have to stay with Joe when he returns home; his narration of the fact that he keeps Miss Havisham and Estella strictly separate from Joe “because I knew she would be contemptuous of him” (and therefore believing her to be right in being so, to a great degree), just a day after his emotional reunion with Joe in London; many other lines and phrasings.

It’s not all gloomy, though. A lot of it is very funny. The best fun is reserved for “Trabb’s boy,” who serves as a kind of unwitting audience surrogate in his hilarious mockery of Pip the dandy.  He struts through the streets like Pip’s own subconscious, “wriggling his elbows and body, and drawling to his attendants, ‘Don’t know yah, don’t know yah, pon my soul don’t know yah!” to humiliate Pip–rightfully so.

This comes to a head in chapter XXXV, when Pip returns for the funeral of his sister.  His disdain for the artificiality of Victorian funerary customs is palpable, as is his disgust for the ways in which small-town funerals can so often become weird festivals of a kind: the sensation that something has actually happened overriding any sense of grief or loss, for those at the margins of that loss.  Pip’s insistence that he will return often to check in on Joe and Biddy, and his older self’s admission that he would not, that he was a hypocrite and a liar, is really heartbreaking.

This is a particularly raw subject for me at the moment, I suppose, because of the  complicated feelings about where I come from, dredged up by the past presidential election. I hope to God I’ve never been as insufferable as Pip; but in general, those thousands (millions?) of us who left small towns and rural areas for bigger cities do seem to share some of his attitude toward the place he left. We love those places — parts of them, anyway — but we prefer not to engage with their politics or their bigotry overmuch. Those of us who have the connections in those areas we come from probably have more talking to do (including about why we left) and more honest engagement with our people there — not to mention issuing more invitations for them to come visit us in the cities.

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