Let it be known that I finished Dickens’ Great Expectations in time to discuss at the book group sponsored by my own office. I set aside a lot of other things along the way, but I continue to believe it was worth it for at least a couple of reasons. One, I could feel like I’d finished at least one thing on time in recent memory; and, two, I really did enjoy 500 pages of Dickens and his interweaving of so many thick characters.
Now I know firsthand at least one example of Dickens’ gift for throwing characters onto the stage and letting their independent stories interweave. I likened it to a giant, three-dimensional crossword puzzle, and the unfolding story became its solution. Obscure characters become pivotal, tying others together, while prominent characters fade and return in unexpected ways. Some, like Pumblechook’s bulbous head and fake intellect (think “pointed haired boss” of Dilbert), portray characters that are constant and reliable throughout the pages and years. Miss Havisham is similarly flat, but not in the way we think she is at the outset, as we continue to learn why her clocks are set to 20 minutes before 9 o’clock, why she misses a shoe, and why she primes Estella as she does. And Pip, with astute reflection about the world in parallel with his self-centeredness, changes in tone and awareness as he grows up, comes into wealth, falls out of it, comes into love, is thrown out of it, and faces death, criminality, cruelty, and ultimate kindness.
What has struck me and perhaps stuck with me enough to proclaim that I can be a fan of Dickens is the fact that I experience Pumblechook and Havisham everyday, 150 years away from Dickens’ fantasy of characters. Estella breaks all our hearts, and we see ourselves in Pip even as we yell at him through the pages that he’s a fool for spending money, for deserting family, for assuming too much. Pip is us; Joe is who we wish we could be more like; and Pumblechook is that guy. I hate that guy.
Best of all, sitting down for lunch with my book group I felt strangely familiarized with the group of strangers and their salads. Short, tall, skinny, plump, we all talked about the text and those we met within its pages. An English professor sat next to a custodial staff sat next to a physicist sat next to a secretary who had pushed aside the chairs at the table in order to maneuver her wheelchair in between. We were, and are, ourselves a cast of characters that Dickens could have written about, all of different walks, status, and background. And so it struck me that Betty, who cleans the offices in the library, made the point that this book is a book about redemption, about having the opportunity to become who you are, in contrast to who others might make you out to be. It’s what we all hoped for Pip, and Joe, and Biddy; and it’s what we all hope for ourselves, sitting at the table to talk about a book that was scripted two centuries past.