A professor of mine this semester quoted another professor of his who made the assertion that if one reads a book once, he has not read the book at all. It is not until reading a book the second time that one has read it once. Thrice is twice and so forth. I happen to agree with this philosophy. This semester I undertook to read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations once again for a class project I will be hopefully starting soon for the sake of my grade in the class with the professor mentioned above.
Now, this last summer, I met Dickens for virtually the first time. (I read Tale of Two Cities in high school but was too naive an idiot to appreciate what I was reading.) Great Expectations was the novel I picked up, and as I read it, I found that I have a lot in common with the young protagonist Pip. Pip is a young boy who grows up in poverty as a common boy raised by hand who meets a lovely female who treats him quite disdainfully. Pip desires more in his life, he desires intellectual assent, riches, a high social life. In short, he desires to no longer be common. Pip eventually becomes, as Chesterton describes, a snob.
I find myself with these same longings in my own life. I desire to be knowledgable (perhaps a vain pursuit eh?), to be respected, to be noble by wordly standards in other words. There is nothing wrong with this at its core except that I often become my very own version of a snob. In other words, I consider myself, as Pip did, as generally better than others. This sounds rather pretentious, but I fear it is not too uncommon from the human race. Every person thinks this way to some degree or another. Humility is a vain pursuit, but a pursuit that should be engaged in nevertheless.
What Great Expectations did for me the second time through is bring my attention to the unhappyness (spelling error intended) of Pip after he is given an opportunity to be “Great.” Pip begins to realize that had he never met Miss Havisham and Estella (the girl who treated him with contempt) and realized he was common in the first place, perhaps he would not have known any better. Perhaps he would have been content in his common life with his uncle Joe.
When I woke up in the night—like Camilla—used to think, with a weariness on my spirits, that I should have been happier and better if I had never seen Miss Havisham’s face, and had risen to manhood content to be partners with Joe in the honest old forge. Many a time of an evening, when I sat alone looking at the fire, I thought, after all there was no fire like the forge fire and the kitchen fire at home.
Pip’s hedonism for the sake of hedonism also proved a fallible lifestyle concerning his humour.
We spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us. We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintances were in the same condition. There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did. To the best of my belief, our case was in the last aspect a rather common one.
And so we see that Pip noticed a fleeting joy in his pursuits at being considered great by the world’s standards. As I was reading, I began to ask myself the question: is it better for man to live in ignorance and be content, or to see a better life and live in constant pursuit of that ideal happyness (again, intentional)?
As a Christian, however, I understand that the answer to this philisophical question cannot be answered materially. That is, the answer to our longing for joy is not to replace that which we do not have materially with more material possessions. I think this was one argument that Dickens was making in this novel. Pip was dissatisfied with this life after meeting Estella and believed the solution to his dissatisfaction was to grow intellectually and economically (what the world tells us we must pursue).
So the problem is not answered materially, but is it then best that we find complete satisfaction in the little things that we have. Are we to never desire a greater life or believe in a higher joy? Absolutely not. My favorite non-fiction author, C.S. Lewis, argues that we are too easily pleased.
We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (Weight of Glory)
The problem with humanity is that we have a deep longing inside of us. Every person has this inner dissatisfaction with life—no matter his economic or social status. What happens is that man tries to fill this longing for joy with material things: drink, sex, ambition. Relationships and people are perhaps the greatest idols in our society that we try to fill the void with. This is displayed perfectly in modern movies and music. The problem is that money, people, and stuff in general always dissapoints in the end. No person was created to bear such a burden of completing another person’s joy.
Are we then to throw up our hands, get rid of all our possessions and seek joy that way as Tolstoy did? No, for Tolstoy was a very unhappy person. What Lewis argues is that that deep longing for joy cannot be replaced with anything this world has to offer. It must be replaced with God, the Source of joy in the universe. And so, when Pip met Estella and found out he was uncommon, the right response would have been to accept his situation and seek contentment in God. It is not evil to pursue knowledge and wealth. It is evil to pursue them as the means to an end. For Pip’s pursuit of a high social life was the mud pie, but a relationship with Christ is the holiday at sea for which we were created.