Book That Shaped Me: Great Expectations
Wait, what? Let me explain …
As kids, most of us experience pop culture through adaptations, whether they’re the large-print Great Illustrated Classics re-writes, the many movie versions of Peter Pan, or something a bit more interpretive like Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective or Treasure Planet. For me, my first introduction to my favorite book of all time—one of the best novels from Charles Dickens, the 19th century’s most influential and popular —was a minor, now pretty-much forgotten character from show of crudely-animated kids who cursed, farted, and listened to their cafeteria chef sing about sex in every episode.
South Park has sort of an odd place in pop-culture right now. It’s been running for close to two decades, but—the recent episodes with Caitlyn Jenner and Donald Trump aside—doesn’t get the same attention it once did. While people still watch it, it doesn’t garner the affection of The Simpsons or the polarizing, love-it-or-hate-it fandom/hatedom of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy/American Dad. Yet, in 1998, everyone in my eighth grade thought this odd, foul-mouthed show that they technically weren’t allowed to watch with was the greatest. I was all in. I didn’t just watch every episode (which I taped on VHS because I usually wasn’t allowed to stay up that late), I downloaded sound clips, I visited message boards, and when I picked my favorite character—Pip—I made my own Geocities website just for him, complete with screenshots, fanart and fanfics.
Why Pip, of all characters? Well, to be honest, as much as I liked Kyle, Stan, Wendy, and occasionally even Cartman (this was before the feeding-a-kid-his-parents years), I wasn’t very much like them. I was a bullied kid like Pip, and even though the show treated him like the butt of their jokes, once in awhile Parker and Stone would actually use him to express what it was like to be bullied in a school system that just doesn’t care.
His best episode, the one that made me like him, was “Damien.” The main plot involves a wrestling match between Jesus and Satan, but the B-plot involved the titular character, Satan’s son, becoming the new kid at school and hated by everyone. Mr. Mackey, the school’s counselor, gives Damien terrible advice that I heard a lot as a child:
“What you need to do, Damien, is to be overly nice. No matter how mean the other kids are to you, just don’t retaliate. Be passive, m’kay? That’s what I taught the little British boy, Pip, and just look at how much the other children like him now.”
Cut to a scene of the other kids spitting on Pip, and Pip uncomfortably laughing and cheering them on. Later, when Damien says the other kids are calling him, “Fartboy,” Pip’s response is, “Oh good. Perhaps they won’t call me that anymore.”
Perhaps my close association with a minor character who even the creators didn’t seem to like very much says something about how poorly we as a culture understand bullying and how school teachers/administrators do less than nothing to help it. But let’s finally take this back to the 19th century. On one of those message boards, a fellow fan insisted that if I liked the character so much, I should check out the original book. I resisted. I wasn’t much of a reader. I’d tried to tackle Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in elementary school and failed, but eventually the guy wore me down.
I picked up a battered, falling apart old copy from my local library, one so worn down that the cover was chipped on the front and back. The vocabulary was pretty hard for me, so I soon picked up a copy of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary to check every few pages (I’d continue this practice of carrying around a dictionary while reading into high school). Before I was finished, however, I gave back the battered library copy and bought my own.
Dickens’ Pip isn’t much like Parker and Stone’s, but as one of the poor, pitiable orphans that populate his works, Pip in his early years was still sympathetic to me. Yet, it was when he met his love interest (or obsession interest), Estella, that I really, deeply connected with the book. Pip falls in love with Estella because she’s beautiful, but at their first meeting she makes fun of his coarse hands and how he doesn’t call the knaves “jacks” when they play cards. Despite this, he still loves her.
“You are to wait here, you boy,” said Estella; and disappeared and closed the door.
I took the opportunity of being alone in the courtyard, to look at my coarse hands and my common boots. My opinion of those accessories was not favourable. They had never troubled me before, but they troubled me now, as vulgar appendages. I determined to ask Joe why he had ever taught me to call those picture-cards, Jacks, which ought to be called knaves. I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.
She came back, with some bread and meat and a little mug of beer. She put the mug down on the stones of the yard, and gave me the bread and meat without looking at me, as insolently as if I were a dog in disgrace. I was so humiliated, hurt, spurned, offended, angry, sorry—I cannot hit upon the right name for the smart—God knows what its name was—that tears started to my eyes. The moment they sprang there, the girl looked at me with a quick delight in having been the cause of them. This gave me power to keep them back and to look at her: so, she gave a contemptuous toss—but with a sense, I thought, of having made too sure that I was so wounded—and left me.
But, when she was gone, I looked about me for a place to hide my face in, and got behind one of the gates in the brewery-lane, and leaned my sleeve against the wall there, and leaned my forehead on it and cried. As I cried, I kicked the wall, and took a hard twist at my hair; so bitter were my feelings, and so sharp was the smart without a name, that needed counteraction.
There’s a lot going on here, particularly regarding the huge class difference between the two characters, differences that are going to lead Pip down the road of wanting to be rich enough to do nothing with his life and cut ties to his earlier life of poverty, including the only person who cared for him as a child—his brother-in-law Joe. Yet I was just a thirteen-year-old girl who remembered having a major crush on a guy who didn’t love me back. Dickens can be hard to read for modern audiences, especially when he goes off into complicated descriptions. Yet I’ve always liked his prose because, even if it’s not as pretty or artful as other classical authors, it’s convivial. When I read Dickens, I feel like a good friend is taking me by the hand and telling me a story. With that passage, I realized that this old man from a previous century understood the feelings I was going through. I realized in that moment that’s what art is and what it should be—having a feeling and seeing someone else go, “Yes, I understand, and this is what it’s like.” I’ve read hundreds of books since then, and most of the time when I read I’m looking for that understanding, that moment of truth.
Not that Great Expectations is all emotions and heartbreak. There are the aforementioned class issues, including Pip’s realization that his fortune comes from a convict, who once menaced him, and that later became grateful that Pip treated him with kindness (I feel like if Abel Magwitch were the main character he’d be the equivalent to Les Miserables’ Jean Valjean). There are funny moments with Joe or the Aged P, a silly, senile old man who smiles and nods his head at everyone he meets. There are some genuinely tense moments where Pip confronts Orlick, a violent servant who at one point attacks his hated older sister. It’s one of those books that just has everything, yet it also has a strong central character, making it feel both expansive and yet intimate.
And I love Estella and Miss Havisham, the central villain of the piece. Dickens gets some deserved flack for his female characters. A lot of his books are populated with quiet, long-suffering ingenues who are basically put on pedestals by the men around him. (Side note: A lot of these are based on his sister-in-law Mary who died in his arms at 17-years-old, and whose death he never really got over, just in case you were interested in some extra weirdness to go with your benevolent sexism.) Estella and Miss Havisham are two of the better ones. They’re archetypal in a way—the latter a woman eternally scorned by men and out for revenge, the former a heartless beauty built to destroy men’s hearts—and yet they’re both sympathetic. Miss Havisham’s cruelty comes from a place of genuine hurt and pain, and in the end, when Estella refuses to return Miss Havisham’s motherly affections, Miss Havisham realizes that the person she’s hurt the most with her schemes is herself. And Estella is cruel, but she’s been taught to be that way, a perpetrator and yet a victim, like any good child of a supervillain.
As I’ve grown older I’m less happy about her ending, where she basically learns to be nicer because she marries a brutal man who treats her cruelly. I can’t completely shake the feeling of abuse-as-punishment. Yet I resist people who try to reframe Great Expectations as the story of a Nice Guy™ bewailing that women love jerks. Estella doesn’t love anyone. Pip doesn’t expect Estella to love him because he’s nice to her, and he has no illusions about her rotten personality. He’s obsessed with her and hopes being rich, hopes being anything other than the poverty-stricken orphan that he is, will make him worthy of her attention. Pip isn’t entitled; he’s an abused kid who desperately wants something better, to the point where he grows callous and snobbish in attempting to shed his old self.
Which is why I prefer the published ending, where Pip and Estella meet at Miss Havisham’s old house after the latter’s death and the end of Estella’s marriage. A lot of people say Dickens’ original planned ending where Pip meets Estella, sees that she’s become an ordinary matron married to a country doctor, and they part forever, is more fitting with the regretful tone of the book. Yet the romantic part of me feels equally bad for both of them and wants the kids with rough childhoods to find some genuine connection and maybe a happy life together. It may be less “realistic,” but it’s less judgmental and offers more hope of learning from your mistakes and finding redemption.
I loved this book so much I started reading more Dickens books and Dickens biographies. I wrote South Park fanfiction that incorporated plot elements of the book, including my own Estella before the show made theirs. I eventually fell out of love with South Park (Parker and Stone preferred using Butters as the show’s “bullied kid,” plus I didn’t bring a TV to college). Yet I kept reading and loving Dickens. I recently finished a screenplay about the end of the author’s life, a screenplay I never would have written if I hadn’t watched a television show nineteen years ago.
Is it weird and maybe a little embarrassing to fall in love with a titan of classical literature because I once watched a show that features a singing piece of poop? Yes. Yes, it is. But who cares? We may draw lines between “low” and “high” culture, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t influence each other. Some of my favorite books are ones that put both together in the same sandbox, like Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie taking influences from literature and high art to make their pornographic graphic novel Lost Girls, or Junot Diaz telling the story of the Dominican Republic through comics/sci fi/fantasy references in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Plus, while it’d be nice to pretend I loved Great Expectations just because I naturally had superior literary taste, what is this book but a warning about not forgetting where you came from, to nourish the better parts of your history, even if they embarrass you? There’s probably no reason to be embarrassed about them in the first place. Even if they do involve cartoons of singing poop.