The first chapter of Charles Dickens’s classic, Great Expectations, deserves its reputation as one of the great openers in literature. The tiny orphan Pip stands at the graveside of his parents, quietly mourning his lonely estate. Suddenly, a fearsome convict, lately escaped from a nearby prison ship, accosts him from the surrounding mists and demands food on pain of death. Pip’s terror in this moment is every bit as palpable as was his grief a moment before. He hurries back to the smithy where he makes his home and, oppressed by unspeakable terror and guilt, steals food from his sister and her mild-mannered husband, Joe Gargery.
I have always thought it remarkable how completely Pip earns our pity in these first scenes. In addition to his extreme youth, loneliness, and abject terror, we find that his sister treats him harshly, offering a poor replacement for a mother’s love. As little more than a baby yet and beset by all manner of disadvantages, he certainly commands our sympathy.
Strangely, however, as Pip grows up and begins to master these disadvantages, our pity only grows. In fact, when Pip learns of his “Great Expectations,” the promise of a vast fortune bequeathed to him by a mysterious benefactor, we sense a cruel joke about to be played. Despite his immaturity and foolishness, we want Pip to get what he needs – but we can tell that an inheritance will not do the trick.
I think our sympathy has its roots in Pip’s thirst for approval, which peeks out at us from the story’s first pages. The contrast between Joe Gargery’s doting attention and his wife’s irritated neglect underscores just how much Pip depends on affirmation, and we love Joe because he provides a reliable supply. (I have never met a reader with an ambivalent attitude toward Joe. We love him intensely, I think because we share Pip’s desperate need ourselves.)
Strangely, this childlike thirst for affirmation follows Pip into young adulthood, and indeed never leaves him. His relationship with the rich, eccentric Miss Havisham and her cruel young ward, Estella, presents a series of disappointments on this very issue. Pip looks to them both for a word of approval, but this alone they will never grant. The lack of it drives Pip to all sorts of folly.
Even Pip’s Great Expectations loom in his mind with the power to save, not primarily because of the hope of financial security, but rather the hope of approval from society. To be a gentleman in the eyes of the world is Pip’s obsession. He does not want to be rich for the sake of riches; he wants the affirmation that riches are supposed to bring. As the story’s dramatic climax proves, however, riches do not satisfy like Pip assumed they would. In fact, they bring as much trouble as his former poverty ever did.
In putting his hope in improved circumstances, Pip makes a common, even universal error: he applies a physical solution to a spiritual problem. He looks for ease in his affairs because he hopes that this will make him easy in his soul. But his soul does not know riches from poverty, or ease from difficulty; it longs on a deeper level for far more basic needs. The soul lives or dies by the words “I affirm you.” It listens for these words alone, and every human interaction either offers or withholds them. Pip’s soul hears them from two unlikely sources in Great Expectations: Joe Gargery the blacksmith and Magwitch the convict – the least genteel of all the story’s characters.
The admittedly moralistic theme of the novel could not be clearer, or more compelling: we are all orphaned waifs, lost and alone, and utterly dependent for survival on a dispensation of grace – not financial or even physical, but spiritual; a word to our souls of acceptance, approval, and affirmation. If we could find this, receive it, and possess it truly, neither plenty nor want in any other area would matter in the least.
One of the glories of Great Expectations is its preoccupation with unconditional love – its best characters need it, find it, give it, spread it, and feed upon it. Such exultation always reminds me of the Divine reality that human relationships reflect. For as powerful as Joe Gargery’s dispensation of grace may be, it shares one limitation with all human love; not that it is limited, or temporary, or half-hearted, or changeable (these criticisms do Joe an injustice), but that it is metaphorical only – a picture of the grace of God, an artist’s best guess as to what a soul-saving word of affirmation would look like.
In the Scriptures, of course, we find the word itself: copper-bottom proof of Great Expectations that we cannot fail to realize. Not riches, not reputation, not circumstances, but an eternal word of affirmation and approval and acceptance. In God, our mysterious benefactor, we have everything we need, and we are orphans no more.