I fell in love with Estella. It was love at first sight. I was 13 years old and in the 7th grade when we were made to read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. As soon as the boy Pip reaches the graveyard where his parents are buried and runs into the convict Magwitch, which is to say, by about page three, I became Pip’s staunch ally to such an extent that I identified with him completely.
Pip was a quasi-orphan being raised by his ill-tempered sister and her gentle giant of a husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery. I was the child of recently divorced parents and increasingly, painfully aware that my mother and I inhabited—tenuously—one of the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
In my mind, Pip and I were one. So when he fell in love with the unattainable Estella, so did I. To a 13-year-old boy with not much money, not much in the way of looks, and with no confidence at all, “unattainable” is the very definition of Miss Right.
Never mind that Dickens was doing everything in his considerable power to convince me that Estella was an awful person, as vain and cruel as she was beautiful. Just as Pip cast aside every scrap of good sense in his years-long effort to claim her love, so too did I ignore Dickens’ never very subtle warnings that Pip was masochistically going down a dead-end road.
If you are not hormonally addled or romantically clueless, that is, if you are not a 13-year-old male teenager, you know that Great Expectations is the story of a boy and then a man who gets everything wrong. He falls in love with the wrong woman. He is financed by a mysterious benefactor whom he mistakenly believes is the insane Miss Havisham, the spurned bachelorette to end all bachelorettes who trains up Estella to break men’s hearts in proxy revenge for Miss Havisham’s heartbreak at being left at the altar decades earlier.
I, alas, did not see things so clearly. In my defense, neither did quite a few early readers of Dickens who hated his original ending, the one where Pip does not end up with Estella. So Dickens was persuaded to write another, more conventional conclusion. (Decades later, George Bernard Shaw edited an edition of Dickens in which he used only the ending where Pip and Estella go their separate ways; when he was criticized for not running the version with the happy ending, he replied, “This is the happy ending.”)
But most readers do get the point, as I did not, that Pip is something of a tragic fool. In my defense, I can only say that I was then just learning to read fiction and was still in the habit of identifying with the protagonist, whoever that might be. It would be years before a very wise teacher showed me that the most rewarding way to read fiction is not as a lesson in identification but as a lesson in how other people live, how different they are, and how broad human experience can be.
That said, there are worse things than cutting your teeth on a Dickens novel, because he’ll teach you that lesson whether you like it or not. Mrs. Joe, Jaggers the lawyer, Herbert Pocket, Magwitch, Biddy—Dickens conjures a new character in practically every chapter. He’ll show you, even if you’re a teenage boy, that the world is full of people who are nothing like you and whose troubles are nothing like your own, and the more different they are, the more interesting they become.
I fell in love with Great Expectations for all the wrong reasons, but I was lucky, because I fell in love with a masterpiece written by a genius. When I returned to it later in life, I understood that because I had grown up a little in the meantime, I was now reading a different novel, a better novel, sadder than I’d realized the first time around, but richer and more rewarding.
I am, I admit, a little reluctant to give up on my original take on Pip’s story. Because the novel, even more than Estella, was my true first love. I may have loved for all the wrong reasons, but I lost myself in the story and its people, and I learned, without being very aware of it, just how good a novel could be. It became my literary yardstick for a long time. When I’d read a novel, I’d ask myself, is it as good as Great Expectations? The answer was rarely yes. The answer is still rarely yes.
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