The first time I read Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), I still hadn’t left my home town. I was either finishing up or had just finished a Master’s degree, and I had a lot of time on my hands. Reading Dickens felt like a productive and enjoyable use of my time, and I found myself falling hard for Pip and his world–the Ram-Pages, the Pumblechookian annoyances, everything.
Reading through it now, my affective experience is immensely different. And, I’ve come to realize it’s precisely because I no longer live in my hometown of twenty-four years. I left home, just like Pip. So, if now I really think Pip is an a**hat of immense proportions, I now also no longer have the comfortable ability to look down on his a**hattery as if I have no part in it. I feel uncomfortable reading about Pip because, every now and again, I see a fragment of myself in him. Like Pip, I left home with “great expectations.” His were a fortune and life as a gentleman, and mine were a PhD and whatever that brought with it–but both of those things effectually reclass the individuals to whom they apply.
Funny how time and distance can change the way one experiences a four-hundred page novel that, theoretically, hasn’t changed for 165 years.
Like Pip, my new experiences and expectations have necessarily affected the ways in which I relate to old friends and family. Like Pip, I’m often struck by regret and wish these changed relations weren’t the case. Like Pip, I find myself unable (or unwilling) to do much about it. I want to, but I’m distracted. I want to, and try to, but I don’t know how. A call now and then, a letter now and then, a visit now and then. All of these just remind me of how different everything is, how impossible it is to go back. Ergo, I must consider myself, like Pip, a bit of an a**hat.
Except, everyone else is changing, too. They can’t go back to the way things were anymore than I can. In fact, they are all working toward their own “great expectations,” and, probably, struggling with their own attendant regrets. Nobody, not even Pip’s pal and provider Joe Gargery, is sitting at home unchanged. So maybe it’s time I cut Pip, and myself, a break. Maybe, in the great bildungsroman of life, this is just another lesson all of us learn as we’re growing up.