Great Coincidence and Revelations
Great Expectations; the quintessential Victorian bildungsroman. It tells the story of Pip, the unlucky product of the early-nineteenth century upheaval that followed the early industrial revolution in Britain, and the unwitting victim of the pen of the great social chronicler of the age, Charles Dickens. Left almost alone after the death of almost all of his family, we meet him first lamenting over their graves, before he is joined by Magwitch, an escaped convict from the nearby prison hulks. He is the secondary protagonist of this novel, and the crossing of their paths forms the central dynamic at the heart of this novel; their meeting is the founding coincidence of Great Expectations; everything else stems from this original sin.
The dynamic and narrative structure of any novel can be conceived as analogous to a history; a selection of events, told in a certain way, portraying a particular viewpoint, encouraging a particular reading. A novel, like a history is a window into an uncertain abyss, giving shape to the out there, the unknown. Any individual history or novel is necessarily closed; each one adheres to its own logic and has its own flow.
Although a work of fiction, and often not dealing directly with history, the mode of narration and the devices an author employs in a novel gives the work an internal logic which can provide an insight into their conception of history, and how it they believe it should be conceptualised by the reader. The narrative in Great Expectations is driven forward by two devices; coincidence and revelation, and how each is employed tells us something about how Charles Dickens and the Victorians conceptualised the historical process and the writing of history.
The narrative formation in Great Expectations reveals to us a conservative reading of history; the two main narrative modes employed are ones which strip history of its emancipatory potential and situate human beings as being hemmed in by forces beyond their control. Both coincidence and revelation close off avenues of possibility by sublimating and obfuscating the explanations, and therefore the levers, of the human condition. These devices hide the mechanics of change behind closed doors, offscreen, and subduct the contingent contours of history underground into a metaphysical cave far away from the light. Conservative histories place the explanatory elements in a metaphysical box that cannot be accessed from the present by the historian, and which they make no attempt to access. This closes it off as an object for debate; it just is.
Coincidence in this reading is an act of narrative providence, the worldly manifestation of cosmic desire. It becomes necessary for the furthering off the plot and represents the desire of the author, but its narrative power is unearned and exists outside the central narrative logic. In the writing of history certain events are conceptualised in hindsight, or after the fact as inevitable, reflecting some underlying force; the event that the historian would have to be invent if it didn’t already exist, and for Dickens this is what he must do. The dropping of the note before Pip is captured by Orlick, Magwitch meeting Pip, the meetings of Herbert and Pip. The ends are put before the means, and the in-between must be contorted to fulfil its telos. This is a reading of history that is focussed purely on ends — it is teleological, and this conceptualisation of the historical process is a deeply reactionary one. For the proponent of this mechanism history serves merely to justify the present, as the inevitable outcome of all preceding events; or it serves to fetishise an imagined future, past and present merely serving its needs.
However, the more powerful and relevant device to analyse is revelation: this mode purports that everything that can be written exists already, but latently, and the role of the historian, and the one that Dickens assumes, is merely revelatory, rather than constructive.
In this novel, history is not viewed as a constructive discipline or undertaking, but merely the playing out of truths decided before the narrative window; it does not take on a logic of its own, and in some sense the actions of the characters during the events of the story narrated to us do not matter at all — no matter what they do the outcome will be the same. Almost every important event within the novel is Pip uncovering a secret from this distant past — who is benefactor is, the story of Mrs. Havisham, the crimes and tribulations of Magwitch, the providence of Estella and the role of Mr. Jaggers.
The rest of the events of the novel are merely revelation, determined by these events from the distant past — the intertwining of Magwitch, Mrs. Havisham, Estella and Mr. Jaggers, which comes to dominate Pip’s life is driven by events that occurred well before their crossing of paths. Pip’s role in this is merely as an archaeologist, rather than as a protagonist, creating the world in his own image — he is merely the conduit through which the pre-ordained is revealed to us, the reader.
Of course, there are some choices to be made, mostly by Pip, but they seem inconsequential compared to the revelations which pepper the narrative and drive it forward. Even the central choice Pip must make — to accept the gifts of his unknown benefactor — seems somewhat pre-ordained, and seemingly inevitable, that it could not have been otherwise. And this is a choice made not in full receipt of the facts, the choice being made subject to a bait and switch that somewhat limits the conclusions about Pip’s inner mind or character that we can draw from it.
The conventional reading of this novel frames it as the great story of personal growth and learning; of being content with what one has, and the importance of looking within for improvement and being suspicious of any elevation that comes from without. This is supposedly told to us through the avatar of Pip, who comes full circle in the novel and realises the importance of appreciating his circumstances and to eschew his ‘great expectations’. However, can be it said that Pip learns anything, or that the narrative is particularly changed by his presence or actions? Mostly the narrative moves forward by Pip being told about events that happened well outside the temporal scope of the novel. The narrative moves forward only through these revelations.
Conservative or reactionary histories are often written in this mode, they are deterministic and reductive; the unfolding of any set of events can be attributed to some historical artefact, whether that be a particular human trait, or a specific event or the character of a particular nation. This determinant becomes the mana from heaven in their conception of history and the historical process.
This determines the unfolding of historical events, while other more proximate events are ignored. It is not a constructive exercise but merely an act of attributing everything to the artefact chosen by the historian. Charles Dickens was writing around the time that ‘scientific’ history was gaining prominence; espoused by pioneers such as Leopold von Ranke, it emphasised the knowability of history through a systematic approach to the primary sources. But it also focussed heavily on the ‘character’ of a people, and so divergent fortunes could be attributed to certain innate characteristics, creating justifications for the conservation and enforcement of existing hierarchies.
Other examples of these artefacts include capitalism, the Protestant work ethic or the spirit of British innovation or industry; causes or determinants that came from beyond or outside, never from within, and are made immutable by the historian. The same can be seen in Great Expectations, where everything that drives the plot forward comes from outside the window of the novel and is already decided; it is a closed loop where no attempt is made to portray or understand its internal logic, because all narrative momentum is provided by events or character developments out of sight of the readers.
The arc, or non-arc as it were, of Compeyson, exemplifies this tendency; we never truly encounter him, but are only aware of him obliquely, through the eyes of others. This is history decided ‘behind the scenes’; nothing the on-screen characters do can change the seemingly inevitable spectre of Compeyson. He is seen only in his absence, in the negative, in one’s peripheral vision; if one looks at him directly, he disappears.
Until the scene on the boat, Pip only encounters him through the stories of Magwitch, or through the eyes of another, when Mr. Wimple sees him sitting behind him during his performance. Even when he is finally observed, he immediately disappears beneath the waves — he is the force of history that cannot be changed, but which always exists, just out of sight. Dickens cannot portray him in full sight, just as he cannot conceive of history as anything other than conservative; and he cannot construct the narrative of his novel as anything other than an unfurling of the already determined.
This conception of history has repercussions for us in the present, and for the future. Because if everything that could exist already does, there is nothing that can be created anew; the future is foreclosed, beyond our control, and out of our reach. The forces that shape us, and determine our fate have already been decided, off screen, and we must simply wait for them to be revealed to us.