The Representation of, and the Relationship Between, Childhood, Happiness, and Virtue in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations

Great Expectations – a story of moral redemption, a parable about the corrupting influence of wealth, and a look at the nature of virtue as it relates to class, crime, and childhood. It’s a novel that deals with weighty topics, and constantly blurs the lines between right and wrong, moral and immoral, as it sees Pip through his journey of understanding and discovery. Along the way, we as readers trace this journey, from naive child to grown man, and all the discoveries and realizations of the self that come with it. At the heart of Pip’s many revelations is his childhood, a restrictive and often unhappy period which holds the key to a great deal of repressed guilt, desire, and ambition.

Pip’s guilt in the novel is complex and multi-faceted, and in it we can find much about his understanding of the notions of happiness and virtue. In the first sense, Pip feels a criminal guilt for his association with Magwitch at the start of the novel, and his committing of a crime in stealing from his sister. This first kind of guilt coincides with a sort of awakening in the young pip, who claims his meeting with Magwitch to be the time when he first develops a “vivid and broad impression of the identity of things”. David Trotter (Penguin 2004) suggests that this awakening of the senses means that “Pip feels uneasy from the moment he begins to feel at all”. Perception itself is guilt, and it infuses Pip’s domestic world with the visual symbolism of crime – Pip imagines the bread shoved down his trouser leg as an iron chain bound to him, a “part of his consciousness”. He likens the sound of flint and steel to a pirate rattling his chains, and he imagines his journey up the stairs in the dark as a solitary journey towards his damnation at the Hulks.

But Pip’s guilt is also manifest from a much younger age. In chapter four, Mrs Joe and the other guests at dinner are all quick to judge Pip and assign blame to him wherever possible, and in doing so so they reveal a deep-seeded emotional guilt that has followed Pip since birth. As he says: “They seemed to think the opportunity lost, if they failed to point the conversation at me, every now and then, and stick the point into me…I got so smartingly touched up by these moral goads”. Mrs Joe then finally reveals the source of Pip’s guilt, when she expresses to everyone how much of a burden he has been to her: “[she] entered on a fearful catalogue of all the illnesses I had been guilty of, all the acts of sleeplessness I had committed…all the times she had wished me in my grave, and I had contumaciously refused to go there”. Pip’s perpetual guilt is a Freudian craving for the affection of a mother figure, the source of all his ingratitude and restless ambition that he is forced to confront at the end of the novel. Pip is led to believe that he is without virtue, and his journey to emotional redemption can be seen as his attempt to reclaim it from the shadow of his adoptive mother.

Pip undergoes a second awakening when he is introduced to Miss Havisham and Estella, and it is here that he develops another kind of guilt, a guilt for his social position and his working class status. When Estella comments on the coarse nature of his hands and his boots, Pip says that “I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before, but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. [Estella’s] contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it”. This moment is the first that leads Pip down a path in which he tries to fill a void of virtue and happiness using money. Pip’s association of personal value with monetary value, however, is deep seeded and again dates back to his childhood. Pip notes in chapter four how Pumblechook always refers to him as “sixpennorth of halfpence”, assigning him a monetary value (a very small one) as it relates to his character. Pip has been conditioned, then, to associate wealth with strength of character, morality, and virtue, and he is forced to confront this notion when he learns that Magwitch is his benefactor – he learns that the rich are not always virtuous, and the virtuous are certainly not always rich.

Joe proves to be a model of such working class virtue throughout Great Expectations. Warm, generous, grateful and content, he is everything Pip has been led to believe he is not, but Pip, blinded by the virtue of wealth, is unable to recognize him as a model of character and virtue. This is perhaps Pip’s most damning crime of all in the novel, particularly his admission in London that “If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money”. In this passage we can see the full influence of Pip’s wealth, how it has replaced Joe entirely and serves some protective, familial purpose towards him. Joe’s virtue is of a pure, almost childlike kind – he finds good in everyone, including Magwitch. During chapter five, when the soldiers are about to take Magwitch to the Hulks and they are all resting together in the wooden hut, Magwitch admits to having stolen a pork pie among other food, from the pantry. Joe’s responds with, “God knows you’re welcome to it…we don’t know what you’ve done, but we wouldn’t have you starved to death for it, poor miserable fellow-creatur”. This exchange recalls Pip’s earlier encounter on the marshes, where, having brought the pie to Magwitch, he “[makes] bold to say, “I’m glad you enjoy it””, to which Magwitch replies “Thankee, my boy, I do”. These small moments of kindness are the innocent and perhaps naive virtues of childhood, and although Pip loses them amongst the streets of London, he reclaims them with his eventual redemption at the novels end.

But does virtue lead to happiness? For Pip in his childhood, this certainly seems not to be the case. If the happiness of childhood is blissful ignorance, then Pip is constantly made aware of himself and the world around him, aware of his own faults and the faults of the society in which he lives. His childhood is largely solitary, with only Joe, Mrs Joe and the marshes for company. This is largely adult company, which forces him to understand the world and himself long before many other children do. It would be difficult, in these circumstances, to say that Pip’s childhood is a happy one. His childlike innocence is perceived as nagging curiosity by his sister, while every other adult in his life (save Joe) patronizes and vilifies him seemingly without reason. By the end of the novel, however, surrounded by good friends and, just as importantly, good deeds, Pip is able to find happiness. His friendship with Wemmick restores his faith in the family as a functional unit, his homely fortress Walworth serving symbolically as a last bastion of domesticity in Pip’s life and in the busy streets of London. Wemmick’s selfless care for his half-deaf father, despite his being a burden, is everything Pip’s sister could never give to him as a child, and it is through his association with these characters that Pip is finally able to recognize his own rejection of domestic life, and his deep affection for Joe.

This final revelation is the one that brings him a true and lasting happiness, one founded on a selfless desire to see Joe happy with his new wife and family. This re-embrace of the domestic is the culmination of the lessons Pip learns about the nature of virtue throughout Great Expectations – how it can come from strange and unexpected places, how it cant be bought with money, and how important are gratitude, selflessness, and affection for those we love.

Advertisements

CLASSIC REVIEW: Talk Talk – Laughing Stock

 

Laughing Stock – one of the most enigmatic, chameleonic albums to have ever received the label of “rock”. Where do you even begin? This is an album that defies genre, defies classification, refuses to sit still, never fails to mystify. It’s a deeply introspective listening experience, one that operates on an unfamiliar, ephemeral logic, and draws lines between disparate musical styles and sounds ranging from art rock to jazz, ambient, and gospel. It is often championed as one of the precursors to post-rock, and yet, in many ways, it is the complete antithesis of the genre it helped to spawn. It is an album of subtle tonal evolution, the slightest changes in its ever-shifting mass of mood and instrumentation demanding the closest attention. Laughing Stock is, in short, not an easy album to write about.

Its history is no less baffling, and offers no point of entry for understanding the contents of the album itself. Talk Talk started out in the 80s as a synth-pop band, their music full of unadulterated cheese: in the video for their 1984 single “Dum Dum Girl”, frontman and lead songwriter Mark Hollis sings earnestly into the camera wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket, while another panning shot catches his gloriously mulleted hair in full swish. And yet, a bit later in the video, he breaks into laughter and says, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “I feel like a member of Pink Floooyd“. Hollis’ ability to fluctuate between taking himself intensely seriously and bordering on self-parody was bewildering, and it made you wonder if he wasn’t engaging in some great elaborate joke for the sole purpose of making Laughing Stock even more impenetrable.

Impenetrable is certainly a word that could be applied to the albums opener, “Myrrhman”, a track full of disorientatingly empty space in which scraps of minimal instrumentation tentatively ebb and flow across the mix, refusing to be drawn into anything resembling song structure. Staccato guitar chords ring out with clinical clarity, and winding strings circle a handful of plaintive piano notes. We’re first introduced to Mark Hollis’ breathy croon, reduced almost to a whisper, and full of largely indecipherable lyrics. The few phrases we do catch come from some mystical, magical place: “I tred the pendants beneath my feet”, “Blessed love, the love I’ve seen”. For the most part, however, Hollis’ singing here, as on the rest of Laughing Stock, resists understanding entirely. His voice, conveying more tone than actual language, becomes an expressive mass of nasally syllables and long vowels that seems always to be dripping in a rusty Americana, far removed from his native London accent. If Hollis’ words are obscured, however, the minute sonic detail of “Myrrhman” is crystal clear. From the warm hiss of the tape always audible in the background, to the way every sound seems to hang in the air as it reverberates in the foreground, the track feels meticulously constructed at every turn.

And yet the track, like Laughing Stock as a whole, is an entirely spontaneous creation. Plucked and pieced together from hours upon hours of improvised recordings by a huge ensemble of musicians, Laughing Stock was an album that seemed, even to those involved in creating it, to have appeared out of nowhere. Engineer Phil Brown described it as being “recorded by chance, accident, and hours of trying every possible overdub idea “. This improvisational element can be heard most acutely in the other two tracks that make up the albums first half, “Ascension Day” and “After The Flood”. Here more than anywhere Talk Talk reach into the realm of jazz, their steady, loose percussion and wandering bass holding together their explorations into climactic rock and melancholy gospel. The first of the two, “Ascension Day”, is the only track here that contains something that could be likened to a chorus, as a handful of plucked guitar notes erupt into a sharp, clanging refrain that constantly threatens to explode into a climactic crescendo, but always recedes back into itself. When it finally does explode, the thrill is short lived – the track cuts out to silence precisely at the six minute mark, with disorientating and exhilarating effect. You can practically hear the tape being sliced, hear the uninterrupted ten minute jam that was brutally excised in the editing process.

“After The Flood”, then, is appropriately named. The track opens, suddenly, in the aftermath of a confusing and chaotic jam, into a space of quiet, reverential calm. Deep, aquatic synths resonate across both channels, while the same hypnotising jazz percussion clicks and turns behind a wailing church organ to achingly beautiful effect. The feeling here is one akin to that of coming up for air after a long period underwater, or stepping out of the rain into an empty home : breathless, peaceful, and intensely calm. “After The Flood” also demonstrates Talk Talk’s control of tone and inflection at its most potent – the track shifts seamlessly through cautious optimism, nervous tension and deep melancholy with the subtlest changes in key. “Taphead”, which follows, takes this control over tone into a much darker, more foreboding place. The recording here is sparse and physical, opening onto nothing more than Hollis and a lonely electric guitar. His every sound, every movement of his fingers along the fretboard, rings out in complete silence. You can picture him vividly, alone, in a dark room, whispering into a microphone. But as the track moves, ominous strings creep into the mix, and as he continues to croon, his vocals become drowned in dissonant horns and brass. The effect is chilling, and evidence that Talk Talk weren’t afraid to explore tension without release in their music.

If “New Grass” does away with this tension entirely, substituting instead for bright, primary colours and emotive piano and guitar refrains, then closer “Runeii” creates a new kind of tension – that between sound and silence. Consisting of almost nothing but Hollis, an electric guitar, and tape hiss, the track winds its way down some lonely desert road for five spellbinding minutes, while Hollis delivers his most earnest, mournful vocal delivery yet. But his guitar is perhaps more expressive than even he is. Rarely has an electric guitar sounded so lonely, and Hollis raises the instrument to an almost spiritual level of hushed reverence here.

‘Hushed reverence’ just about sums up Laughing Stock, both in its tone and in the reactions it inspires from its listeners. This is an album shrouded in religious mysticism and experimental sensibility – and yet, for all its obtuseness, it resonates deeply and immediately. Few albums have acquired such mystery and mythology around them as this, but Laughing Stock’s real power is in the way it cuts through it all with the incredible physicality and clarity of the music contained within it. For those willing to take the journey, Talk Talk’s magnum opus is a paradoxical and endlessly  engaging box of secrets, a revelation with every listen.

strong 9/10