A Serious Game, Part 2: Moral as the Dickens

Welcome back to A Serious Game, my final senior essay on why I study literature.  Last time we talked about Borges.  Now we’re going to talk about a book that everyone I know hates!  Hooray!

The ways we interact with fiction and reality are more similar than we may be instinctually inclined to believe.  We may in fact “read” the real world as if it were a piece of fiction.  As Umberto Eco describes it, “the reader maps the fictional model onto reality — in other words, … the reader comes to believe in the actual existence of characters and events” (Walks 125).  This can be as silly as five-year-old me believing that Old Hickory is real, as my grandfather’s stories suggested: he told me a monster was trying to pull me into the walls of the house, and the walls of the house had a strange habit of knocking me on the skull whenever I was overexcited and let my guard down, so it seemed safe enough to assume the monster was the reason.  Or perhaps it’s as innocuous as someone reading a fudged historical fact in a Dan Brown thriller and, with no reason to question it, spending the rest of his or her days having an inaccurate but generally non-threatening misconception about the nature and content of the Gnostic Gospels.  Yet it could also be graver: reading Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta may teach me that Catholics are greedy, lascivious, and hypocritical; that women are emotional and unreliable; that Muslims are treacherous but simple-minded butchers; and that Jews are inhuman, murderous masterminds.  The narrator of “Tlön” feels a deep unease about the sudden a full assent of the human race to the new, fictional world it has discovered, and reading presents a similar problem: by forgetting the chessmaster nature of the authors of a fiction, readers run the risk of creating a way of life that may not be beneficial to them personally or for us as a species.

This where the necessity of an ethical reading practice becomes apparent, for despite the possible dangers of fictional mapping we still return to fiction and narrative.  The fact is, we need them.  Eco says it is in fiction that “we seek a formula to give meaning to our existence.  Throughout our lives, after all, we look for a story of our origins, to tell us why we were born and why we have lived” (Walks 139).  A striking example of such a practice in a fictional work itself can be found in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, the Victorian bildungsroman of Pip, written as an autobiography chronicling his life, mishaps, and adventures.  In writing his story, Pip gives a formula to his life, as Eco postulates, but what is also remarkable is how Pip’s narrative is, in the end, also a noticeable (re)construction of various other narratives that he has encountered.

For instance, Pip’s narrative takes on various veils or tones of multiple generic modes at different points; his visits to Miss Havisham, for instance, are usually Gothic:

…we came to Miss Havisham’s house, which was of old brick, and dismal, and had a great many iron bars on it. … The cold wind seemed to blow colder there, than outside the gate; and it made a shrill noise in howling in and out of the open sides of the brewery, like the noise of wind in the rigging of a ship at sea.  (Dickens 55-56)

In a similar matter later on, when Mrs. Joe is assaulted by an unknown culprit, Pip’s narration becomes reminiscent to that of a mystery or detective novel, with a full account of the situation prior to and after the incident, gathered from statements of a few witnesses, and the presentation of scattered pieces of specific evidence, such as the “convict’s leg-iron” (120) used to do the deed — though the ‘mystery’ is not solved immediately.

Yet the way in which Pip’s narrative is given to sliding from a psychological account into shades of other literary modes seems to lend credence to Oscar Wilde’s claim — in anticipation of Eco’s thoughts — that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” (1991).  In a more direct sense, Pip’s tendency to change genres supports the Wildean idea that “Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us” (1992, my italics).  Pip’s story is most easily related to the reader not as some wholly original tale but as part of several preexisting artistic discourses and traditions, from which Dickens and the reader both draw to complement the narrative.  To put it another way, Wilde suggests that the true purpose of nature is to “illustrate quotations from the poets” (1997) — that is, to reflect the qualities of art we enjoy.  In Great Expectations, we see a more practical application of this theory in Pip who, as a sort of pseudo-Wildean aesthete, translates his life into the borrowed, communally comprehensible discourses that underscore his story, or rather the telling of it.

For Pip, the telling of his own story is the primary motivator of the autobiography project.  He presents himself to us as an author, as the writer of his own narrative, and in addition to the aesthetic discourses in which he operates Pip must contend not only with the actual fictional discourses he uses to color his tale, but with several competing author figures (or perceived author figures) who make their own narrative designs on his life.  Most of the principal characters have great expectations (as the phrase goes) for Pip, and in particular the way their plans for his life augment their own lives.

Pip, for his part, has a romantic arc plotted out in which he becomes a gentleman, marries Estella, and claims Miss Havisham’s estate; Joe plans for Pip to be his apprentice blacksmith; Miss Havisham sees Pip as a pawn in her plans for revenge; Estella sees Pip as a means to an end, a heart to break and a way to fulfill her purpose; Magwitch wants to raise Pip as a gentleman to overcome his own unfortunate history as a peasant and criminal.  Pumblechook is, in a way, a parody of all of these characters, in that he constantly, falsely, and successfully claims to be one of “them which brought [Pip] up by hand” (Dickens 26), intrinsic to Pip’s success, and thereby passes himself off as a great and powerful authority in Pip’s native village.  If, as Wilde and Eco suggest, Pip’s and our understanding of art and fiction is the framework through which Pip’s narrative becomes intelligible, then these great expectations are the raw material from which that narrative is fashioned.

It is profitable now to turn to Barthes, who claims that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.  Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost” (142).  Pip tells us his story, relating it to the reader through selective representation and preexisting generic discourses, for as Barthes says, “the responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman or relater” (142).  Pip’s identity arises from Barthes’s oblique space of writing.  The novel also shows ways in which Pip’s own arc for his life intertwines and clashes with the plans of other characters; Pip is articulated as an individual through his mediating and recombining of a web of social narratives pressed onto him.

Pip cannot win Estella and Satis House and achieve his personal heroic dream of doing “all the deeds of the young Knight of romance” (Dickens 231), but crucially neither can he fully separate himself from the various plots others lay.  Estella herself shows acquiescence to Havisham’s plans: “We have no choice, you and I, but to obey our instructions” (265).  Pip does not give in, instead creating a personal narrative to reconfigure these various influences on his own terms.  To return to Barthes, Pip’s narrative is “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash,” so Pip’s story, forged from the great expectations of myriad sources and seen through the lenses of Pip’s digested fictions, is “a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture” (146).  Pip mediates the conflicting narratives of himself and the characters surrounding him in order to make a sensible arc of his life, a plotted autobiography.  Late in the novel he describes the horror that overcomes him when he is nearly murdered by Orlick and realizes his story might remain forever ‘unfinished’ and, importantly, untold:

none would ever know what I had suffered, how true I had meant to be, what an agony I had passed through.  The death before me was terrible, but far more terrible than death was the dread of being misremembered after death. (425)

Fortunately, Pip survives to tell us his tale: his history, a combination of his expectations, the expectations and histories of those around him, and a healthy sprinkling of generic juggling.  Each of us is in a sense like Pip, a Barthesian mediator of the various narratives passed onto us by our family, friends, culture, and literature; it is through the processing of these narratives and their conventions that we shape our own identities, give form to our existences.  We reside in what Eco describes as a “tangle of individual and collective memory” that “prolongs our life … by extending it back through time, and appears to us as a promise of immortality” (Walks 131).

So fiction maps onto my life and helps make me who I am.  But I cannot accept this premise without facing the fact that there must be an ethical consciousness in how I should process and appropriate narratives.  For instance, it might be observed that the reading of Great Expectations I’ve offered poses some problems.  To an extent, it privileges characters’ ability to read and write and even their ability to interpret over other concerns — such as how class or gender seems to implicitly affect how well a person can do any of these things.  Magwitch is similar to Pip in that he is an orphan who only knows his name — not because he reads it on a tombstone, as Pip does, but because it is in a manner self-evident for him, he knows it “[m]uch as [he] know’d the birds’ names” (346).  His identity is not constructed, as we see Pip’s being constructed, but simply a statement of fact.  Joe, likewise, is illiterate for most of the novel, and portrayed in a similarly tautological way: a blacksmith who knows how to be a blacksmith and is happy to be a blacksmith.  Estella and Miss Havisham do not face the problem of being illiterate, but still fall into strange spaces within the narrative.  Unlike Magwitch, who gets the majority of a whole chapter in his own voice, a similar chapter devoted to Estella is told in Pip’s voice, from Pip’s point of view.  Pip himself, though in one way the master mediator of all the novel’s narratives, is also ensconced economically by his debts to Pocket.  One may speculate that the writing of Pip’s autobiography is some attempt to provide an illusion of a wider agency in his own life, but in doing so he privileges his own narrative over those of others.  It may make him less than ethical as both a reader and a writer, and since the text itself doesn’t seem to take issue with Pip’s practices in this regard, some readers may be inclined to say that Great Expectations itself is unethical.  Do we want to follow in Pip’s example?  I certainly don’t want to think that in the telling of my own story (should I ever bother) I subjugate or simplify the many people I’ve known.  But on the other hand, I really don’t have a choice in my imitation of Pip, for we are all  to some degree like him: we must constitute an identity from the narratives and contexts our surroundings provide us.  The best we can do is be conscientious about it; our processing of narratives, including literature, must include an ethical critical concern.

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