January 28, 2014

Great Expectations: Take Nothing On Its Looks


"I embrace this opportunity of remarking that he washed his clients off, as if he were a surgeon or a dentist. He had a closet in his room, fitted up for that purpose, which smelt of the scented soap like a perfumer's shop. It had an unusually large jack-towel on a roller inside the door, and he would wash his hands, and wipe them and dry them all over this towel, whenever he came in from a police court or dismissed a client from his room. When I and my friends repaired to him at six o'clock next day, he seemed to have been engaged on a case of a darker complexion than usual, for we found him with his head butted into this closet, not only washing his hands, but laving his face and gargling his throat. And even when he had done all that, and had gone round the jack-towel, he took out his penknife and scraped the case out of his nails before he put his coat on."

When I thought of Great Expectations, I used to think of Miss Havisham first. She shrouds herself in bridal rags, sitting next to a rotted bridal cake, with one bridal shoe in hand. She is wreathed in disappointment and bitterness to such an extent that the only thing she can teach her adopted daughter, Estella, is how to exact revenge on men.

But this time through Great Expectations, I was absorbed in the men. How curious it is that Pip's legal guardian, Jaggers, finds it necessary to be so scrupulously clean. His cleanliness is purely of an external nature, not an internal one, for he is far removed from the people whom he serves as lawyer. He seems to care not at all about the outcome of their cases as long as he can keep himself free of the dirt and scandal.

How ironic it is, then, that he advises Pip,"Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There's no better rule." (p. 180)  Poor Pip is unable to do that. He looks at his great fortune with great expectation, that being a London gentleman will remove the shame he feels of being "common and coarse". And in running from common and coarse, Pip dismisses honorable and true.

For who is the noblest, the strongest, the bravest and best man in all of the novel? It is Joe, the man who minds the forge in town, standing before his anvil wearing a leather apron and an undaunted spirit of courage and grace. 

How is it that we make ourselves "clean"? Surely not from the outside. No amount of soap can give Jaggers, or Pip, or any other male character in Great Expectations the purity we find in Joe.


(I read this book with Tom of Wuthering Expectations. I so look forward to his thoughts, as he delves into novels with depth and often writes a series of posts concerning just one book. We had agreed to post at the end of January, but mine is up a bit early.)

12 comments:

  1. OMG, you're making me want to read it for the umpteenth time! This got me: For who is the noblest, the strongest, the bravest and best man in all of the novel? It is Joe, the man who minds the forge in town, standing before his anvil wearing a leather apron and an undaunted spirit of courage and grace.

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    1. This was my second time round, and I liked it even more this time. It's funny how good books just keep getting better. So glad you liked my (favorite) paragraph in this post.

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  2. I've never read it but you sure are making me want to.

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    1. It's well worth it, JuJu. Lots of issues to think about pertaining to us humans.

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  3. What an interesting perspective on this book. I want to read it now. I keep putting it off but to think of looking at books from a different angle is quite appealing.

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    1. I think that our experience is broadened by rereading the really good books. Just like I catch more when I see a film twice, I think the same is true for those really good books. Different angles at different readings, that's the mark of a fine read.

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  4. I think you're right about Joe. But what does that say about us in the end? Joe is noble, etc. but long-suffering above all, yes? The way his wife and Pip both treat him. He's something of a doormat.

    He's almost the perfect Dickensian heroine, the second wife David Copperfield marries when he comes to his senses.

    He's also the nicest guy in the book, and probably the one I would most want to be like.

    I also want to reread this one after reading your post.

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    1. Ah, James! here you touch on a point which could provide fodder for five more...is being good the same as being meek? I think of Christ, and here I know I differ from many of my readers, and I see a man who was brave and good and humble to the point of death. It isn't an American way of thinking; we're into bravado and muscle. But I don't think being humble negates that. I think it takes a rare man/woman to be hurt and remain noble at the same time.

      I certainly am not that good. But, I'm working on it.

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  5. I agree with your assessment of Joe... it's high time for me to reread my favorite Dickens!

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    1. Isn't it funny how people often think of Miss Havisham first? Or maybe that's just my impression. But, I'd forgotten about Joe somehow, and this time I was really struck by his character. Of spirit.

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  6. What good timing! I now have a piece up, too. Tomorrow I will pursue the soap and cleanliness theme you begin here. You are on to something.

    I hope that business about "depth" was meant as a joke, though.

    This idea many of the commenters have, that your post make them want to read or reread the book, is something I should pursue sometime. I guess maybe I write the post that would make me want to read the book.

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    1. Depth is not a joke, Tom, when it comes to your posts. You write insightful posts about details, many of which strike me for the first time as I look at them through your eyes. You make me want to read the books you write about. Off to see what you wrote about this one.

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