Fiction as Truth: The Fall and Purification of PipR. KENTON CRAVEN
My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to be to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening.
My introduction to Dickens and to Great Expectations was pure and unsullied by academic criticism. I met Pip in the cemetery in the David Lean movie starring Alec Guinness and John Mills (1946) when I was eight. I don't recommend the movie except for the excellent graveyard scenes with Pip and the criminal Magwitch and the scenes in the decaying home of Miss Havisham. From the beginning I was arrested by images which suspended me between pity and fear, and which still hold me as powerfully as the greatest images in all literature. I knew too, though I could not have said it then, that these images conveyed into my very soul a great spiritual struggle like my own. Before I knew anything about anything, I was saying "by gum!" like C. S. Lewis's schoolboy, "not in the least knowing how it worked."1 Nevertheless, I was absorbing truth -- "the identity of things" -- through the fiction of Charles Dickens, a genius of story-making,
Many years later, in graduate school, I was exposed to bewildering theories about literature, Freudianism, Jungianism, the "New" Criticism of a dozen varieties, "archetypal" criticism, and structuralism, as well as a host of other -isms spun off from Marx and French nihilists, all of which contended for the carcass of literature, where they fed like vultures tearing at dead flesh. Sometimes beginning to doubt my sanity, I was fortunate to have a great teacher named Arvid Shulenberger who entered the classroom "like an old stone savage armed," in Robert Frost's words, and turned the academics upon their heads, scoffing at their childish -- and devilish -- games.
I mention this because the thing called "literary criticism" needs, like Pip himself, to be purified of pretension. For students in the 21st century, after a century of intellectual decadence and intellectual corruption, this is essential. If you have been infected with feminism, postmodernism, and various other nihilistic ideologies disconnected from reality -- and chances are you have been more influenced than you know -- looking at Dickens' masterwork Great Expectations requires clearing of the ground and reclaiming ancient teaching. "Literary criticism" is not an occult science; it is simply the record of what philosophers and poets and interested readers have said about poems, plays, lyrics, and novels. At various points these obiter dicta have been distilled into basic principles, beginning with Aristotle's Poetics.
Shulenberger returned us to those basic principles with The Orthodox Poetic: A Literary Catechism, an invaluable pamphlet which, through the generosity of his son, may now be found in cyberspace.2 Shulenberger seemed a knight jousting with the whole army of infidels. His tiny book, and his teaching from it, struck at the very foundations of modern literary criticism with simple questions: What is art? What is 'literature'? What is it for? What is 'literature' about? And just how is it about it? And what good is that? And why are you here? What little I know about literary criticism came from that tract and from the lively dialogues Frank Nelick and Shulenberger conducted before an astonished audience of graduates and undergraduates. These jolted us into an awareness of what we should really be about: the search for truth, not mere symbol hunting and textual analysis. Most, we were shaken into awareness that the whole of modern criticism was dominated by the autotelic heresy, the belief that "literature," or, rather, poetry, was an end-in-itself, a thing without purpose, to be worshipped as the objets d'arts of the modern plastic arts were to be worshipped.
In the orthodox view, the artist discovers essential forms in nature which he renders through the materials and method of his particular art. For the poet, that means metaphor, which includes plot or story (mythos). For readers or audiences, that means that we behold the particular metaphor or story with delight (aha!) as we re-cognize its correspondence to our knowledge of nature through perception and experience. As Aristotle demonstrated in the Poetics, some renderings of natural happenings through plots are simply better than others because they correspond more authentically with human nature and experience, which is why Sophocles and Homer are great poets: they have seen deeply into the nature of things and have found stories that touch us precisely for that reason.
The consideration of fiction as an imitative art today is confined to something called narratology, a derivative of Russian formalism and other structuralist traditions, all of which continue the modernist and postmodernist assumption that the only legitimate concern of the critic is with the external form of the work, seen as an abstract gestalt with no referential value to "reality" or nature. Following the deconstructionists, they believe that nothing exists but language. The first philosopher of mimesis, Aristotle himself, was fully aware of the external or secondary form of a poem, its form as dialogue or narration and its style, and knew that these things affect the power of the poem in effecting a desired audience response, but Shulenberger's point is that modern literary criticism focuses entirely on the secondary or efficient causes of the poem and neglects the primary form, the internal form or "soul" that the poet discovers by seeing it (the poet as vates) in nature itself. Teaching students such criticism would be like teaching general anatomy, complete with cadavers, without ever looking at live human beings. If there is no reality that literature can be about in the first place, and poetry can only express internal feelings in forms that bear no relation to anything outside the poet or language, then criticism can only be an endless internal dialogue or argument about design qua design, which locates modern academic criticism in Dante's first level of hell where the philosophers discuss endlessly but hopelessly outside reality.
By contrast, the genuine philosopher talks about reality and first principles. That is why there is a Poetics. The difficulty is that when moderns go to Aristotle to discover the workings of literature, they find that this whole poetic business appears to be cross-referenced and entangled with aesthetics, ethics, religion, and metaphysics; in short, with the whole nine yards of reality itself. Every thread seems to lead toward the center, and the center looks embarrassingly like those nursery teachings (see G. K. Chesterton, "The Ethics of Elfland," Orthodoxy)4 the university most dearly wants to avoid: beauty, truth, goodness, evil, sin, time, eternity, and everything that has tko do with the purposive nature of human existence. In order to talk about Great Expectations, it is necessary to use these words, because like all great poetry, Great Expectations is about something.
It is a most miserable thing to be ashamed of home.
From the time Magwitch's rough hand seized Pip's shoulder -- and it seemed to me, mine also -- I knew what it was about: being caught, being trapped and isolated, transgression, and fear. In short, the pain of the fall, and the yearning for purification. We need not stray into those paths that might focus on the pain and purification of Dickens, but can stay with the pain and purification of Pip and ourselves. Unless we allow ourselves to be mystified by the academics, we already know the inner struggle of Pip and need no research to find it, for it is difficult to imagine many readers who do not identify from the beginning of the story with Pip's painful journey into increasing guilt and shame, his knowing self-entrapment in secrecy, and his desperate desire to escape his real life into fantasies of Great Expectations. And as for "Great Expectations," we know those as well, and I suspect most of us can remember with burning shame -- like Dr. Johnson standing hatless and penitent in the public marketplace of Lichfield -- our own betrayals of friends, family, and home and our own adoption of fantasies in which we play the leading role of something greater than we knew we were, and our own conniving with any opportunity to deny our origins.
Such shame is the deepest kind, shame at one's existence, a constant painful wishing that one is someone else and not the person others see. It is rooted deeply in a consciousness of a primary sin. As Josef Pieper points out in The Concept of Sin, there is a kind of transgression that will not go away, when we enter into the "freely chosen compulsion of sin" that can only get worse and worse. Like Adam and Eve, Pip, and his readers "want a vantage point in the universe, a private corner," in which we think we "own" our own souls and from which we can say no to any ultimates5
Sin? As Pieper observes in The Concept of Sin, of all the old words we are not supposed to mention, sin is the most unmentionable. Yet how can we even begin to talk about Great Expectations, about Pip, Estella, Miss Havisham, and all the others without approaching that very real thing? As Pieper also observes, we ordinarily understand sin as a turning away from something (God for instance), but as Thomas Aquinas shows, the act of turning away from something is necessarily a turning toward something.6 In this way, Great Expectations is a master tale. As Pip turns away from the very "identity of things" he sought in the graveyard, he is beginning to turn toward the Great Expectations of things that are false and corruptive. It is in this turning toward false goods -- Pip to being a gentleman, Miss Havisham to creating her school of hatred and revenge, Estella from human feelings to calculated control -- that we may say that sin is at the very heart of this novel in the web of secrecy, guilt, shame, and deception it generates. Dickens portays this "fall" into sin with masterly insight, for it is entirely understandable for Pip to react the way he does to following the orders of the convict. Considering his sister, it is easy to sympathize with his young agonies. But gradually this understandable theft and hiding become Pip's self-defining theft and hiding, as he holds all in and creates a Pip inseparable from his sin. Instead of confession and pentitence, he soon discovers escape in his desire to be a gentleman in a play he begins to create and cherish in his soul. As he does so, the burden grows heavier, for Pip knows, as we do, that what has been done cannot be undone. I suspect that it is this matter of hidden sin that makes the reading of Great Expectations both fascinating and painful with sorrow.
As Chesterton points out, such sins are universal because they are so small, like the sins of Peter and David, and "Dickens has dealt with this easy descent of desertion, this silent treason, with remarkable accuracy in the account of the indecisions of Pip."7 I like that "easy descent," because it characterizes Dickens as the skilful maker. While there are clear turning points and moments of recognition in Pip's life, even he is mostly aware only in retrospect of his changing from one way of being to another and here, I would suggest, is the greatness of Dickens' novel from beginning to end. Dickens' major biographer, Edgar Johnson, suggests that in Great Expectations, Dickens achieved his first success "in painting a gradually changing character." 8 Choose any two points in Pip's life, and then try to track exactly how he gets from one to another. My worn copy of the text tells me that a wizard is at work, and nowhere is he more at work in the most important -- and least noticed -- change in Pip's attitude toward Magwitch, which is the beginning of his restoration into a sanity he had only glimpsed as a child haunting a cemetery for a clue to his being.
Consider how Dickens achieves this gradual transformation. It begins with the destruction of any lingering illusions Pip has about Estella through the metaphor of the fall of the heavy roof slab on the Sultan, an emblem of the collapse of Pip's own illusory house.9 The change from this moment to Pip's return to his empty lodgings is a natural one, but what comes next? "What comes next?" is the one and only question for the tale-teller as maker. As Thomas DeQuincey -- one of Dickens' favorite writers -- observed brilliantly in "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth," it is what shows Shakespeare's grasp of the human heart and the human audience, for in that moment Shakespeare brings us from the deepest moment of horror to the everyday comedy of a drunkard.
Hence it is, that when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced; the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.10
To be a master fictionist one must be a master of the rhythms of life as they unfold themselves in the streets and passageways of human existence, of which Dickens is always conscious, and a fascination he shared with DeQuincey.11 The narrator wants us to move from Pip at his worst to Pip as regenerate, penitent, and in the process of a long, painful purification as a human being. In short, from his self-exile from himself to his return home to himself when he sees the new young Pip. Returning home is one of the greatest themes in literature, from the Odyssey to Kristin Lavransdatter, and it always requires the highest artistry to depict it. At the very moment Pip is most in need of his return, Wemmick sends a note, "Don't go home!" And as Pip in his confusion conjugates that over and over, we see his psyche lurch toward change. But exactly when and how does he change?
Dickens is capable of portraying change for one simple reason: he trusts the story he is telling and pursues each moment into its depths. As Edward Wagenknecht noted, "sometimes he found a character growing under his hands." In Dickens' words, "Given what one knows, what one does not know springs up; and I am as absolutely certain of its being true, as I am of the law of gravitation -- if such a thing be possible, more so." That is the moral certitude of a poetic mind reaching truth in story. Dickens continued:
If you want your public to believe in what you write you must believe in it yourself. When I am describing a scene I can as distinctly see what I am describing as I can see you now. So real are my characters to me that on one occasion I had fixed upon the course which one of them was to pursue. The character, however, got hold of me and made me do exactly the opposite to what I had intended; but I was so sure that he was right and I was wrong that I let him have his own way.12
One is reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien's creating the character of Strider without knowing who he was.13
In the classic Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination, William F. Lynch, S.J., showed that in great western literature, "The way up is the way down"14 The poet commits himself to the depths of his vision of nature (the way down) and through this submission to the depths of "facts," he achieves the truths of moral and mystical vision. The poet is one who has hope, and whose hope allows him to trust the plot or story or metaphor to bring him home to eternal truths.15 In other words, as Shulenberger taught us, poetry is an imitation of nature -- the basic processes of war (conflict), love (union), and death (dissolution) -- that achieves universality through the poet's gift in finding the metaphors/plots that delight us with their consonance with truth.
Trusting the depths of the story and following them without, as Lynch says, trying "leap" or "bounce" out of the literal story in an Apollonian manner, is what makes great western literature specifically Aristotelian and thereby at least potentially Christian. In the making of fiction, that trusting the depths of the story is what leads the reader deeper into the mystery of things. That, I believe, is why Dickens achieved his greatest story in Great Expectations, and why modern criticism simply cannot read it with a mind open to great mysteries. In his making of a fiction that achieves universal application, Dickens plunged deeper and deeper into the human experience of ultimates by committing himself absolutely to the story of the fall and purification of Pip.
Purification is not something modern critics can deal with directly or substantially. Neither are sin or shame. They may analyze the author's psychological states or follow the well-worn track of much criticism by seeing the story of Pip as the story of the author, but if they do they are like art critics who comment on Michelangelo's Pieta by grubbing about in rock quarries. Interesting stuff, and maybe some of it true in viewing Dickens as a man, but we are moved farther away from the inner form of the story and the possibility of entering the mysteries it can open to us. As Flannery O'Connor -- herself a traditional fictionist and admirer of Maritain's Art and Scholasticism -- observed, "stories don't lie when left to themselves. Everything has to be subordinated to a whole which is not you. Any story I reveal myself completely in will be a bad story."16
But when, exactly, when and how does Pip change? In bad plays, novels, and movies, that's usually easy to answer. In romantic comedy movies, for instance, there is always a point at which the couple separates in conflict and each takes a walk, sighs in agony, and stares into space, while change-of-heart music plays, and then they return to each other transformed. Using Edwin Muir's (The Structure of the Novel) division of character and dramatic novels,17 we may say that Great Expectations is the dramatic novel par excellence in that character and plot are completely interwoven and both are revealed with greater depth at each moment of the story. After the collapse of Pip's illusory house, what is the next moment? For him to begin his purification, he must go back to the starting point: his relationship with Abel Magwitch. Magwitch's sudden reappearance in Pip's empty, rain-lashed lodging on the Thames hearkens back to the first meeting in the graveyard, but now the false Pip that Magwitch has unwittingly made is revealed in all its shallowness by Pip's reactions to his true deliverer. He can see nothing but a crude, poorly dressed, rough criminal whose table manners offend him more than his prison record. Me? Related to that fellow? That is the very center of the kind of shame that Pip fell into with Joe, and which many of us have fallen into. It does not occur to Pip that it has only been a short time since his own dirtiness and clothing offended young Estelle and his bumpkin table manners offended Herbert Pocket; all he can think of is his new status as a gentleman in a genteel station, while the old man inspires fear, loathing, and disgust. The shock of knowing that Abel is his benefactor hurls him into a state of recognition that he has traduced everything good he ever knew in his life. One of the things that the deadly sin, pride, or superba, does to a person is blind them or distort their moral vision. When Pip was first apprenticed to Joe, he felt a bleak curtain had dropped upon his life, though even then he knew that the home he was now ashamed of had been sanctified by the holiness of Joe Gargery and his plain virtue. He traded this for the grotesquerie of the ratty house of lies and decay where he wheels Miss Havisham around to the tune of Old Clem, the patron saint of blacksmiths, the ancient tune he has learned from Joe. Later, when Pip visits Miss Havisham for the last time, he reflects on the sadness of the place, the ruined monastery from which all holiness has fled.
In that visit, Pip has a clear recognition of the moral blindness of Miss Havisham, the "master mania" that has isolated her in a self-constructed prison.18 And after her "blind and thankless" life has been consumed by fire, Pip sees that she is finding her way out of her long sin through forgiveness. All this and much else passes, however, and we still have no evidently changed Pip. That "much else" matters much though. What is happening, scene by scene, is that Pip is being enveloped by two things: one, the charity and good feeling of Herbert, Wemmick, Wopsle, and even Jaggers; and two, the chummy secrecy and boyish adventure of the attempt to smuggle Magwitch out of England. Perhaps not noticed by the reader, something is happening here that accords with the views of the novel by both Chesterton and André Maurois.19 In many of Dickens' novels, one may distinguish between the plot and the story. The story, as Aristotle teaches, is the soul of the poem, while the plot is the machinery or busy-ness through which the story is rendered for the reader. In many of Dickens' novels, there often seems to be a collision between the two, and we sometimes struggle through the machinery to find the story. In Great Expectations, a miracle occurs: the perfect union of the two, so much so that a major transformation can occur almost without our recognizing it. As Herbert and Wemmick and Pip plot like roguish schoolboys to get Magwitch out of England, something else is happening. With the new information he has garnered, Pip is slowly awakening to the inner man of Magwitch, a man who sacrificed much to protect his estranged wife from death even though he believes she has murdered his child, and who is attracted to the young Pip because he reminds him of that child he believes he has lost forever. Thus between point A, the selfish, pompous Pip; and point B, the Pip who can love Magwitch and begin his own journey back to his true home, the purification of Pip has begun and progressed before he, and we, are quite aware of it. At the center of this transformation there is something else: Compeyson. Through this man's oppressive presence, Pip is able to identify with Magwitch as a man hiding and hunted. Himself pursued by his own false self-image and the burden of his secrecy, shame, and guilt, he can begin to see himself in Magwitch and yearn for freedom from his own prison. Gradually, Pip sees that Magwitch has taken a terrible risk for him and by entering into that risk, Pip awakens from the false religion of Miss Havisham's sacrificial self-shrine. As any great spiritual writer can tell us, forgiveness is freedom and the beginning of purification.
None of this revelation of the gradually changing Pip comes melodramatically. A master maker is at work in every tiny detail of narration and characterization. While there may be a hundred or more examples to cite, let's consider two. The first occurs in the chapter (X) in which Pip returns to Miss Havisham's to ask for her help for Herbert Pocket, the same chapter in which Miss Havisham is moving toward forgiveness and her own purifying fire. Certainly this is a chapter in which the dangers of melodrama and what I shall call unearned emotion exist. In this scene, Pip is showing Miss Havisham his own generosity and seeking to draw her into its spirit. As he begins to tell her what he wants done, Pip breaks off, conscious of her inattention.
"Do you break off," she asked then, with her former air of being afraid of me, "because you hate me too much to bear to speak to me?"
"No, no," I answered, "how can you think so, Miss Havisham! I stopped because I thought you were not following what I said."
"Perhaps I was not," she answered, putting a hand to her head. "Begin again, and let me look at something else. Stay! Now tell me."
After the discussion of Herbert's needs, during which Miss Havisham asks Pip if there is anything she could do for him, Miss Havisham writes out the order to Mr. Jaggers and then everything surges to the surface as she writes her name. "My name is on the first leaf. If ever you can write under my name, 'I forgive her,' though ever so long after my broken heart is dust -- pray do it!" Then follows her confession and her begging for forgiveness. The master teller knew just exactly how to portray the change from a business-like conversation to the self-knowledge and confession of a sinner through her handling of the fountain pen, the writing of a money order, and the thought that writing her name brings to the surface. Consider this chapter, with its end in fire and forgiveness, without such deftness of making. The wrong notes would have been easy to strike. For Miss Havisham, the scene that follows is a full confession and desire for penitence. For Pip, it is a subterranean change in his own attitude, revealed at first slowly.
I felt as if my last anchor were loosening its hold, and I should soon be driving with the wind and the waves.
The second deft stroke reveals that subterranean change in attitude, again as connected with the purifying fire that cleanses. In chapter XI, as Herbert changes Pip's bandages, treating Pip's now open wound from the purifying fire, he constantly interrupts his tale of Estella's mother and Provis's child and how Pip in the graveyard "brought into his mind the little girl so tragically lost, who would have been about your age."20 In the very heart of the ugly darkness of Magwitch that had repulsed and frightened Pip, he now glimpses the goodness of the old man and his kindness, and his self-abnegation in protecting Estella's mother from prosecution for murder. Step by step, bandage by bandage, Pip is sure that Magwitch is Estella's father. Again, Herbert's solicitude with the wound and Pip's reactions in the foreground allows us to be with the inner Pip and see his changing, without melodrama, into a man of moral comprehension and pity. Now we know that the wounds, both of them, will heal.
Earlier I said that I was arrested by certain images in Great Expectations when I saw the cinematic representation -- wonderful with mists and fogs and marshes and tombstones -- at the age of eight. I do not think I will ever tire of reading these passages. They are moving passages because they are passages in movement, i.e., the imitation of human characters in human actions that move the spectator. The profound understanding of human nature which the poet demonstrates in the unfolding of the plot, the soul of the poem in Aristotle's terms, is demonstrated in the art of telling of the tale ("I will to you a tale unfold") and the knowledge of the reader's emotions. The good poet tells a story about human beings to human beings and in the process, we know truths in a new way. What kind of tale is it, and what emotions does it evoke? A sobering tale, and sorrow is its tune. As Chesterton noted, perhaps unhappily, it is not about a hero as heroic, but about, as Aristotle says, "a man like us," neither too high or low. When I say sad and sobering, I hasten to say, first, that despite the misunderstandings of a generation, that "sad" does not mean "depressing." In St. Thomas Aquinas, the painful emotion of sorrow is one of the major emotions, the opposite of joy, whereas depression is a clinical state in which the person cannot feel emotion at all, mostly because he is suppressing (an act of will) or repressing (an involuntary reflex) all emotions, usually anger first and foremost. Pip is a sorrowful person because he is filled with a deep regret that he has not confessed his sins, especially to Joe. He has sometimes ignored or suppressed them, but he has always been aware that he is carrying a burden, sins of omission and commission, that he has used his "Great Expectations" to blot out or run away from. Regardless of which ending of the novel we accept, we know from the manner of the poet's telling that there will be no false steps in Pip's purification, as there have been no false steps in the portrayal of his sin and shame.
Ken Craven. "Fiction as Truth: The Fall and Purification of Pip." CERC (November 2009).
THE AUTHORKen Craven has taught literature at many colleges and universities and now describes himself as a scholar-in-exile living in Sparta, Tennessee. He earned an A.B. in English at Wheeling College (Wheeling Jesuit University) with minors in Philosophy and Dramatic Writing Arts, an M.A. in English at Marshall University, and a Ph.D. in English with a minor in Philosophy at the University of Kansas. A generalist in western literature, he wrote his dissertation on the literary criticism of the 1930's, with special focus on the Christian theory of art. Dr. Craven has received many scholarships and grants before and after graduate study, including the John Hay Whitney Fellowship for minorities. In addition to twenty-seven years of college teaching, he has been a social worker, mental health therapist, magazine editor, newspaper columnist, and technical writer. In 1994, he was awarded the Mississippi Short Fiction Prize.
Copyright © 2009 Ken Craven
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.