It took me 5 years to read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens the first time, 4 months the second.
I could relate to it much more the second time around. The language and cultural content was easier to overlook. Mostly though, as I read it through an ACEs lens, I could relate to Pip’s relational challenges.
He grew up an orphan. Both his parents died without him ever having known them. He was raised by his much older sister who was very violent and demeaning towards him. He had his one supportive adult in his brother in law Joe, who was also abused by the sister and couldn’t protect Pip to the extent that he would have liked to.
Near the end of the book Joe explains that he realized that when he stood up for Pip, the sister attacked him more vehemently, so as much as he would have liked to have protected him, he at least mitigated the assaults by not fueling them.
A couple older people were very jealous of Pip. Pumblechook took credit for Pip’s success. Orlick reeked havoc on Pip’s associates, including assaulting his sister and disabling her for years until her eventual death.
Having exploitive, resentful, treacherous adults creating havoc in the lives of children is quite common. Some adult always gets jealous and resentful of the child because they wish they could have been treated similarly and make things bad for the kids. This is universal I think unfortunately.
It’s an unlikely encounter in Pip’s early life that sets him up for success later. As a result of his kindness to one unlikely person, Pip becomes the lifelong inspiration for the recipient of his kindness to succeed and be able to return the favour on Pip.
It was Pip’s character and humanity, and his efforts to build relationships that determined his success, not the contrived efforts of adults.
Of course in Pip’s compromised state as an abused child, meeting the eccentric and bizarre Miss Havisham and the aloof, emotionally inaccessible Estella was bound to intrigue his curiosity and attraction. He came from humble means. They presented an air of superiority and affluence, in spite of the bizarre surroundings within which they existed.
Seeing this contrast, in the context of where Pip usually existed, gave him the desire to access greater opportunity in his own life – hence the theme of the book – Great Expectations.
As a survivor of childhood trauma, Pip lacked the perspective and informed council to be able to discern for himself the façade of advantage that he was seeing in those with more than himself.
He was a surprisingly astute young man though; able to see through the false bravado of Pumblechook and the other community busy bodies.
But he ascribed benevolence to Miss Havisham, assuming she was more magnanimous than he had ever actually experienced.
Those of us who have been abused in childhood often do that. We see more generosity than is actually delivered. We project onto others with means our own character, values and behaviours. We assume benevolence of the wealthy as equal to the benevolence of the impoverished. True to form even now, 160 years later, this misattribution still persists throughout humanity. We, the unwealthy, give significantly more credit than is warranted to those we deem to be superior due to their wealth and apparent success, in spite of the contradiction evident in the calamity of their lives.
Eventually the arrogant are humbled, and the humble are valued for their integrity.
In the end Pip finally finds his way to his own level of success and happiness. The experiences of his early life had created a convoluted path to his final destination, but with support from genuine benefactors, friends, and trustworthy confidantes, he found solid footing for himself, and we are left to believe that he thereafter lived happily ever after.
Charles Dickens published Great Expectations in 1860. He understood then the toxic experiences of children growing up in an adult world, and outlined some possible effects of inadequate relational competency through the experiences of Pip’s adult life.
Although it took me a lifetime to get to reading Great Expectations, it has turned out to be one of my favourite books. Pip is a likeable character, but more importantly, for an Adult with ACES, he is a relatable character, even though 160 years separate our cultural experiences.
Human nature hasn’t changed in that 160 years. Children are still belittled, assaulted, targeted, exploited, manipulated, and abandoned. And those children still bumble through their adult lives, getting caught in schemes, and sacrificing themselves for others, and playing the system themselves to try to make their way.
Sometimes it seems we have learned nothing in how we perceive the image of the child.
We really need to work on this collectively. The future does not belong to the adults. It belongs to the children, and they genuinely deserve to be given all the tools and opportunity possible to prepare to build it in preparation for their children to enter and direct.
In order to achieve this, adults must deconstruct their idealized perceptions of their own inadequate childhoods, and start giving our children what we also rightfully deserved, but didn’t receive – healthy attachment relationships with adults, safety, security, belonging, esteem and the opportunity to achieve our true potential.