Charles Dickens 200: Great Expectations: Bright Hope and Dark Resignation

Where the eyes, the eyes with the will to see

Where the hearts, that run over with mercy

Where’s the love that has not forsaken me

Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free

Where’s the spirit that’ll reign, reign over me

Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea

— Bruce Springsteen, We Take Care of Our Own

There remains something understandably nebulous and therefore uncertain about our global future. There is a mystification surrounding today’s wealthy and super-wealthy: How does one really make all that money? Even after the disaster of the 2008 Great Recession, the Dow Jones is well over 12,000, the wealthy are shopping for luxury items with astounding price tags, Wall Street bonuses continue to sky rocket. If there is venality in the pursuit of great expectations by the financial sector, then why haven’t the looting and larcenous been brought to justice?

Rick Perry accuses Mitt Romney of having engaged in “vulture capitalism” and yet this predator, whose great expectations have been fulfilled, now runs for the presidency. Occupy Wall Street believes they are representing ‘99%’ of the population whose own expectations have dwindled to a job, health insurance, a salvageable mortgage, financial aid relief and some hope of ever being able to afford retirement.

David Lean’s 1946 British film production Great Expectations is not a return to the past to demystify the present, but rather to memorialize in film the genius of Dickens’s novel Great Expectations and affirm in the aftermath of WWII the perseverance of unconquerable British accomplishment. Alfonso Cuarón’s’s 1998 film Great Expectations emerges from an American landscape far different in 1998 as a middle class democracy fades and wealth, power and mobility remain cemented at top income levels. The retreat to the past in the American film, to a re-visiting of Dickens’s novel, is initiated by the circumstances of the late `90s, circumstances that have only become more exacerbated in 2012 at the moment we celebrate the bicentennial of Dickens’s birth.

When it proves impossible because of uncontrollable political partisanship to ask what now can realistically be the US’s “great expectations,” the past is a safe retreat, especially a world now gone created in the imagination of genius. We need to first imagine what we would yearn for, or, more apt, we need to detach ourselves from a yearning that capitalism can only fulfill for a scant few in the population. We need to contemporize Dickens’s characters and plot, hold on to the integrity of his imagination and yet adapt it to our own bewildered world in which the very existence of humanity’s great expectations is itself something the planet can no longer afford.

What Finn, the Pip character played by Ethan Hawke, aspires to is love and art. The love is attached to the dysfunctional in the person of Estella and the art only becomes possible through the largesse of a convict. Great expectations run into Robert De Niro’s Lustig, Magwitch in the novel, an escaped convict who rises up out of the water and grabs the boy Finn and promises to kill him and his family horribly if Finn doesn’t bring him food and a chain cutter. In other words, expectations held within a world ruled by the good-hearted Joe, a fisherman who raises Finn, or the guileless Finn himself, do not fail to meet opposition.

There is more in the world than what Joe has led Finn to believe. However limited that “good-hearted order of things,” (which Dickens himself tried to keep faith with) may be, it does not itself breed monsters from the deep. The convict Lustig erupts, like Blake’s pestilence, from the standing waters of an already inequitable society. In this poor coastal town, Ms. Dinsmoor – the novel’s Miss Havisham — is the wealthiest citizen, and her manor house is in the same state as her mind—collapse. Such a dispensation of wealth and privilege speaks ill of the social order fostering it; that sort of world will breed rebellion, crime, monsters.

The world that Finn feels he must become part of in order to win Estella is a world of wealth and social standing, the world that Estella occupies is a world that, like her, is, at best, crippled, stone-cold dead at heart. Nevertheless, this is the world whose values and meanings hold sway. The very foundation of that privileged state is money. The possession of, the expectation of having, the accumulation of, the investment and compounding of, the inheriting of, the losing of, the failure to have — these are the desires and fears that fill the world to which Finn wishes to belong.

In the late `90s world in which this film was made there is a “tough on crime and criminals”, a “tough love” posture arising from a startling gap between the world that Finn comes from and the world of Ms. Dinsmoor. Thoroughly seduced by a “show me the money” mantra and filled with great expectations that great wealth will reward a “” entrepreneurial spirit, the fin de siècle world of the 20th century does not yet fully feel the resistance to any form of mobility that an entrenched “moneyed order” has created. But anger and frustration seethe at the bottom; the great expectations are a middle class’s expectations. The bottom 40 percent are already staggering, expectations beyond basic needs long gone. They are already drawn to the dark side, from which Lustig/DeNiro comes. His criminality is like the last desperate effort of an endangered species – the Have Nots – who, in turn, are endangering the lives of everyone, including themselves.

Where we are now in 2012 is on a darker plain than the late `90s for the staggered class is not only an “Underclass,” a blue collar, working class that no presidential candidate mentions but the middle class itself, one of the two voting classes. An Occupy Wall Street movement has come forward seeking to focus once again on the loss of what were once great expectations that could be fulfilled by personal talent and ambition. The later Dickens tried from Bleak House (1852) onward to retain the optimism of the early novels in the face of a growing skepticism and pessimism. The novel Great Expectations reveals not only that the so-called successful and prosperous world cannot support the expectations of the young, but that we misinterpret our benefactors and are blind to the dark foundations of not only our desires but their fulfillment.

The 1998 film occupies the same dark space as the 1860 novel. Violence and murder ask for Finn’s attention; crime has provided Finn his great expectations; the convict Lustig has been his benefactor. Money made by foul means has paid Finn’s way; great expectations rise out of darkness. Otherwise, there would be none. And yet, Finn forms a bond with the convict; he sees in him the good-heartedness of Joe, the unselfishness that has no market value, the desire to do a charitable thing for a fellow human, for no gain but the heart’s. In contrast to the way Ms. Dinsmoor has used her money to make a monster of Estella, Lustig has sought to do a good deed with his. Who the criminal is, and what criminal behavior and acts are, fail to meet out normal expectations. Unless sponsored by crime money, those seeking to upgrade their socioeconomic status have to wait on the workings of global-market free play, on the signals of the Dow Jones, on the plans Ms. Dinsmoor has for you.

After Finn’s great expectations have been set in motion by not the social order but by one defiant of that order and Finn has had his New York opening, we may be able to say that despite a dark beginning, talent does win out in the end. Lustig disabuses us and Finn of that hope. The wide world out there that the young Finn tells us he only gets a glimpse of now and then, once again is in view. Lustig has spent all his ill-gotten gains in buying out Finn’s show. The money from that show was to set Finn up in the same class as Estella. Rather than finally getting to a place where his talent can display itself and be rewarded, Finn is still in a game where money is power. That the deck is stacked in his favor does not hold off the thought that power and money manipulate our responses to talent, indeed, they enable our recognition of the same and the opportunities that allow talent to show itself.

The film ends not fulfilling any great expectations but with lingering doubts. Will new lives arise from the ruins of these lives? Can Estella summon up enough good –heartedness to keep her daughter from ruin? And Finn, who has misconstrued everything, including his heart’s desire, can he ever see what the world is, the way Lustig could? There is a world-weary wisdom here at the end when Finn can say no more than that he’s doing okay. Great expectations, especially those whose nature and origin are not great but already corrupted, need to be adjusted within that same corrupting world. And talent doesn’t topple the world of privilege and power but merely hopes to survive within it.

The novel ended twice: the original ending followed through on the darkness the older Dickens could not but bear witness to and ended thusly:

‘I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.’

The altered ending, which is commonly known, is full of future promise and not stoic resignation: ‘I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.’

The novel’s two endings themselves display a lingering doubt as to whether anything good can arise from lives ruined by a world in which success, wealth and societal order have dark roots. What lingers in the mind of the later Dickens is whether it is any longer possible to summon up enough good-heartedness to allay doubts and fears, or whether one adds to the darkness by pretending shadows are, in the end, always dispelled. While the early Dickens had no difficulty in summoning the brightness of the Pickwickians, for whom “the first ray of light which illumines the gloom” in the first chapter remains till the very last chapter, the Dickens of Great Expectations had moved closer to the gloom.

How we are engaged now in 2012 is similarly as in 1860 and in 1998. Like Finn and Pip, we continue to misinterpret the signs, especially the clear economic signs of a capricious, destructive all in the name of profit plutocracy which we perceive as some perfectly acceptable form of egalitarian democracy. Our expectations continue to be fulfilled by the same sort of aberrant contingency that floods Ms. Dinsmoor’s mind – only we have been calling it the free play of the global market and not the ups and downs, the here again/gone again flickering of an addled mind.

The sham of fulfilling expectations in a society that looks like a Monopoly game board just before all but one person goes bankrupt seems to be at the exposure stage. The illusions of self-empowerment and a “will to power” seem also at the exposure stage. You can expect that when the expectations of the young are not great and even non-existent that we are facing a sort of survival alert, rather like the way misshapen frogs predict an ecologist’s nightmare for the planet.

When the young rise up in frustration and anger, camp out for as long as they are able in Zuccotti Park, and that protest is repeated all over the world, there is every indication that the present surround is threatening not only the ambitions of the young but the survival of us all. A collapse, therefore, in a society’s capacity, perhaps because that society has divided itself within non-traversable boundaries of Have and Will Never Have, is also an ontological collapse, a collapse in our will to be, a will to pass what we are now onto yet another generation of young.

As un-Dickensian as it sounds, Dickens was, in Great Expectations, less inclined to believe an addled, chance-ridden world of our own creation could be recuperated by yet another generation than to believe that a promising future would be born within that corruption. Not only are great expectations already formed by a world whose order is tilted to benefit only a few but the urge to fulfill any expectations beyond sustainability and economic and social justice needs greatly to be resisted.

When suffering lies so much on one side and not the other, it becomes difficult to believe that a “heart to understand” what that suffering is and has been will be developed. There seems to be faint hope expressed of this happening in the last sentence of Dickens’s original ending, an ending he replaced. We yet remain caught within bright hope and dark resignation.