by Oren Long
“Great Expectations,” a novel by Charles Dickens written in 1860, tells how wealth inspires great expectations, how those influence character and create class consciousness, and “all the monstrous vanities (inflated pride) that have been curses in this world.”
The hero, an orphan named Pip, raised in humble circumstances, comes into a fortune, then quickly disavows family and friends. When he loses his fortune he is forced to recognize his past conduct and ingratitude.
“As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me. Their influence on my own character I disguised from my recognition as much as possible, but I know very well that it was not all good.”
Our constitution guarantees “the pursuit of happiness,” which was in essence Dickens’ theme. A recent poll attempted to answer the question, “What makes people happy?” The poll found that just as in Dickens’ time, most Americans believe the pursuit of wealth equals the pursuit of happiness.
Charles Dickens died in 1870 at the age of 58 (an old man in those days). He wrote “Great Expectations” near the end of his life, when advancing years and declining health forced him to see life with new understanding; life as only the old can know.
In the final pages of his book, Dickens writes that Pip, having lost his fortune and his great expectations, returns to his boyhood home and to the family he had disavowed. “I went towards them slowly, for my limbs were weak, but with a sense of increasing relief as a I drew near to them, and a sense of leaving arrogance and untruthfulness further and further behind.
“The June weather was delicious. The sky was blue, the larks were soaring high over the green corn, I thought all that countryside more beautiful and peaceful by far than I had ever know it to be yet. Many pleasant pictures of life I would lead there, and of the change for the better that would come over my character when I had a guiding spirit at my side whose simple faith and clear home wisdom I had proved, beguiled my way. They awakened a tender emotion in me, for, my heart was softened by my return, and such a change had come to pass, that I felt like one who was toiling home barefoot from distant travel, and whose wanderings had lasted many years.”
I read this book as a young man and enjoyed the story. I read it again as an old man, now able to hear the wisdom of his words, now willing to share his unflattering description of the human condition.
Oren Long is a Valley Falls farmer and cattleman and a regular contributor to these columns.
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