A cozy, laughing, loving family sitting by the fireplace, eating nuts and oranges, playing games and singing: That is the classic Charles Dickens Christmas, made famous by “A Christmas Carol.” But there’s another Dickens Christmas — darker, colder, more existential. It’s the holiday described in his late masterpiece “Great Expectations,” which is my favorite of all his books. (OK, my favorite book, period.)
“Great Expectations” opens in a country churchyard. A little boy named Pip is sitting among the graves, shivering, starting to cry. Suddenly a strange man shows up — filthy and menacing. He threatens to kill the boy, unless the boy brings him food and a tool to file the iron shackle from his leg. He’s an escaped convict. The boy runs home; it’s Christmas Eve.
Unlike “A Christmas Carol,” where the holiday is central and the entire book is a lesson and a celebration of the Christmas spirit, “Great Expectations” gives us a Christmas that’s just an incidental nuisance. Pip has to stir the pudding, and some obnoxious neighbors are coming for dinner the next day. There’s nothing festive. There’s nothing heartwarming. There’s Pip’s married sister, who gets into rages and beats him with a cane. There’s her husband, Joe, a blacksmith, who loves Pip but can’t do much to protect him. There’s a sleepless night, and a morning filled with anxiety — Pip steals food from the pantry and a file from Joe’s smithy, sneaking out to the marsh to give these items to the convict. There’s a horrible dinner: grownups picking on Pip for no particular reason, while he worries that his sister will discover his theft. And just as she is about to discover it, there is a knock at the door: soldiers, looking for the convict.
The word “Christmas” is barely mentioned. The story moves on.
I love “A Christmas Carol,” with its gorgeously extravagant prose. How can you not love a book that introduces its main character as “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” and uses the phrase “apoplectic opulence” to describe the pot-bellied chestnuts tumbling out of baskets in the grocer’s shop? The story is a tale, full of archetypes (the stingy miser, the noble impoverished clerk and his angelic invalid child) and diagrammatic in its moral message. Scrooge’s spiritual redemption happens, literally, overnight.
The universe of “Great Expectations” is much more nuanced and shaded — still unmistakably Dickensian (where else would you find characters named Pumblechook and Wopsle?) but also uneasy, uncertain, morally ambiguous. After Pip is told that a mysterious benefactor plans to bring him up as a rich gentleman, he is driven by a recognizable tangle of emotions: ambition, romantic passion and yearning, snobbery, arrogance, anxiety, shame. He blunders along, making imperfect sense of incomplete information, constructing a narrative that is both convincing and entirely deluded. Then as Pip grows older, he learns the truth about his benefactor, and learns to see himself more clearly. He is acutely aware of his former lack of self-awareness. There is no easy, overnight spiritual redemption. Self-knowledge brings pain.
Was Dickens consciously revising his own earlier Christmas narrative when he wrote the opening chapters of “Great Expectations”? It’s hard to imagine that he wasn’t. But I don’t think his point was that a cheery Christmas was, in Scrooge’s words, a humbug. Pip’s family Christmas, bleak as it is, doesn’t try to teach a lesson of any kind. Dickens isn’t demonstrating something about Christmas; he’s creating a vivid scene that happens to happen on that
In “Great Expectations” nothing is absolute. Nothing is all bad or all good. Nothing is final. Dickens has stopped trying to uplift me. And so — because I recognize the messiness and humanity of Pip’s struggles and failures and regrets and attempts to fix things — I am uplifted.
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.