Transformed by time
by Jesse Matz, Advisor to the President
Like many of us, I first read Great Expectations in high school. Back then it was a story of aspiration and humiliation-high-school feelings. It was also about quaint old England. The gloomy London streets, the cute clerks and convicts were picture-book pleasures, and they sat in my mind among Mary Poppins, Frodo Baggins, and the pirates of Penzance.
I read Great Expectations again in college and in graduate school and I've read it just about every year since. It's been on the syllabus in my courses on the English novel and narrative theory, and, most recently, in the honors seminar in English. Writing a paper or giving a lecture on this or that feature or chapter, I didn't really see the book whole, and so it remained essentially that story of aspiration, humiliation, and picturesque England.
Something changed when I read the book for the honors seminar. I was now past forty. Suddenly, I truly heard the voice of the novel's narrator. Great Expectations may be "about" a boy named Pip and his troubled growth to manhood, but it is really about the grown-up Pip's way of seeing his younger self. It is not so much the story he tells but the way he tells it-the tone of his recollections-that makes the book remarkable. When young Pip looks for something to steal in Mrs. Joe's house to appease the terrifying Magwitch, old Pip refers gently to his "larcenous researches." These ironic comments become the point of the story once older age sets in.
I think it took me years truly to hear that voice because it took me years (longer than Pip himself, sadly!) to reach that point in my own life where the adult self sees the younger one as a parent might see a child-not with critical distance, but with that strange mixture of fondness, need, regret, impatience, forgiveness, and gratitude. Once I saw the story that way, it meant something different. Suddenly the aspiration and humiliation were what was quaint, and the picture-book pleasures gave way to some rather timely feelings about approaching middle age. Joy, mainly, and relief-joy in the recognition that all our youthful drama is after all nothing next to the love children give and get, and relief to have traded "great expectations" for what Pip himself calls "the broad expanse of tranquil light" to come.
Many books change as we age. Favorite books fall out of favor or become favorites for new reasons. Genres change: romances come to seem tragic, or funny, and tragedies lighten up. Sometimes you can't remember why you liked a book at all. Sometimes you give a book another chance (finishing it this time) and you wonder how you could have disliked it the first time through.
Sometimes books change for no good reason. Maybe you distrusted the teacher who made you read Great Expectations and so you were suspicious of it too-or maybe you were just in a bad mood the day you began it. But sometimes the change is built into the book itself. Great Expectations has two points of view. You may identify with that of the boy when you're young; later, you may identify with that of the man who narrates the story, and the book changes completely. Or consider Jane Austen. Older readers attribute Emma Woodhouse's embarrassing mistakes to her youth. After all, she is hardly twenty. Younger readers often will not forgive those mistakes, because Emma should know better: isn't she fully twenty years old?
James Joyce's Ulysses is a book about a young man's angst; in the background is a comical older man bumbling around Dublin. Or Ulysses is all about that older man, who is something of an epic hero-a man trying heroically to navigate the rough waters of everyday life-and in the background is a comical younger man taking himself way too seriously. It depends on how you see it, which might depend on your age. Joyce himself aged from the former view to the latter. At first, he centered his attention on the younger Stephen Dedalus, but as Ulysses continued, Leopold Bloom took over.
One wonders about Harry Potter. The series owes its success largely to the way parents and children can enjoy it together. Are they reading the same books? And will those books be the same to those children when they read them to children of their own?
Jesse Matz began teaching at Kenyon in 2001. He is currently serving as advisor to the president.