One of the things we mean by calling a piece of writing ’literary’ is that it is not tied to a specific context. It is true that all literary works arise from particular conditions. Jane Austen's novels spring from the world of the English landed gentry of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, while Paradise Lost has as its backdrop the English Civil War and its aftermath. Yet though these works emerge from such contexts, their meaning is not confined to them. Consider the difference between a poem and a manual for assembling a table lamp. The manual makes sense only in a specific, practical situation. Unless we are really starved for inspiration, we do not generally turn to it in order to reflect on the mystery of birth or the frailty of humankind. A poem, by contrast, can still be meaningful outside its original context, and may alter its meaning as it moves from one place or time to another. Like a baby, it is detached from its author as soon as it enters the world. All literary works are orphaned at birth. Rather as our parents do not continue to govern our lives as we grow up, so the poet cannot determine the situations in which his or her work will be read, or what sense we are likely to make of it.
What we call works of literature differ in this way from roadsigns and bus tickets. They are peculiarly ’portable’, able to be carried from one location to another, which is true of bus tickets only for those intent on defrauding the bus company. They are less dependent for their meaning on the circumstances from which they arose. Rather, they are inherently open ended, which is one reason why they can be subject to a whole range of interpretations. It is also one reason why we tend to pay closer attention to their language than we do with bus tickets. We do not take their language primarily as practical. Instead, we assume that it is intended to have some value in itself.
This is not so true of everyday language. A panic-stricken shout of ’Man overboard!’ is rarely ambiguous. We do not normally treat it as a delectable piece of wordplay. If we hear this cry while on board ship, we are unlikely to linger over the way the vowel-sound of ’board’ rings a subtle change on the vowel-sound of ’Over’, or note the fact that the stresses of the shout fall on the first and last syllables. Nor would we pause to read some symbolic meaning into it. We do not take the word ’Man’ to signify humanity as such, or the whole phrase as suggestive of our calamitous fall from grace. We might well do all this if the man overboard in question is our mortal enemy, aware that by the time we were through with our analysis he would be food for the fishes. Otherwise, however, we are unlikely to scratch our heads over what on earth these words could mean. Their meaning is made apparent by their environment. This would still be the case even if the cry was a hoax. If we were not at sea the cry might make no sense, but hearing the chugging of the ship's engines settles the matter definitively.
In most practical settings, we do not have much of a choice over meaning. It tends to be determined by the setting itself. Or at least, the situation narrows down the range of possible meanings to a manageable few. When I see an exit sign over the door of a department store, I know from the context that it means ’This is the way out when you want to leave’, not ’Leave now!’ Otherwise such stores would be permanently empty. The word is descriptive rather than imperative. I take the instruction ’One tablet to be taken three times daily’ on my bottle of aspirin to be addressed to me, not to all two hundred people in my apartment block. A driver who flashes his lights may mean either ’Watch it!’ or ’Come on!’, but this potentially fatal ambiguity results in fewer road accidents than one might expect, since the meaning is usually clear from the situation.
The problem with a poem or story, however, is that it does not arrive as part of a practical context. It is true that we know from words such as ’poem’, ’novel,’ ’epic’, ’comedy’ and so on what sort of thing to expect, just as the way a literary work is packaged, advertised, marketed and reviewed plays an important part in determining our response to it. Beyond these vital signals, however, the work does not come to us with much of a setting at all. Instead, it creates its own setting as it goes along. We have to figure out from what it says a background against which what it says will make some sense. In fact, we are continually constructing such interpretative frames as we read, for the most part unconsciously. When we read Shakespeare's line ’Farewell! Thou art too dear for my possessing,’ we think to ourselves, ’Ah, he's probably talking to his lover, and it looks as though they're breaking up. Too dear for his possessing, eh? Maybe she's been a bit too free with his money.’ But there is nothing beyond the words themselves to inform us of this, as there is something beyond a cry of ’Fire!’ to tell us how to make sense of it. (The smouldering hair of the person doing the shouting, for example.) And this makes the business of determining a literary work's meaning rather more arduous.
If works of literature were simply historical reports, we might be able to decide what they meant by reconstructing the historical situations from which they arose. But they are clearly not. They have a looser relation to their original conditions than that. Moby-Dick is not a sociological treatise on the American whaling industry. The novel draws on that context to fashion an imaginative world, but the significance of that world is not confined to it. This is not necessarily to suggest that the book is detached from its historical situation in a way that makes it universal in its appeal. There may well be civilisations that would not get much out of it. Some group of people in the distant future might find it incomprehensible, or tedious in the extreme. They might consider that having your leg chewed off by an enormous white whale is unbelievably boring, and thus not fit material for fiction. Could a future civilisation also find Horace's odes or Montaigne's essays tedious and unintelligible? Perhaps that future has already arrived, to some extent at least.
We do not know whether Melville's work is of universal interest because we have not reached the end of history yet, despite the best efforts of some of our political leaders. Nor have we consulted the Dinka or Tuareg on the matter. We do know, however, that calling Moby-Dick a novel means among other things that it is intended to say something about what we might broadly call ’moral’ issues. I mean by this not ethical codes or religious prohibitions, but questions of human feelings, actions and ideas. Moby-Dick is trying to tell us something about guilt, evil, desire and psychosis, not just about blubber and harpoons, and not just something about nineteenth-century America.
This, in fact, is one thing we mean by the word ’fiction’. Fiction does not primarily mean a piece of writing which is not true. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song and Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes are all offered to us as true, yet they translate the truths they convey into a kind of imaginative fiction. Works of fiction can be full of factual information. You could even run a farm on the basis of what Virgil's Georgics has to say about agriculture, though it is doubtful that it would survive for very long. Yet texts we call literary are not written primarily to give us facts. Instead, the reader is invited to ’imagine’ those facts, in the sense of constructing an imaginary world out of them. A work can thus be true and imagined, factual and fictional, at the same time. It belongs to the fictional world of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities that you have to cross a stretch of sea to get from London to Paris, but this is also a fact. It is as though this fact is ’fictionalised’ by the novel. It is put to work in a context in which its truth or falsehood is not the main point. What matters is how it behaves within the imaginative logic of the work. There is a difference between being true to the facts and being true to life. To say that there is a lot of truth in Hamlet does not mean that there really was a Danish prince who was either mad, pretending to be mad or both, and who treated his girlfriend abominably.
Works of fiction may tell us that Dallas is not in the same country as St Petersburg, or that an oculus is the central boss of a volute. They may make reference to facts with which almost everybody is wearily familiar, telling us for the umpteenth time that a seton is a skein of absorbent material passed below the skin and left with the ends protruding in order to promote the drainage of fluid or to act as a counter-irritant. What makes such works fictional is that these facts are not provided for their own sake, as they might be in a medical textbook, or for any practical purpose. They are used to help build up a certain way of seeing. Works of fiction are thus allowed to bend the facts to suit this purpose. They are more like politicians’ speeches than the weather forecast. When they falsify bits of reality, we assume they are doing so for artistic reasons. If a writer consistently spells ’Buckingham’, as in the royal palace, with a capital F, we would probably assume that she is making some sort of political point, not that she is illiterate. We do not charge an author with unpardonable ignorance because his twelfth-century characters never stop arguing about The Smiths. It is possible that the writer, having only a feeble grasp of history, really does believe that The Smiths were around in the twelfth century, or that Morrissey is such a superlative genius as to be timeless. But the fact that this occurs in a work of fiction inclines us to the charitable view that the distortion is deliberate. This is highly convenient for poets and novelists. Literature, like an absolute monarch among his fawning courtiers, is where you can never be wrong.
A realist novel presents characters and events which seem to exist independently of itself. We know, however, that this is an illusion, and that the work is actually fashioning this world as it goes along. This is one reason why some theorists hold that works of literature only ever refer to themselves. There never was an Ahab or Joe Christmas. Even if we discovered that there is a real-life Harry Potter, and that he is currently a registered heroin addict living in an Amsterdam squat, it would make no difference to our reading of the novels. It could be that there actually was a detective called Sherlock Holmes, and that unknown to Conan Doyle all the events recorded in the Holmes stories actually happened to him down to the last detail. Yet the stories would still not be about him. They would still be fictional.
Fictionality is one reason why literary works tend to be more ambiguous than non-literary ones. Because they lack practical contexts we have fewer clues to determine what they mean, so that phrases, events or characters can lend themselves to different readings. Or it may simply be that writers find themselves lapsing unconsciously into ambiguity, or do so deliberately to enrich their works. Among such ambiguities are sexual double entendres. One of Shakespeare's sonnets opens with the lines ’When my love swears that she is made of truth, / I do believe her, though I know she lies.’ Alongside its obvious meaning, this could also mean ’When my love swears that she is indeed a virgin (maid, of truth), I do believe her, though I know she has sexual intercourse (lies).’ In Richardson's Clarissa, we are told that the sexually voracious Lovelace, who is also a great scribbler of letters, ’has always a pen in his fingers when he retires’. Richardson is surely aware of the double meaning. The same is true of Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, a novel which at one point shows us the demure Mary Graham sitting beside her beloved Tom Pinch at his organ in a rural church: ’She touched his organ, and from that happy epoch even it, the old companion of his happiest hours, incapable as he had thought it of elevation, began a new and deified existence.’ Only the charitable or naive will imagine that this ambiguity is unintended. When Jane Eyre notes with quiet satisfaction how round and supple Mr Rochester's hand is, her words may have a less innocent implication, though one which is probably unconscious. This is unlikely to be true of the fact that one of Henry James's characters is called Fanny Assingham.
* * *
Some works of literature are more resistant to interpretation than others. As civilisation grows more complex and fragmentary, so does human experience, and so too does its literary medium, which is language. The later fiction of Henry James is so stylistically convoluted that he was once described as chewing more than he could bite off. A whole critical essay has been written on the first paragraph of his novel The Ambassadors, seeking valiantly to make sense of what on earth is going on. The following passage from The Wings of the Dove is by no means the most tortuous example of his later style:
It was not moreover by any means with not having the imagination of expenditure that she appeared to charge her friend, but with not having the imagination of terror, of thrift, the imagination or in any degree the habit of a conscious dependence on others. Such moments, when all Wigmore Street, for instance, seemed to rustle about and the pale girl herself to be facing the different rustlers, usually so undiscriminated, as individual Britons too, Britons personal, parties to a relation and perhaps even intrinsically remarkable — such moments in especial determined for Kate a perception of the high happiness of her companion's liberty.
It is a far cry from Dan Brown. Like a lot of modernist writing, James's prose refuses to slip down easily. It poses a challenge to a culture of instant consumption. Instead, the reader is forced into a sweated labour of decipherment. It is as though reader and author become co-creators of the work, as the reader is drawn into the twists and turns of the syntax in a struggle to unpack the author's meaning. James feels the need to spin his syntax into a spider's web in order to catch every nuance of experience and every flicker of consciousness.
This super-subtlety is one of several reasons why modernist works of art can be obscure, and thus hard to interpret. Marcel Proust, whose prose is rarely less than lucid, can nevertheless produce sentences which stretch for half a page, full of labyrinthine alleys and syntactical byways, propelling the meaning of a passage around any number of tight grammatical corners and hairpin bends. Ulysses ends with an unpunctuated sentence which goes on not for half a page but for sixty or so pages, liberally spattered with obscenities. It is as though the opaqueness and complexity of modern existence are beginning to infiltrate the very form of literary works, not just their content.
The contrast with realist fiction is clear. In a lot of realist writing, language is made to seem as transparent as possible, yielding up its meaning without much resistance. It thus creates the effect of presenting reality in the raw. We may compare the James extract in this respect with a typical passage from Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders:
It was near five weeks that I kept my bed, and tho’ the violence of my feaver abated in three weeks, yet it several times return'd; and the physicians said two or three times, they could do no more for me, but that they must leave Nature and the distemper to fight it out; only strengthening the first with cordials to maintain the struggle: After the end of five weeks I grew better, but was so weak, so alter'd, so melancholly, and recover'd so slowly, that the physicians apprehended I should go into a consumption …
Language like this lacks all thickness and texture. It is used purely as an instrument. There is no sense of it being valued as a medium in itself. Defoe's prose is eminently consumable, drawing not the slightest attention to itself. James's style, by contrast, rubs our noses in the fact that whatever happens in a work of literature happens in terms of language. Tempestuous break-ups and tragic breakdowns are just a set of black marks. From time to time, such language may modestly efface itself, as it does in Defoe. By making itself unobtrusive, it may create the effect of giving us direct access to what it deals with. It may appear to dispense with artifice or convention. Yet this is an illusion. The Defoe passage is no ’closer to reality’ than the passage from James. No piece of language is closer to reality than any other. The relationship between language and reality is not a spatial one. It is also true that Defoe's prose works just as much by conventions as, say, Milton's Lycidas. It is simply that we are more familiar with these conventions, and thus fail to notice them.
While we are on the topic of realism, we might note an important point about it. When we describe a work as realist, we do not mean that it is closer to reality in some absolute way than non-realist literature. We mean that it conforms to what people of a certain time and place tend to regard as reality. Imagine that we were to stumble upon a piece of writing from some ancient culture which seemed curiously preoccupied with the length of its characters’ shinbones. We might conclude that this was some outlandishly avant-garde flight of fancy. Then we might come across a historical account of the same culture and realise that length of shinbone was what determined your place in the social pecking order. Those with long shinbones were banished to the desert and forced to eat dung, while those with the minimum of distance between knee and ankle stood an excellent chance of being elected king. In which case, we would be forced to reclassify the text as realist.
A visitor from Alpha Centauri who was handed a history of humanity, complete with wars, famines, genocides and massacres, might suppose that this was some outrageously surrealist text. There is a great deal in human history that beggars belief. Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to a politician who illegally bombed Cambodia is merely one example. For psychoanalytic thought, dreams and fantasies bring us closer to the truth about ourselves than our waking life. Yet if these dreams and fantasies were to be put in fictional form, we would probably not regard the result as a realist work. In any case, there are very few purely realist works. A lot of supposedly realist texts contain some grossly improbable features. In Conrad's Heart of Darkness, we are told that a woman's face ’had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve’. This impossible facial expression exists only at the level of language. It is doubtful that even the most talented of actors could look tragic, fierce, wild, sorrowful, pained, fearful and half resolved at the same time. An Oscar would be a poor reward for such a performance.
If Joyce's Finnegans Wake rebuffs interpretation, it is partly because it is written in a number of different languages at the same time. Joyce's compatriot J.M. Synge was said to be the only man who could write in English and Irish simultaneously. Like all of Joyce's writing, the Wake reveals a profound trust in the power of the word, but this is not true of modernism in general. Modernism sends words out on a spree, but this is not generally because it has a robust faith in them. It is more typical of it to be distrustful of language, as with T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett. Can it really capture the immediacy of human experience, or allow us a glimpse of absolute truth? If it is to do so, it must be thickened and dislocated, made more intricate and allusive; and this is one reason why some modernist works are so hard to decipher. Language in its everyday state is shop-soiled and inauthentic, and only by doing violence to it can it become supple enough to reflect our experience. It is from this period that we inherit the high-sounding clichés that reflect so many twentieth-century attitudes to language: ’there's a breakdown of communication’, ’words are just so inadequate’, ’silence is so much more eloquent than speech’, ’if I could tell you I would let you know’. In modern cinema, not least in France, phrases like these are spoken by two people in bed staring soulfully into each other's eyes, punctuated by unbearably long silences.
* * *
We can now turn to some of the interpretative issues I raised at the start of the book. Let us take the following well-known literary text:
Baa baa black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full.
One for the master
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.
This, to be sure, is not the most subtle piece of literature ever penned. There have been more searching investigations of the human condition. Even so, the verse raises a number of intriguing questions. To begin with, who speaks the first line? Is it an omniscient narrator, or a character with whom the sheep is in dialogue? And why does he say ’Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?’, instead of, say, ’Excuse me, Mr (or Ms) black sheep, have you any wool?’ Is the speaker's query a purely academic one? Does he want to know how much wool the sheep has simply out of idle curiosity, or is there a less disinterested motive at work here?
It is a fair conjecture that the speaker asks the question because he wants some of the wool for himself. In that case, however, his mode of addressing the animal (’Baa baa black sheep’) seems distinctly odd. It is possible that Baa baa is the sheep's name, and that the speaker of the verse is simply being polite. Perhaps he is being polite because he wants something from the creature. ’Baa baa black sheep’ may be the same kind of construction as ’Henry black sheep’, or ’Emily black sheep’ (the animal's gender is indeterminate). But this is surely implausible. Baa baa is a strange name for a sheep. It sounds less like the beast's name than the noise it makes. (Though there are problems of translation here. Japanese or Korean sheep almost certainly do not say ’baa baa’. Perhaps sheep which belong to the Queen speak with a rather more upper-class accent and say ’bahr bahr’.)
Could it be that the speaker is actually imitating the animal to its face, making a satirical bleating sound in the act of addressing it, as one might say ’Moo moo, cow’ or ’Bow wow, doggie'? If this is the case, it is surely an astonishingly tactless thing to do. Mocking someone's way of speaking is scarcely the most foolproof way of getting something out of them. This speaker, then, is not only ill mannered; he is also remarkably obtuse. He does not see that insulting the sheep to its face is blatantly not in his interests. He is clearly something of a sheepist, with an odiously superior attitude to our ovine colleagues. Perhaps he has fallen victim to a vulgar stereotype, assuming that sheep are too stupid to mind being sent up in this way.
If so, he has evidently miscalculated. For the insult does not pass unnoticed. ’Yes,’ replies the sheep, ’I do indeed have some wool — three full bags of it, in fact. That's one for the master, one for the dame, and one for the little boy who lives down the lane. But none for you, you impudent bastard.’ The last words, of course, are merely implied. To pronounce them openly would be to undermine the sheep's cleverly calculated pose of genial co-operation. He answers the speaker's question readily and at some length, but not at all in a way that the questioner is likely to find gratifying. Part of what the beast does, in fact, is deliberately misunderstand the question as an academic one. He cunningly refuses to pick up the speaker's implied meaning (’May I have some wool?’). It is as though one were to ask someone in the street ’Do you have the time?’, and he were to reply ’Sure’ and walk on. He has answered your question but failed to draw the correct inference from it.
In this sense, the poem illustrates a vital aspect of human meaning, namely the role played by inference and implication. To ask your guest ’Would you care for a cup of coffee?’ is to indicate your readiness to give her one. Imagine being asked this by someone and then finding, when the coffee failed to appear, that it was merely an academic enquiry, along the lines of ’How many seamstresses were there in sixteenth-century Wales?’ or ’How are you doing?’ ’How are you doing?’ is not an invitation to recount your recent medical history in grisly detail.
An alternative version of the poem reads ’But none for the little boy who lives down the lane’. (Those with an interest in cultural difference might note that there are also alternative ways of singing it. The British version differs slightly from the American.) Perhaps the little boy who lives down the lane is the speaker himself, and this is a sardonically roundabout way of letting him know that there is no wool for him. The refusal is sadistically reinforced by the fact that the sheep has just told us that there are three bags available, and thus in principle one for the little boy. Maybe the sheep is familiar with the speaker's name but frostily refuses to use it in retaliation for the abusive ’Baa baa’. Or perhaps the little boy is not identical with the questioner, in which case it is puzzling that the sheep should mention him. It seems to be a little more information than is strictly necessary. The sheep may simply be demonstrating his power to grant or withhold wool as he pleases, as an ominous warning to his interrogator. It may be his way of regaining the upper hand after the opening put-down. There is clearly a power-struggle afoot here.
What is wrong with this analysis, apart from its gross improbability? Obviously the fact that it looks only at content and not at form. We also need to note the leanness and economy of the verse, the way it sets its face against any verbal exuberance or excess. All the words of the poem except three are monosyllables. The language, which is image-free, aims in realist style for a transparency of word to thing. The metrical scheme is tight — more so, in fact, than the rhyming pattern, which contains a half-rhyme or para-rhyme (’dame’ and ’lane’). You can read each line of the verse as having two stressed syllables (though this is not the only way of scanning it), which restricts what the speaking voice can make of it. By contrast, an iambic pentameter like ’Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?’ is flexible enough to be voiced in a whole variety of ways. An actor can choose within reason where to lay the stresses, just as he or she can choose what pace, pitch, volume and intonation to go for. The five stresses of the metre (Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?) provide a stable background against which the improvisations of the speaking voice can be played off. An actor who delivered the line with the stresses as I have just marked them would be unlikely to receive a standing ovation.
The metrical scheme of ’Baa baa black sheep’, by contrast, determines the way the line is voiced rather more rigorously. It leaves less room for ’personality’ in the speaker. It is a bit like the contrast between set dancing and the way you gyrate in a night club. Because the stresses of the verse are so regular and emphatic, it sounds more like a chant or ritual than a piece of conversation. Even so, you could use tone to convey the kind of interpretation I have just sketched. You could begin with a sardonic cackle (’Baa baa’), follow it up with a curt, imperious ’Have you any wool?’, and then have the sheep speak its lines in an elaborately mock-courteous way, with mutedly aggressive undertones.
Part of the poem's effect lies in the contrast between its form and its content. The form is simple and artless — a childlike chant which slims language down to a set of brief notations. Its lucidity suggests a world in which things are unambiguous and out in the open. Yet this is hardly confirmed by the poem's content, as we have just seen. Its transparent surface conceals a whole set of conflicts, tensions, manipulations and misunderstandings. These characters may not quite be out of the late Henry James, but their discourse is awash with ambiguities and insinuations. Beneath the text itself lies a complex subtext of power, malice, domination and false deference. Few works could be more profoundly political. ’Baa Baa Black Sheep’ makes Marx's Capital look like Mary Poppins.
Would anyone think this was true? It is hard to imagine so. The reading of the piece I have just offered would seem too ridiculous even to consider. Quite apart from its fancifulness, it overlooks the question of genre. The nursery rhyme is a specific genre or type of literature, and like any genre it has its peculiar rules and conventions. One of these is that such verses are not supposed to mean very much. It is a mistake to treat them as though they were Goethe's Faust or Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus. They are ritualised songs, not diagnoses of the human condition. Nursery rhymes are communal chants, flights of fancy and forms of verbal play. They sometimes consist of a collection of images which seem fairly random, and are not expected to display much narrative coherence. There is something oddly inconsequential about their storylines (think of ’Little Miss Muffet’, ’Sing a Song of Sixpence’ or ’Goosey Goosey Gander’), as though they are half-remembered fragments of longer narratives that have been lost in the mists of time. ’Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle’ is an Eliotic cluster of cryptic images which refuse to form a unified narrative. To read these rhymes as though they were Bleak House or The Duchess of Malfi is as much a mistake as to measure Paul McCartney against Mozart. They are simply distinct modes. Verses of this kind are full of minor puzzles and obscure allusions. ’Humpty Dumpty’, for example, seems to think it worth mentioning that the king's horses failed to reassemble an egg, even though no horse on historical record has been known to do that.
All this, however, does not settle the question of whether the verse can be read in the way I have proposed. This, let us note, is not the same as asking whether it was composed to be read in this way. Almost certainly not. Even so, you can choose to interpret a piece of writing in ways it plainly did not or could not anticipate. There may be some seriously strange types who find manuals for assembling table lamps hauntingly poetic in their descriptions of plugs and flexes, and who read them avidly far into the night. Such manuals might even have proved cause for divorce. Yet it is unlikely that whoever wrote them would have anticipated such a use. The question, then, is why ’Baa Baa Black Sheep’ cannot mean what I have suggested it means. Why is this reading illicit, if indeed it is?
We cannot, of course, appeal to the author's meaning here, because we have no idea who the author was. Even if we did, it would not necessarily settle the question. Authors can offer accounts of their own works which sound even more absurd than the one I have just provided for ’Baa Baa Black Sheep’. T.S. Eliot, for example, once described The Waste Land as no more than a piece of rhythmical grousing. The only problem with this comment is that it is palpably untrue. Thomas Hardy quite often disclaimed having any views at all about the controversial subjects presented in his fiction. When asked what one of his more obscure poems meant, Robert Browning is said to have replied, ’When I wrote this poem, God and Robert Browning knew what it meant. Now, God knows.’ If Sylvia Plath were to have confided that her poetry was really about collecting antique clocks, we would probably be forced to conclude that she was mistaken. There are writers who consider their work to be examples of high seriousness when they are hilariously, unintentionally funny. We shall be considering such an author at the very end of the book. Another example is the Book of Jonah, which is probably not intended to be funny but which is brilliantly comic without seeming to be aware of it.
Authors may have long forgotten what they intended a poem or story to mean. In any case, works of literature do not mean just one thing. They are capable of generating whole repertoires of meaning, some of which alter as history itself changes, and not all of which may be consciously intended. Much of what I had to say of literary texts in the first chapter would no doubt have come as news to their creators. Flann O'Brien probably did not realise that the opening paragraph of The Third Policeman could be read as implying that John Divney was thick-headed enough to spend his time turning an iron bar into a bicycle-pump with the specific intention of killing old Mathers with it. E.M. Forster may well have been surprised to learn that the first four phrases of A Passage to India have roughly three stresses each. It is unlikely that Robert Lowell could have provided a detailed account of how the metre and the syntax work athwart each other in the opening lines of ’The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’. When Yeats writes of a ’terrible beauty’ in his poem ’Easter 1916’, the phrase may well refer to his beloved Maud Gonne as well as to the military uprising in Dublin, but he was probably oblivious of the fact.
Behind the belief that the author is the key to a work's meaning lies a particular conception of literature. This is the doctrine of literature as self-expression, much favoured by some creative writing courses. On this theory, a literary work is the sincere expression of some experience that the author has had, and which he wishes to share with others. This is a fairly recent idea, dating mostly from romanticism. It would no doubt have come as a surprise to Homer, Dante and Chaucer. Alexander Pope would have found it puzzling, while Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot would have scornfully dismissed it. It is not clear what personal experience the author of the Iliad was trying to share with us.
There are certain obvious ways in which the idea of literature as self-expression is flawed, not least when it is taken too literally. Shakespeare, as far as we know, was never marooned on a magical island, but The Tempest has an authentic ring to it even so. Even if he did spend time eating coconuts and knocking a raft together, it would not necessarily have made his last work a finer play. The novelist Lawrence Durrell spent some time in Alexandria, but some readers of his Alexandria Quartet would rather he had not. When Shakespeare writes of his lover in his sonnets, it may be that he never had a lover at all. No doubt it made a difference to him whether he had or not, but it does not make a difference to us.
One should not make a fetish of personal experience. Aspiring writers are sometimes advised to draw on their own experience, but how could they not? They can only write of what they are aware of, and awareness is as much part of one's experience as a tap on the skull. Sophocles writes out of his own experience in Oedipus the King, though it is unlikely that he was a blind, exiled, incestuous parricide. You can have experience of gluttony without being a glutton yourself. You can grasp the concept of gluttony, discuss the idea with others, read tales of gluttons exploding all over the walls after devouring one pork pie too many and so on. There is no reason why a celibate could not come up with a more sensitive portrayal of human sexuality than a thrice-married roué.
A writer may not experience anything beyond the experience of the act of writing. Perhaps the agonised feelings he records are entirely fictional. He may never have had a tortoise called John Henry Newman, or have wandered dazed and bleeding around the alleyways of Tangiers. Or perhaps he staggers bleeding around Tangiers every three days, but writes about it in so unconvincing a way that we suspect he does not. There is not much point in trying to peer behind a poem to see whether the poet really felt as he says he did, unless he is declaring his passion for his secretary and you happen to be his wife. The experience of a poem is not best thought of as something ’behind’ it, which the poet then struggles to convey into language. What is the experience ’behind’ the words ’Thou still unravished bride of quietness'? And can we identify it without simply repeating the words? Language in poetry is a reality in itself, not simply a vehicle for something distinct from it. The experience which matters is the experience of the poem itself. The relevant feelings and ideas are those which are bound up with the words themselves, not something separable from them. Bad actors ruin good poetry by foisting their feelings upon it in lavish emotional displays, not realising that the feelings are in some sense present in the language itself.
Surely, though, an author must be sincere? Sincerity, as it happens, is not a concept that makes much sense in critical discussion. Nor does it sometimes make much sense in real life. We do not justify Attila the Hun by pointing to the fact that he was sincere in what he did. What would it mean to say that Jane Austen was sincere in portraying the odious Mr Collins, or that Alexander Pope was being sincere when he wrote ’For fools rush in where angels fear to tread'? We can speak of pieces of language as being vacuous or visceral, bombastic or intensely moving, histrionic or shot through with loathing. But this is not the same as talking about an author in these terms. A writer may strive to be sincere yet end up producing a bogus-sounding piece of art. One could not be burningly sincere in words which were absurd or completely empty. I could not say ’I love you as I love a cornflake spinning on its nose in the armpit of an isosceles triangle’ and passionately mean it. There is nothing there to mean, passionately or not. It would be kinder to get me to a doctor than to a registry office.
Is Samuel Beckett being sincere when he portrays humanity in such bleak terms? Is this a matter of self-expression on his part? Isn't it possible that the real-life Beckett was a jovial, dewy-eyed soul who looked forward to the imminent arrival of an earthly paradise? As a matter of fact, we know that he was not. The real-life Beckett was in some ways a fairly morose character, even though he enjoyed a drink, a joke and a spot of congenial company. But it is not out of the question that he regularly had his friends rolling on the floor clutching their sides and howling for him to stop. He might also have believed that humankind was destined for a gloriously fulfilling future. Perhaps his work is simply an experiment in seeing the world as a post-nuclear landscape. Or perhaps adopting this attitude provisionally was the most effective way he could write. Shakespeare could create some compellingly nihilistic characters (Iago, for example, or the psychopathic Barnadine in Measure for Measure) without being a nihilist himself. Or at least not as far as we know.
To doubt whether an author can be fully in command of his or her meanings is not to suggest that literary works can mean anything you like. If we were to read ’Baa Baa Black Sheep’ as an account of the electrification of the early Soviet Union, it would be hard to see a relation between this account of it and the text itself, so that there would be a logical problem about how it could count as a reading of this particular work. There might seem no reason why it could not serve as an interpretation of any literary work at all. Maybe Stalin thought Paradise Lost was also about the electrification of the early Soviet Union. In a similar way, ’Enormous, flapping, puce-coloured ears’ is not just an eccentric answer to the question ’How old are you?’ It is no answer at all. There seems to be no connection between the two utterances. To claim that Yeats's phrase ’terrible beauty’ may refer among other things to Maud Gonne is not sheer speculation, like arguing that Virginia Woolf's lighthouse is a symbol of the Indian Mutiny. We can read the figure of Maud Gonne into the words ’terrible beauty’ because we know something of what she meant for Yeats, what ambiguities and symbolic resonances she evoked for him, how he depicts her in his other poems and so on. Critics have to be able to back up their claims.
Which returns us to the question of why this version of ’Baa Baa Black Sheep’ may be invalid. How does one reply to someone who exclaims ’But it obviously can't mean that!’ One retort is to point out that I have just shown that it can. I have argued the case line by line, adducing evidence for my claims and demonstrating how the reading is coherent. Why is the phrase ’Baa baa’ obviously not a satirical bleat by the narrator? Where is the evidence to say so? Who says that he doesn't have an avaricious eye on the sheep's wool?
Where, however, is the evidence to say he does? It is true that the poem does not actually state that the narrator is being boorish and overbearing, or that the sheep is craftily trying to get even with him. But literary texts often work by unspoken implications. In fact, every utterance in the world depends on a whole host of such implications — so many, in fact, that we would never be able to explicate them all. To say ’Put the garbage out’ is usually taken to refer to one's own garbage. There is no suggestion that one should make a complicated, expensive trek to Hollywood in order to put Jack Nicholson's garbage out for him, even if the statement does not actually rule it out. The Turn of the Screw does not tell us that its narrator is psychotic, but this is a reasonable implication to read into it. We are not told by Graham Greene's Brighton Rock that Pinkie, its black-hearted protagonist, is en route to hell, but the novel would make a lot less sense if this were not true. We assume that Lear has two legs, two lungs and a liver, but the play does not mention those facts. The problem is one of what counts as a reasonable inference in a specific situation. And this is a matter of judgement, which cannot be reduced to rules. It is something we simply have to argue about.
I have already conceded that my account of ’Baa Baa Black Sheep’ is almost certainly not what its anonymous author meant by it. Or, for that matter, what the children who sing it today imagine that it means. My case is simply that the verses can be construed in this way without sidelining some vital textual evidence, running headlong into logical contradiction, or finding implications in the lines which could not possibly be present. If, for example, one was intent on trying to respect the original meaning as far as possible, ’Baa baa’ could not be taken as referring to the sound of a motorbike starting up, since the rhyme long predates such machines. If a reading of the piece depended on the little boy who lives down the lane being the narrator himself, it would be seriously undermined if there turned out to be a convention by which the phrase ’the little boy who lives down the lane’, when used in nursery rhymes, always refers to the person who speaks it, rather as the phrase ’Son of Man’ in the New Testament is among other things a conventional way of referring to oneself in Aramaic. The sheep would then be giving wool to himself, or (in another version of the piece) refusing to. But there is no such convention.
So it is not that there is enough textual evidence to work against this version of the poem. It is rather that there is not enough evidence to support it. This is why the reading seems fanciful and far-fetched. It is possible, but not persuasive. It depends a fair amount on tone, and since tone cannot literally be heard in literature, it can often prove a source of ambiguity. A change of tone can signal a shift of meaning. The reading probably finds more in the text than the text can reasonably support, though not more than it can logically support.
To say that my construal of the poem is unconvincing is to say that it offends the sense that we habitually make of things, a fact that is not to be swept aside. It is a piece of intellectual arrogance to sweep aside the tacit agreements and assumptions embedded in everyday life. They can often distil a good deal of wisdom. Yet common sense is not always to be trusted. Racial equality was offensive to common sense in 1960s Alabama. As for fanciful interpretations, it has been seriously argued that ’Goosey Goosey Gander’ is about the raiding of the homes of recusant Roman Catholic noblemen by Cromwell's troops during the seventeenth-century civil war in England. ’Goosey’ refers to the goose-stepping gait of the soldiers as they break into the bedchamber of a Catholic noblewoman, while the old man who is thrown downstairs for not saying his prayers is a Catholic chaplain who refuses to bow to the new Protestant forms of worship. This may well be true. Superficially, however, it seems just as implausible as my account of ’Baa Baa Black Sheep’.
There is another point to be noted. ’Goosey Goosey Gander’ may originally have been about religious strife in seventeenth-century England, but it is not about this for the children who sing it in the school playground today. For them, it is simply about a man wandering upstairs into his wife's bedroom. Does this mean that their version of the rhyme is unacceptable? Not at all. It is just that what it means to them is not what it may have meant a few centuries ago. But this is true of many works of literature. Nor can the original meaning, assuming that we have access to it, always pull rank over what the piece may come to signify later. It may be that in some ways we can understand a work of the past better than its contemporaries could. Modern psychoanalytic insights, for example, might make more sense of William Blake's ’Songs of Experience’ than the kind of knowledge available at the time. The experience of twentieth-century despotism might enrich our understanding of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. It is unlikely that the figure of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice meant quite the same before the Holocaust as it does after it. If Richardson's Clarissa has become freshly ’readable’ again in our time, after its contemptuous dismissal in the nineteenth century, it is partly on account of the modern women's movement. There is a sense in which we know more about the past than the past did because we know what it led to. In any case, living through a historical event is not the same as understanding it. All the same, there are forms of historical knowledge which are simply lost to us. Perhaps we will never know for sure what the people who flocked to see Hamlet when it was first staged thought about the morality of revenge, assuming that they knew themselves.
Imagine that it was a convention of the nursery rhyme genre that one should always search the work for occult meanings. Something like this is true of the Kabbalistic tradition of biblical interpretation. One might be required to assume that there is an endless fund of abstruse meanings in the text waiting to be dug out. Alternatively, there might be a recommendation to read them in. It might be part of the meaning of a nursery rhyme, rather like a Rorschach blot, that you were allowed to make your own subjective sense of it. Or it might be that you were invited to make your own sense of it provided that the sense was logically coherent and seemed to fit with the textual evidence.
If this were so, then my version of ’Baa Baa Black Sheep’ would no doubt be judged admissible. It is not an obviously valid reading. Its correctness does not exactly cry out from the house tops. Yet on such a theory of interpretation, it cannot be ruled out. Besides, the rhyme may not mean this now, but it might always come to do so. My account of it might prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it catches on, which I am quietly confident it will, children who chant this verse in the school playground for generations to come will think spontaneously of rude narrators and duplicitous sheep as they do so. My place in history will then be secure.
In the ancient Jewish practice of midrash or scriptural interpretation, it was sometimes deemed acceptable to assign new, strikingly improbable meanings to the Bible. The word midrash means to seek or investigate, and holy scripture was regarded as semantically inexhaustible. It was able to confront each commentator with a different sense each time it was studied. The Torah or sacred Jewish scriptures was seen as incomplete, and each generation of interpreters had to help bring it to perfection. No one of them, however, would ever have the last word. Moreover, unless a piece of scripture could be brought to bear on the needs and preoccupations of its time, it was judged to be a dead letter. It had to be given life by being looked at in the light of the contemporary moment. You did not truly understand the text unless you found a way of putting it into practice.
My reading of ’Baa Baa Black Sheep’, as it happens, is not of this kind. I am not doing anything as devious as appealing to midrash in order to justify it. It is not especially influenced by the needs and preoccupations of our time, other than in the sense that any act of reading is. It also claims to be true to the text as it stands, without doing flagrant interpretative violence to it. It is not, in other words, as daring or as radical as midrash. It does not argue that the black sheep is meant to be Bono, or that the three bags of wool stand for three reasons why neo-Keynesian theory is inapplicable to the modern Hungarian economy.
One reason why we might tolerate such apparently exotic accounts of texts is that when it comes to literature, not a lot is at stake. Nobody is going to lose their lives, or even their livelihoods, over the question of whether the narrator of ’Baa Baa Black Sheep’ is surly and domineering, unless I teach this critical approach to students who report me to the Dean for professional incompetence and incurable frivolity. People may stand to lose their livelihoods, liberties or even lives, however, if a legal document is read in too free a way. Sometimes it is licence one wants and sometimes not, depending on what one might call the regime of reading in question. When it comes to roadsigns or medical prescriptions, a strictly literal, unambiguous meaning is desirable; at other times, as with jokes and modernist poems, playfulness and ambiguity may be the point. There are occasions when meaning needs at all costs to be nailed down, and other times when it may float triumphantly free. Some literary theorists would claim that if you happen to find this interpretation of ’Baa Baa Black Sheep’ rewarding and thought-provoking, then that is enough reason to adopt it. Others would insist that such interpretations must be cognitive, in the sense of yielding us accurate knowledge of the work.
Literary works may best be seen not as texts with a fixed sense, but as matrices capable of generating a whole range of possible meanings. They do not so much contain meaning as produce it. Once again, this is not to suggest that anything goes. There may be some conceivable situation in which ’Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?’ could mean ’Just scratch a bit under the shoulder blade, will you?’ Perhaps there is a tribe in the Amazon basin in whose language, by an amazing coincidence, the sounds of Shakespeare's line corresponds exactly to the sounds they make when they ask to be scratched a bit under the shoulder blade. Or perhaps some mighty cataclysm in the future will transform the English language so radically that when people murmur to us ’Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?’, we instantly oblige by scratching their backs. For us and for now, however, that is not what Shakespeare's line signifies.
One reason for this is that meaning is a public affair. There could not be a meaning that only I was in possession of, as there could be a plot of land that only I owned. Meaning is not a matter of private property. I cannot privately decide to make the phrase ’hermeneutical phenomenology’ mean ’Meryl Streep’. Meaning belongs to language, and language distils the sense we collectively make of our world. It is not free-floating. Rather, it is bound up with the ways we go to work on reality — with a society's values, traditions, assumptions, institutions and material conditions. In the end, we speak as we do because of the things that we do. To change a language decisively, you would have to change at least some of this. Meaning is not fixed in the sense that it is inherent in a specific set of words. If this were so, there could be no possibility of translation. If meaning is relatively determinate, it is because it is more than just a verbal affair. It signifies a compact between human beings in a specific place and time, embodying their shared ways of acting, feeling and perceiving. Even when people conflict over such things, they must agree to some extent on what it is they are arguing over, otherwise we could not call what they were doing conflicting. You and I cannot disagree over whether Sofia is hotter than Carolina if you think they are geographical locations and I think they are movie stars.
It follows from this that a work of literature could not mean something to me alone. I might see in it something that nobody else does, but what I see must in principle be sharable with others for us to call it a meaning. Indeed, I can only formulate a meaning to myself in language that I share with others. Perhaps the words ’black sheep’ remind me irresistibly of Hugh Grant. Every time someone pronounces these words, an image of Hugh Grant flashes up spontaneously in my mind. This, however, could not be part of the meaning of the words. It is simply a random private association. Meaning is not objective in the sense that municipal cark parks are, but it is not just subjective either. The same is true of literary works themselves, as I have pointed out already. They are transactions, not material objects. There is no literature without a reader.
Moreover, a reader's ability to get a poem or novel to mean something is shaped by his or her historical situation. Here and now, a text can only mean whatever lies within a reader's capacity to make it mean. Clarissa could not shed light on feminist theory for its contemporary readership, but it can do for us. Readers bring all kinds of (often unconscious) beliefs and assumptions to a literary text. Among them will be a rough idea of what a literary work is in the first place, and some sense of what they are supposed to do with it. What they find in the text will be shaped by their beliefs and expectations, though it might also succeed in revolutionising them. Indeed, for some critics this is what makes for truly exceptional literary art. One might enter a poem an agnostic and emerge as a Jehovah's Witness.
There is no single correct interpretation of ’Baa Baa Black Sheep’, or for that matter of any other literary work. Even so, there are more and less plausible ways of making sense of it. A persuasive reading must take account of the textual evidence, though establishing this evidence itself involves interpretation. Someone might always protest ’I don't regard that as evidence!’, or ’Where on earth do you get the idea that the Macbeth witches are meant to be evil?’ Textual evidence can usually be construed in a variety of ways, and conflicts can arise between these versions. There may be no definitive way of deciding among them. Nor may we feel the need to do so. Could there be a convincing reading of a literary work that nobody has yet come up with, or that nobody ever will? Why not? Perhaps there are works which are standing by to be read in startlingly new ways, waiting to be brought to their full potential by some reader as yet unborn. Perhaps only the future will put us in firmer possession of the past.
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Unless a reader continually makes assumptions, a literary text will not work. Take, for example, the deliciously deadpan first sentence of Evelyn Waugh's short story ’Mr Loveday's Little Outing’: ’ “You will not find your father greatly changed,” remarked Lady Moping, as the car turned into the gates of the County Asylum.’ Like any piece of language, this sentence presents us with a number of blanks that we must fill in, however unconsciously, in order to make sense of it. In this sense, a fictional sentence is a bit like a scientific hypothesis. Like a hypothesis, we have to test it out in different ways until we find a way that works. We assume that the father to whom Lady Moping refers is her husband (though we have no evidence for this so far); that Lady Moping is visiting him in a lunatic asylum; and that she is bringing her child or children with her. Perhaps we also assume that the husband is a patient in the asylum, which makes the comment ’You will not find your father greatly changed’ comic. It may mean, reassuringly, ’Don't worry, he's his usual self, every bit as normal as he was before he went in.’ Or it may mean, rather less reassuringly, ’He's just as crazy as he was before they took him away.’ It is the ambiguity which makes the remark funny, as well as the dry tone in which it is delivered. The fact that Lady Moping is predicting how her offspring will react to their father (’You will not find …’) lends the statement the imperious ring of an instruction. Perhaps we suspect this to be typical of titled persons.
It is possible, however, Lady Moping's husband is not an inmate at all. He might be a nurse, a psychiatrist or a gardener. This, however, is rendered somewhat unlikely by the ’Lady’. Lady Moping is an aristocrat, her husband is probably Lord Moping, and noble lords do not generally become psychiatrists, let alone nurses or gardeners. There is, moreover, a general feeling that the English nobility are a little dotty, which reinforces the suspicion that Lord Moping is more likely to be a recipient of medical treatment than a dispenser of it. Besides, his child or children seem not to have seen him for some time, long enough anyway for him to have time to change, which might not be the case if he were a gardener or psychiatrist. The grammatical construction of the phrase ’as the car turned into the gates of the County Asylum’ might suggest that Lady Moping herself is not driving, being rather too grand for such a menial activity. Perhaps she is sitting beside a chauffeur in the front of the car.
If readers bring assumptions to literary works, literary works can also intimate attitudes to their readers. A critic once described Swift's stance to his readers as ’intimate but unfriendly’. There is a touch of good-humoured sadism about the way Tristram Shandy invites the reader to act as a kind of co-author, but in doing so forces him to work excessively hard to make sense of the text. A work may buttonhole the reader like an old crony, or maintain a formal, perhaps rather frosty attitude to her. It may strike up an unspoken pact with the reader, assuming that he is an erudite man of leisure who shares the same civilised values as itself. Or it may set out to disturb and disorientate those who pick it up, assaulting their senses, defamiliarising their convictions or violating their sense of decorum. There are also works which seem to turn their backs on an audience, communing with themselves in private while reluctantly allowing their meditations to be overheard.
* * *
All knowledge depends to some extent on a process of abstraction. In the case of literary criticism, this means being able to stand back from the work and trying to see it in the round. This is not easy, partly because literary works are processes in time which are hard to see laid out as a whole. We also need to find a way of standing back which keeps us in touch with the work's tangible presence. One way in which we can try to grasp a poem or novel as a whole is by investigating its themes, meaning the pattern of preoccupations we find in it. In the analysis of Charles Dickens's novel Great Expectations that follows, this is one of the things I shall aim to do.
The most uninspired form of criticism simply tells the story of a work in different words. Some students imagine they are writing criticism when for the most part they are simply paraphrasing a text, occasionally throwing in the odd comment of their own. All the same, recounting what happens in a story or novel is sometimes unavoidable, so there follows a brief summary of Dickens's novel. Pip, the hero, lives as a child with his adult sister Mrs Joe and her childlike, kind-hearted husband Joe Gargery, who works as a blacksmith in the desolate marshlands of south-eastern England. Mrs Joe brings up Pip with a heavy hand, and inflicts something of the same harsh treatment on her long-suffering husband. Pip's parents are dead, and while inspecting their grave in the churchyard one day he is collared by a convict, Abel Magwitch, who has escaped from a nearby prison ship. Magwitch asks Pip for a file to free himself from his leg-iron, along with some food and drink, and the boy obliges by stealing these items from his home. But Magwitch is recaptured, and finds himself shipped off for life to the British penal colony in Australia.
Meanwhile, Pip is summoned by a rich, eccentric local gentlewoman, Miss Havisham, to her decaying home Satis House, where he is to play with her haughty, beautiful young ward Estella. Miss Havisham's life has been blighted by a lover who jilted her on their wedding day, and the clocks of Satis House have been halted at this fatal hour. She herself sits like a skeleton or ghastly waxwork amid the rotting, vermin-ridden remains of her wedding banquet, shrouded in her tattered wedding dress. Pip falls in love with Estella, whom Miss Havisham is bringing up with the express purpose of breaking men's hearts in revenge for her own ill-treatment. Unknown to him, young Pip has been brought along for Estella to limber up on.
As a result of his experience of Satis House, Pip becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his lowly existence at the forge, where he has been indentured as Joe's apprentice. He hatches ambitions to become a gentleman and by doing so to win Estella, who professes to despise his plebeian way of life. Meanwhile, Mrs Joe is savagely assaulted at the forge by the villainous Orlick, a labourer in Joe's employ, lingers on her sickbed for a while unable to speak, and finally dies. Joe then marries Biddy, a pleasant young schoolmistress less given to clipping him around the ear.
A London lawyer, Jaggers, arrives to inform Pip that an anonymous donor has bestowed a fortune upon him, and that he is to go to the capital to live as a gentleman. Pip, who assumes that his benefactor is Miss Havisham, and that she is grooming him to be a suitable partner for Estella, moves to the metropolis, and under the guardianship of the grim-faced Jaggers launches on a somewhat ungratifying life of leisure. He becomes a prig and a snob, disdainful of his previous life and odiously condescending to the injured but uncomplaining Joe. Even as a working-class child, he anticipates his future as a gentleman by speaking Standard English rather than the local accent. (So does Oliver Twist, who was brought up in a workhouse yet speaks like a chartered accountant. There was a general feeling in Victorian circles that heroes and heroines should not be allowed to drop their aitches or slur their vowels. The fact that the Artful Dodger speaks with a Cockney accent is not unrelated to the fact that he steals handkerchiefs.)
Magwitch then reappears abruptly on the scene, having escaped from his life in Australia, to inform Pip that it is he who is his secret benefactor. He has prospered while abroad, and made a gentleman out of the boy in gratitude for the help he gave him on the marshes. Pip receives this news with horror, and at first feels little but disgust for his new-found patron. Magwitch, who left Australia illegally, is being pursued by the authorities, and Pip arranges for him to be secretly shipped out of the country. Once again, however, the convict is arrested. He is sentenced to death, but dies before he can be hanged. Pip's feelings towards the felon have now softened, and he has learned that Magwitch, unknown to himself, is Estella's father. He tells the old man on his deathbed that he has a daughter whom he, Pip, dearly loves. In doing so, he grants the old lag a peaceful death.
Pip is now bitterly remorseful for his former snobbery and social ambition. Being no longer in possession of his fortune, he becomes a clerk and then a partner in a modest business enterprise. He has a grave illness, and is joyfully reunited with Joe and Biddy. Joe nurses him back to health like a baby, after which he encounters Estella once more. She, too, is now almost without possessions. Miss Havisham has died at a fire in her home, and before her death repents of the way she has set out to break Pip's heart. Estella, tempered by suffering like Pip himself, is equally humbled and contrite. She and Pip seem likely to marry, though Dickens's original ending was rather more sombre.
These, then, are the bare bones of the narrative, mercifully shorn of some outrageous coincidences and surreally improbable plotting. What significant patterns can we discover in it? We may note to begin with the extraordinary number of false parents that the story contains. Mrs Joe is Pip's sister but behaves as his mother, while her husband Joe Gargery is in the position of Pip's father but is in fact his best friend and metaphorical brother. In the end, to complicate matters further, Pip will recognise in Joe his true spiritual father. In this sense, the Gargery family is a grisly parody of a conventional one, with Mrs Joe acting as both sister and mother to Pip, and as both wife and mother to Joe. Joe, for his part, acts as both brother and father to Pip. One is reminded of Tom Lehrer's satirical song about Oedipus: ’He loved his mother like no other, / His daughter was his sister and his son was his brother.’ Towards the end of the novel, Pip will nurse his spiritual father Magwitch as though he were a child. In doing so, he becomes, as one critic has put it, a father to his father. There is also a kind of sibling solidarity between the two men, since both were ill-used as children, just as there is between Pip and Joe. If the protagonist is to be redeemed, the criminal or negligent parent must be forgiven, as Cordelia pardons Lear, and the wayward child must accept forgiveness in his turn, in Pip's case from Joe and Biddy.
In its warmth and affection, the family in early Dickens often figures as a refuge from a harsh public world, which is true in this novel of the domestic set-up of Wemmick, Jaggers's good-hearted clerk. Yet turning the family into a safe haven is now so arduous a task that Wemmick's house actually has a moat around it, and can be entered only by a drawbridge. This Englishman's home is almost literally a castle. Public and domestic spheres are split apart. Only in this way can the latter be protected from the callousness of the former. Within the protective walls of the Wemmick household, there is abundant good feeling between Wemmick himself and his uproariously comic old father. Pip's family, by contrast, is morbidly dysfunctional, with mildly incestuous overtones. There is some deep sexual and domestic disturbance in the forge, as there is in Satis House. The word ’forge’ means a blacksmith's workshop, but it also suggests fraudulence and deceit, which brings to mind both Satis House and Pip's status as a sham gentleman. Love and sexuality in Miss Havisham's diseased world are associated with violence, cruelty, power, fantasy and duplicity. Love in this novel is by no means a simple alternative to hatred and domination. It is intimately interwoven with them.
Pip's childhood home is physically attached to the forge, which means that, unlike Wemmick's mini-castle, the world of work overlaps with the domestic sphere. The negative aspect of this is that the violence and oppressiveness of the public world also infiltrate the private one. Joe's job as a blacksmith involves a good deal of hammering, and so does Mrs Joe's treatment of Pip. In fact, Joe tells the boy how his own father, a blacksmith averse to work, ’hammered at me with a wigour only to be equalled by the wigour with which he didn't hammer at his anwil’. Pip uses the word ’unjust’ of Mrs Joe's belabouring of him, which links the violence of the domestic world to the public domain of law, crime and punishment. The forge is associated with iron, and it is with a piece of iron that Orlick strikes Mrs Joe down.
Yet this intimacy between work and home, public and private domains, is also to be prized. For better as well as for worse, there is a minimum of distance between the two realms in the Gargery household. Joe's qualities as a craftsman are related to his virtues as a friend and surrogate father. The later Dickens admires people who have practical skills rather than those who live off stocks and shares. Manual work is real, whereas paper wealth is parasitic on other people's labour. Magwitch's fortune was earned by the sweat of his brow, which is more than can be said of Miss Havisham's. So there is something authentic about the forge, just as there is something brittle and unreal about the world of wealth and privilege. In moving from his rural home to fashionable London, Pip is travelling from reality to illusion. He will finally have to reverse this journey if he is to be redeemed.
Miss Havisham is a substitute mother to the adopted Estella, while Magwitch is a substitute father to Pip. ’I'm your second father,’ he tells Pip. ’You're my son — more to me than any son.’ Since Magwitch is also Estella's literal father, we have another mild hint of incest here. Metaphorically speaking, Pip and Estella are brother and sister. In fact, it was because he believed his daughter to be dead that Magwitch ’adopted’ Pip as a kind of compensation. Even Pip's remote relation Mr Pumblechook, an oily old humbug, takes a phoney paternal interest in him, while Jaggers, who is Pip's guardian, is yet another of his patrons. The kind-hearted Wemmick also gives him some fatherly care, while his friend Herbert Pocket teaches him how to conduct himself like a gentleman.
Some of these false parents are bad, while others are good. Mrs Joe and Miss Havisham are bad false parents, whereas Joe, Jaggers and Wemmick are good false ones. So is Magwitch, though more ambiguously so. But there are very few good true parents in the whole book. Miss Havisham is a wicked fairy godmother (she even has a crutch as a wand), while Magwitch is the good fairy who grants your wishes. It is, however, part of fairy lore that your yearnings rarely come true in the way you expect, which is certainly true in Pip's case. The magical fairy food can quickly turn to ashes in your mouth. Dreams of grandeur can veer into nightmare.
What are we to make of these bogus patriarchs, childlike adults, wicked stepmothers and semi-incestuous siblings? Great Expectations is preoccupied among other things with what we might call the question of origins. Where do we really come from? What are the true sources of our existence? Freud saw this as a question raised by the small child, who might fantasise that he has no parentage at all but is actually self-born. Perhaps we all sprang from our own loins, and can thus escape the indignity of being dependent for our life on others. Or perhaps, like God, there was never a moment when we were not in existence. One reason why the child might find the thought of its origins hard to bear is that whatever was born can also die. As we grow up, we must come to terms with the fact that however free and self-reliant we fancy ourselves to be, we are not in fact self-authoring. What puts us in place is a history over which we have little control, and of which we may know almost nothing. This heritage is woven into our flesh, veins, bones and organs as much as into our social conditions. We are dependent for our existence, and thus for our very freedom and autonomy, on a lineage of other individuals and events, one too tangled ever to be fully unravelled. There is a plot afoot, but it is not easy to know how we fit into it. At the root of the self is that which is not ourselves. This is a kind of conundrum we have to learn to live with.
The child might also dream that his actual family is not his real one. Perhaps he really belongs to a more glamorous set of kinsfolk altogether, and has ended up among his present relatives as a kind of changeling. Freud called this the family romance syndrome, and it is one with which Pip is clearly afflicted. Satis House represents the family he wants to be part of. This is savagely ironic, since Satis House is a rotting, poisonous, fantasy-ridden shell. Its only occupants are two solitary women, one of them probably mad and the other emotionally disabled, who have no blood-relation with each other. It is a sign of Pip's false consciousness that he should prefer this arena of sick dreams to life at the forge.
What Pip does is misread the plot of the novel. He thinks he is a character in one plot, that of Miss Havisham, but he actually belongs to another, that of Magwitch. It is never easy to say which narrative we are part of. The hero makes a disastrous mistake about the sources of his identity — about who it is that actually ’created’ him. He assumes that he is the creature of Miss Havisham, but he is actually the handiwork of a convict. There is an enigma about origins, rather as Magwitch appears as a ’dreadful mystery’ to Pip. Yet it is a mystery which involves more than just the individual. Where does human civilisation itself come from? What are the sources of our common life?
The answer for this novel is unambiguous. Civilisation has its murky roots in crime, violence, labour, suffering, injustice, wretchedness and oppression. The fact that Magwitch is Pip's benefactor is symbolic of this deeper truth. It is from this coarse root that the world of civility flowers. ’I lived rough,’ the convict tells Pip, ’that you should live smooth.’ It is from hard labour and illegality that Pip's good fortune flows. His leisurely life in London thus has a ’taint of prison and crime’ about it that he can never quite dispel. The wealth of Miss Havisham, like that of the sophisticated London world which Pip joins, also stems from wretchedness and exploitation. And the fashionable world is as unconscious of this fact, or as indifferent to it, as Pip is unaware that the underworld figure of Magwitch is the real source of his identity. Even Estella turns out to have criminal origins, as the long-lost daughter of Magwitch and a suspected murderer. It is hard to see how the civilisation portrayed in the book could survive if it were to become conscious of its true foundation.
This is an astonishingly radical view for the novel to take. In fact, it is far more radical than Dickens himself. It is a long way from his real-life political views. He was a reformist, not a revolutionary. In this sense, Great Expectations, like some of its author's other late novels, illustrates a point we noted earlier, that a writer's real-life opinions are not necessarily at one with the attitudes revealed in his or her work. ’Never trust the teller, trust the tale,’ as D.H. Lawrence remarks. The novel's sympathies clearly lie with the criminal underworld, not with the fashionable world in which Dickens himself was so idolised. Satis House reveals the dark underside of that respectability, as Miss Havisham's greedy, hypocritical relations wait like vultures to swoop on her money when she dies.
Joe, the novel's moral touchstone, hopes that Magwitch will give the slip to the soldiers pursuing him on the marshes. When Pip arrives in London, one of the first sights he sees is Newgate prison, where the wretched inmates are whipped and hanged. Later on, when Magwitch is brought to court for sentence of execution, the novel contrasts the prisoners in the dock, ’some defiant, some stricken with terror, some sobbing and weeping, some covering their faces’, with ’the sheriffs with their great chains and nosegays, other civic gewgaws and monsters, criers, ushers …’. There is a clear implication throughout the book that conventional society is as cruel and corrupt in its own more decorous way as the world of thieves and assassins.
The novel hints at a parallel between the child and the criminal. Both figures are half in and half out of orthodox society, stripped of privileges and sorely oppressed. Neither has the benefit of much education, and both are accustomed to being ordered about. The Victorian child may enjoy almost as little freedom as an inmate of death row. The young Pip is forever being cuffed, smacked, reproved and casually roughed up by Evangelical-minded adults for whom children are not far from the spawn of Satan. At one point, children are explicitly described as criminals fit to be hanged, which points to the secret solidarity between Pip and Magwitch. There is also a literal connection between children and crime in the novel. Jaggers, who is not exactly a bleeding-heart liberal, tells Pip indignantly how he has seen children ’being imprisoned, whipped, transported, neglected, cast out, qualified in all ways for the hangman, and growing up to be hanged’.
As a feared and respected lawyer who seems to be on nodding terms with almost every ex-jailbird in London, Jaggers acts as the bridge in the story between the underworld and the overworld. His office displays the hideous death masks of hanged convicts on its walls. Since he draws part of his livelihood from death, he is also one of the book's several examples of the living dead. Magwitch, whose life as a prisoner is a living death, is another. So is Miss Havisham, frozen in the moment of her lover's betrayal, and so is Mrs Joe, who hovers somewhere between life and death after Orlick has smashed in her skull. The death of Mrs Joe suggests that Pip is not only in cahoots with a criminal. He is also indirectly responsible for murder. It was he who stole the file that Magwitch used to free himself from his leg-iron, and it was with the discarded leg-iron that Orlick attacked Mrs Joe. The shadow of matricide hangs over the hero.
* * *
The opening of Great Expectations sets a magnificent scene of desolation. Pip is alone on the flat, dreary, fever-breeding marshes, wandering among the tombstones of the churchyard, with a prison ship anchored offshore and a gibbet or gallows not far off. Death, crime and human misery converge in this adroitly set-up symbolism. Then Magwitch leaps out on the boy suddenly, in a moment of primordial trauma. The terrified child finds himself confronted by a monstrously alien figure, one who like many such figures in mythology is lame:
A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.
There is something animal or inhuman about this dreadful apparition. Yet it is also the inhumanity of the purely human — of a man stripped of the trappings of civilisation, who makes a naked appeal to Pip's own humanity. In responding to that summons, it is as though the boy strikes a symbolic compact with all those who are outcast and dispossessed. He also establishes a secret solidarity with sin. In fact, it is not hard to read this hauntingly atmospheric scene as a narrative of the Fall, though literally speaking Pip does not so much fall as find himself turned head over heels by his desperate companion. Magwitch will indeed go on to turn Pip's world upside down as the story unfolds. It is the child's first encounter with crime and hardship, and as such the staging of a kind of original sin. All such scenes include a sense of guilt — of being caught red-handed in some terrible transgression; and Pip will soon be feeling this too, as he fears being punished for stealing from his own home. In coming to Magwitch's aid, he has fallen from innocence, even if he has done so by an act of grace. He has put himself outside the law, and however hard he tries will never be able to climb back in.
For all its compassion for the underdog, the novel refuses to idealise Magwitch. In fact, it leaves him open to some serious criticism. He is, after all, the unwitting source of much of Pip's trouble, in bestowing on him a fortune which estranges him from the forge. His generosity might well be seen as grotesquely misplaced. Pip, after all, did not ask to be made a gentleman, however much he may have welcomed the prospect at the time. Nor did Magwitch consult him on the matter. He did it for Pip's sake, but also for his own gratification. He even speaks proudly of ’owning’ his protégé. There is a quiet allusion to Frankenstein and his monster. As a prisoner, Magwitch is not in command of his own existence, and he ends up by putting his beloved Pip in much the same position. In a similar way, Estella is the puppet of Miss Havisham. In the end, she turns wrathfully on her creator, and Pip does the same with Magwitch when he first returns to London. It is irresponsible of the felon to grant an almost complete stranger a share of his wealth and then simply stand back and admire his handiwork. To do so is not only to overlook the misery that wealth can bring. It is also to exercise a form of power over his spiritual adoptee. This is also glaringly true of Miss Havisham and Estella. Power lurks beneath many a relationship in this work.
There are several literary modes at work in Great Expectations. There is realism, but also fantasy. Miss Havisham is hardly the kind of character one might bump into in the local shopping mall, though Magwitch might make a passable security guard in such a place. Nor are the book's many contrived coincidences in the least lifelike. The novel also draws on the literary form known as the Bildungsroman, a tale about the education or spiritual progress of its protagonist. And there are strong elements of fable, romance, myth and fairy tale. Here, however, the novel differs from some of Dickens's earlier works. We have seen already that novels sometimes use fairy-tale devices to pull off happy endings which from a realist viewpoint seem out of reach. Jane Eyre, for example, reunites Jane with her stricken master by allowing her to hear his voice crying on the wind from a long way off. The early Dickens is himself a dab hand at such stratagems. Great Expectations, however, has seen through the fairy tale. It recognises that the bountiful fairy, Miss Havisham, is actually a wicked witch, that dreams are tainted, treasure corrupted and ambitions woven out of thin air. Abel Magwitch is an able magic witch who can transform a poor boy into a prince, but only at an appallingly steep price. The romance has turned sour. As the name ’Havisham’ suggests, to have is a sham. The desire to possess is empty.
Even so, the narrative is not averse to the odd piece of manipulation. Pip does not end up back in the forge. He is allowed to live as a gentleman, though now as an industrious one. He ends up, in short, pretty much as the middle-class man he yearned to be, though now with the right values rather than the wrong ones. As far as manipulation goes, the horrific death of Miss Havisham is among other things the novel's revenge on her for her heartless designs on its hero. Pip is reconciled with Magwitch; but Magwitch dies soon after, which conveniently ensures that Pip will not be stuck with him for the rest of his days. It is one thing to clasp this coarse-mannered old codger to one's bosom, and another thing to have to put him up in the spare room for the next twenty years.
The Bildungsroman is above all a tale of progress, but Pip's history is one of regression. He must return to where he started in order, in the words of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, to know the place for the first time. It has been pointed out that his name is a palindrome, meaning a word which reads the same backward as well as forward; and Pip can make real progress only by journeying back to his point of origin. In order to be truly independent, you must acknowledge the unsavoury sources from which your existence stems. Only by accepting that you have a history not of your own making can you be free. By turning back to stare the past in the face, you might be able to grope tentatively forward. If you repress the past, it will only return with a vengeance to trip you up, as Magwitch bursts without warning into Pip's lodgings in London.
The novel begins with a kind of ending (the graves of Pip's parents in the churchyard) and ends with a new beginning, as a much chastened Pip and Estella step forth to start their lives afresh. Satis House, by contrast, is a place in which narrative has been suspended. Time there has come to a dead end, as Miss Havisham walks round and round her mouldering room without getting anywhere. As far as narrative goes, we may also note that though this is a tale delivered in the first person, it provides us with a morally devastating portrait of its narrator. It is a tribute to Pip's strength of character that he can see, and allow the reader to see, what an unlovable little upstart he has become. No doubt it is the same strength of character which eventually helps to pull him through.
There are some significant patterns of imagery in the story, which work to reinforce its themes. One is the image of iron, which crops up in a number of different forms: Magwitch's leg-iron, which Orlick will later to use to batter Mrs Joe; the file which Pip steals from Joe, which also reappears later in the story; the prison ship, which with its massive mooring chains seems to be ’ironed like the prisoners’; Mrs Joe's wedding ring, which scrapes the young Pip's face when she punishes him; and so on. Magwitch metaphorically forges chains for Pip, even if they are fashioned of gold and silver. Pip is legally ’bound’ as an apprentice, fettered to a career as a blacksmith for which he feels nothing but contempt. Iron in the novel thus comes to symbolise violence and incarceration, but there is also a solidity and simplicity about it which contrasts with the vacuous world of Satis House and London high society. It suggests what is real about the forge and the criminal underworld, as well as what is harsh and comfortless about them.
There is also a pattern of food imagery which weaves its way through the story, and which is similarly ambiguous. Food, like iron, is associated with power and violence. Magwitch threatens to gobble the child Pip up; the pie which the boy steals for the convict becomes a source of guilt and terror for him; Mr Pumblechook recounts a bizarre tale in which Pip becomes a pig whose throat is slit; while Miss Havisham speaks of being feasted on by her predatory relatives. Yet food and drink also signify friendship and solidarity, as with Pip's generous-hearted gifts to the famished Magwitch. Dickens's heart never beats faster than when he can smell the bacon sizzling.
Nobody would guess from the account of the book I have just given that it can be ecstatically funny. Joe Gargery is among his author's finest comic creations. The novel pokes a fair amount of good-humoured fun at him, while at the same time treating him as the moral yardstick of the whole fable. The fact that Joe's forge is marooned in the countryside, however, might suggest that virtue can flourish only when isolated from corrupting social influences. The same is true of Wemmick's domestic castle. There is an abundance of humour elsewhere in the book as well. Dickens can be funny even when he is painting some deeply unpalatable realities, which suggests that one of the alternatives he is proposing to such unpleasantness is comedy itself. Goodness is in notably short supply in his later fiction; but even if there is a dearth of it in the flint-hearted world the novels portray, a good deal of moral virtue is involved in the way they portray it. The loving sympathy, imaginative flair, benevolent humour and geniality of spirit which go into the making of these fictions mean that Dickens's moral values are inseparable from the act of writing itself.
Great Expectations is in no doubt about which of its fictional worlds — Joe's or Miss Havisham's — is most real. Oliver Twist, by contrast, is in two minds about whether the criminal sub-culture of Fagin and his pack of thieving urchins is more substantial than the middle-class milieu into which Oliver is finally rescued. Is Fagin's underworld simply a nightmarish interlude, one from which you thankfully awaken in the arms of your well-heeled relatives? Or is his filthy den more solid than Brownlow's drawing room? There is something anarchically enjoyable about Fagin's way of life, which can hardly be said of the urbane lifestyle of Mr Brownlow. Fagin may be another false patriarch, but he cooks a mean sausage, which in Dickens's eyes counts heavily in his favour. He and his light-fingered apprentices may be embroiled in robbery and violence, along, no doubt, with a few less mentionable vices; but they also represent a perverse parody of a family (the only female members of it are prostitutes), and a more roisterous, fun-loving family than the Gargery set-up.
In fact, the novel's official disapproval of this pack of rascals does not quite fit with what it shows of them. Fagin may be a rogue, but like Dickens himself he is also an entertainer with an appreciative audience. When the Artful Dodger, hauled before a court, scoffs ’This ain't the shop for justice’, there seems little doubt that the novel endorses his judgement. Come what may, the Dodger is going to be sent down. All the same, Brownlow and his household are genuinely caring and compassionate, as Fagin and Bill Sykes most certainly are not. Oliver has a future with them, as he does not in a thieves’ kitchen. Middle-class society is not just to be dismissed as skin-deep. Its members are not all paper-thin. Civilised values of the Brownlow kind include harbouring the weak and defenceless. It is not just a question of not blowing your nose on the tablecloth.
We have seen that Pip wakes from a fever to find himself lovingly restored to Joe. Oliver, rather similarly, surfaces after a lengthy bout of illness to find himself in Brownlow's elegant home, safe for a while from Fagin's felonious clutches. Both heroes make a transition from one world to another, but in different directions. Oliver is snatched from the lower orders into civilised society, while Pip is returned from civilised society to the lower orders. That the two characters travel in opposite directions reflects different responses to the question of which sphere of life is more genuine. In a sense, though, Great Expectations has the best of both worlds. Pip will not stay at the forge. He will resume his life in respectable society, if on a less extravagant scale. He leaves the forge, returns, and then launches out once more. His is not exactly a tale of rags to riches and back to rags. It is more a question of from rags to a middle-of-the-range jacket and trousers.
There is, needless to say, much in this narrative that I have left unexamined. All interpretations are partial and provisional. There is no last word. It may be worth noting, however, what this brief analysis tries to do. Stepping back from the flow of the narrative, it has an eye for certain recurrent ideas and preoccupations. It notes some parallels, contrasts and connections. It tries to see character not in isolation, but as one element in a pattern which also includes theme, plot, imagery and symbolism. How language is used to create mood and emotional climate is briefly examined. The account pays some attention to the form and structure of the narrative, not just to what the story says. It considers what attitudes the novel takes up to its own characters. It glances at the various literary modes (realism, fable, fantasy, romance and so on) that are to be found in the text. Some discrepancies and ambiguities in the novel are investigated.
I also raise questions about the book's moral vision, but a reader might always want to ask how valid that vision is. Is it really true that civilisation has its roots in crime and wretchedness, or is this too jaundiced a view of it? Questions like this are perfectly legitimate. We do not have to sign on for a literary work's way of seeing. We may always complain that Great Expectations is too sweeping in its judgement on middle-class society, too ready to see the law as nothing but harsh and oppressive, too morbidly obsessed with death and violence, and too cosily sentimental in its handling of Joe. The fact that there is scarcely a single positive female figure in the work apart from Biddy might also claim our attention.
* * *
Both Pip and Oliver have mislaid their parents. As such, they belong to a distinguished line of orphans, semi-orphans, wards, foundlings, bastards, suspected changelings and down-in-the-mouth stepchildren who throng the pages of English literature from Tom Jones to Harry Potter. There are several reasons why orphans prove so irresistible to authors. For one thing, as deprived, often despised figures, they have to make their way in the world alone, which evokes both our sympathy and our approval. We feel for their solitude and anxiety, while admiring their efforts to haul themselves up by their bootstraps. Orphans are likely to feel vulnerable and hard done by, which can then serve as a symbolic comment on society as a whole. In Dickens's later fiction, it is as though we have all been orphaned by a social order which has abandoned its responsibilities to its citizens. Society itself is a false patriarch. All men and women have to shoulder the burden of a feckless father.
Besides, novels, not least Victorian ones, are fascinated by characters who rise from rags to riches by their own strenuous efforts. It is a dry run for the American dream. Indeed, the fact that these figures are parentless can actually smooth their progress. There is less history to hamper them. They are not caught up in a complex web of kinsfolk, but can go it alone. In D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, Paul Morel more or less kills off his mother. The story ends with him walking off on his own towards a more independent life. Whereas realist novels, as we have seen, tend to close with some kind of settlement, the typical modernist novel ends with someone walking away solitary and disenchanted, his problems unresolved but free of social or domestic obligations.
Orphans are anomalous figures, half in and half out of the families that take them in. They exist at an angle to their circumstances. The orphan is de trop, out of place, the joker in the domestic pack. It is this disruption that then sets the narrative in motion. So orphans prove useful devices for telling stories. If we are Victorian readers, we know that they are going to emerge at the end of the book in fine fettle, but we are curious about how the story will pull this off, and what agreeable misadventures they may meet with en route. We are thus unsettled and reassured at the same time, which is always an ambiguity to be relished. Horror movies unsettle us with their spookiness, but reassure us because we know their horror is unreal.
English literature's favourite orphan these days is indeed Harry Potter. Harry's early life with the repulsive Dursley family is not far from Pip's experience as a boy, or the young Jane Eyre's in the Reid family. In Harry's case, however, Freud's family romance syndrome actually comes true. He really does belong to a more glamorous family than the Dursleys. In fact, he discovers on first entering Hogwarts school in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone that he is already a celebrity. He belongs to a breed of magicians who are superior not only to the Dursleys, which wouldn't be difficult, but to Muggles (non-magical humans) as such. His parents were not only accomplished wizards, but illustrious, highly respected ones. In a reversal of Great Expectations, the fantasy is true after all. Unlike Pip, Harry does not need to become a special person. He is a special person. In fact, there are unmistakable overtones of the Messiah about him, a status that not even the upwardly mobile Pip aspires to. Rather as Jaggers arrives to break the news of his great expectations to Pip, so the shaggy, gigantic Hagrid appears to reveal to Harry his true history and identity, ushering him into the privileged future prepared for him. Since Harry is a modest lad with no ambitions of his own, he is a more sympathetic figure than the uppish Pip. His good fortune is simply handed to him on a plate, without his having worked for it.
Harry has a bad substitute father in the brutish Mr Dursley, but makes up for this misfortune with a whole array of good substitute fathers, from the wise old Dumbledore to Hagrid and Sirius Black. He has a real home with the Dursleys that is no home at all, and a fantasy home (Hogwarts) where he truly belongs. The Harry Potter novels thus make a distinction between fantasy and reality, but they also bring this distinction into question. Dumbledore tells Harry that just because something is happening inside his head doesn't mean it is not real. Fantasy and everyday reality converge in the writing itself, which hovers somewhere between realism and non-realism. The books portray a realistic world in which grossly improbable events take place. Readers need to recognise their own reality in the novels so they can enjoy seeing it transformed by the power of magic. Since the majority of these readers are children, most of whom have little status or authority, seeing other children equipped with prodigious powers is no doubt particularly gratifying. So the mixture of realism and non-realism is essential, even though having the familiar and the exotic sit side by side in this way leads to incongruities on almost every page. Characters cast spells while wearing blue jeans. Broomsticks throw up dirt and pebbles when they land. The Death Eaters and Auntie Muriel exist cheek by jowl. Unreal creatures enter and exit through real doors. At one point, Harry uses his wand to clean a filthy handkerchief which he has used to scour an oven. Why not just use the wand to scour the oven?
If magic could resolve all human problems, there would be no narrative. We have seen already that for a story to get off the ground, its characters must meet with mishaps, revelations or changes of fortune. In the Potter novels, this disruption cannot arise from a clash between magic and reality, since the magic would effortlessly triumph and there would be no adventures to recount. So it must spring instead from a division within the world of magic itself, between good wizards and bad ones. Magical powers are double-edged. They can be used for evil as well as for good. Only in this way can a plot begin to unfurl. Yet this means that good and evil are not exactly the opposites they appear. They can flow from the same source. The term ’Hallows’, in the title Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, comes from a word meaning to consecrate or make holy, so that it is unsettling to see it yoked so tightly to the adjective ’deathly’. It reminds us that the word ’sacred’ originally meant both blessed and cursed. We have seen that the novels contrast fantasy with reality, while also showing how the two realms are intermingled. In a similar way, they insist on an absolute conflict between the powers of light and the forces of darkness — between the selfless Harry and the malevolent Voldemort — but at the same time bring this antithesis into constant question.
This is apparent in a number of ways. For one thing, good father figures like Dumbledore can come to seem malign ones. Rather like Magwitch in Great Expectations, Dumbledore is at work on a secret plot for Harry's salvation; but, as with Magwitch's plans for Pip, we wonder at times whether his schemes are entirely well intentioned. Dumbledore will turn out to be on the side of the angels yet flawed, and this complicates too easy an antagonism between good and evil. So does the ambiguous career of Severus Snape. Besides, Voldemort is not simply Harry's enemy. He is also his symbolic father and monstrous alter ego. The combat between the two recalls that between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Starwars, right down to the V of the villain's name.
It is true that Voldemort is not Harry's actual begetter, as Darth Vader is Luke's; but there is a vital piece of him installed inside Harry, as there is a genetic piece of our parents inside us all. In seeking to destroy the dark Lord, then, Harry is also doing battle with himself. The real enemy is always the enemy within. He is torn between his hatred for this despot and his reluctant intimacy with him. ’I hate the fact that he can get inside me,’ he protests. ’But I'm going to use it.’ Harry and Voldemort are at one level identical. Like so many legendary rivals, they are mirror images of each other. But Harry can seize advantage of his access to the villain's mind in order to lay him low.
Voldemort is an image of the father as obscenely cruel and oppressive, rather than, as with Harry's actual parents, life-giving and affectionate. He represents the father as the forbidding Law or superego, which for Freud is a force within the self rather than an external authority. This dark side of the patriarchal figure is associated in Freud's thought with the threat of wounding and castration. If Harry carries a literal scar on his forehead that links him to Voldemort by a kind of psychical hotline, the rest of us may be said to bear psychological scars with similar origins. Since Voldemort wishes to claim Harry as his own, the hero becomes a battleground between the forces of light and darkness. In fact, the story avoids tragedy only by the skin of its teeth. Like many redemptive figures, Harry must die himself if he is to restore life to others. Without his own death, Voldemort cannot perish either. Yet children's stories are traditionally comic, lest toddlers are packed off to sleep quaking with trauma, so the narrative musters an array of magical devices to save Harry from this fate. Its closing words are the implicit last words of all comedy: ’All was well.’
What else might a literary critic discover in these tales? There is a political dimension to them, as a fascistic elite of magicians hostile to those of their kind with Muggle blood do battle with more enlightened wizards. This raises some important questions. How is one to be ’other’ without feeling superior? How does a minority differ from an elite? Can one be set apart from the mass of men and women, as wizards and witches are from Muggles, yet maintain some solidarity with them? There is an unspoken question here concerning the relations between children and adults, of which the magicians/Muggles relationship is a kind of allegory. Children represent a kind of conundrum, being similar to adults yet different. Like the inhabitants of Hogwarts, they live in a world of their own, though one which overlaps with the adult sphere. Their differences from grown-ups must be acknowledged if they are to be valued for what they are, but not to the point where they are treated as sinisterly ’other’. This is a mistake that some Victorian Evangelicals made, treating their offspring as wayward and unregenerate. It can also be found in some modern horror movies. There is something about the otherness of children that makes us think of aliens and evil spirits, as in ET and The Exorcist. The child as spooky is the modern equivalent of the child as sinful. Freud gave the name of the uncanny to things which were both strange and familiar. Yet if it is a mistake to imagine that all children spew multicoloured vomit at the slightest opportunity, it is equally a mistake to treat them as pocket-sized adults, as people did before what has been called the invention of childhood. (Children in English literature begin with Blake and Wordsworth.) In the same way, differences between ethnic groups need to be registered, but not to the point where one makes a fetish of otherness and obscures the vast amount they have in common.
Another noteworthy aspect of the books is the number of syllables in the names of the major characters. In England, upper-class men and women tend to have longer names than their working-class compatriots. A profusion of syllables can signal other kinds of affluence. Someone named Fiona Fortescue-Arbuthnot-Smythe is unlikely to hail from the backstreets of Liverpool, while someone called Joe Doyle might well do so. Hermione Granger, whose first name is fairly common in English upper-middle-class circles, and whose second name suggests a large country house (grange), is the most refined of the trio of protagonists, with no fewer than six syllables to her name. (Some Americans mistakenly pronounce ’Hermione’ as having only three.) Harry Potter, the conventionally middle-class hero, has four neatly balanced syllables, which is neither excessive nor ungenerous, while the plebeian Ron Weasley has a niggardly three. His surname evokes the word ’weasel’, meaning a treacherous or deceitful individual. Weasels are not exactly imposing beasts, and may thus conveniently lend their name to lowish-life characters like Ron.
We may also note the remarkable number of words which begin like Voldemort with V and which have negative connotations: villain, vice, vulture, vandal, venomous, vicious, venal, vain, vapid, vituperative, vacuous, voracious, vampire, virulent, vixen, voyeur, vomit, venture capitalist, vertigo, vex, vulgar, vile, viper, virago, violent, verkrampte, vindictive, vermin, vengeful, voyeur, vigilante and (for enthusiasts of traditional ways of performing Irish music) Van Morrison. A V-sign is an insulting, symbolically castrating gesture. Voldemort means ’flight of death’ in French, but there may also be a suggestion of ’vole’, another less-than-majestic creature. Perhaps there are also hints of ’vault’ and ’mould’.
There are literary critics who would not consider the Harry Potter novels worth discussing. In their view, they are not of sufficient merit to count as literature. It is to this question of goodness and badness in literature that we can now turn.