I’ll be honest here. When I first cracked open Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, I didn’t have very great expectations. The reason is because I had already tried to read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (by read I mean hopelessly flounder as if chest deep in sand) and by the end of a few chapters I could not for the life of me continue. But I remembered the time I read The Count of Monte Cristo, expecting a boring, unreadable classic, but getting one of the best, most satisfying stories I’ve ever taken part of.
So I gave Great Expectations a shot.
It wasn’t as good as The Count of Monte Cristo, but it caught my attention and held it until the end. It was told in a witty, relatable voice and had an interesting storyline about a poor orphan boy named Pip who wants to rise up in the world and unexpectedly gets the chance to live a life of wealth and respectability (in addition to other things, which you can find out by reading it yourself.)
Scholars of English literature could no doubt provide a comprehensive list of all the ins and outs of this novel, but I, being a fledgling scholar of nothing in particular, only had one moment that really stood out to me.
A little backstory: Pip is depressed because he’s ‘common’, basically feeling like a poor, uneducated nobody. His brother-in-law, Joe (the village blacksmith) thinks that Pip’s a real scholar, reminding him about a letter Pip wrote the night before. Pip says that Joe thinks too much of him, to which Joe says:
‘Well, Pip,’ said Joe, ‘be it so, or be it son’t, you must be a common scholar afore you can be a oncommon one, I should hope! The king upon his throne, with his crown upon his ‘ed, can’t sit and write his acts of Parliament in print, without having begun, when he were a unpromoted prince, with the alphabet – Ah!’ added Joe, with a shake of the head that was full of meaning, ‘and begun at A too, and worked his way to Z.’Chapter 9 of Great Expectations
This little gem of wisdom from a humble blacksmith, as simple and obvious as it may seem, really hit home for me.
I’m the perfectionist type who would rather not do something if I’m going to make mistakes. I don’t like doing things I’m not going to excel at, or things I’m not going to be ‘oncommon’ at. But Joe’s simple observation allowed even my dense brain to realize that no one could never hope to be above average if they’re not average first.
No one has ever been great without first being small.
This gave Pip much hope, and it gives me much hope too. It’s okay to make mistakes, to be less than top-notch, to spend my days doing things that feel so mundane and simple.
Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll end up being ‘oncommon.’
3 thoughts on “A Life Lesson from Jolly Ol’ Joe”
That is a real gem! I think we are so often concerned with the finished product that we forget that we have to start somewhere. Good old Joe.
I am a great lover of Charles Dickens myself. His characters are so quirky and over the top and yet somehow manage to be extremely real at the same time. I am so happy that you gave Great Expectations a try after A Tale of Two Cities! I liked A Tale of Two Cities, but it was probably the least Dickens-like of all the Dickens novels I have read, and the hardest to get through. (As far as I can figure, the reason for this is because A Tale of Two Cities is Charles Dickens’ only historical novel- all of the others are basically contemporaries. At least, the ones I have read. Even though they seem pretty historical to US. The flavor is different somehow.)
Have you ever seen any Dickens movie adaptions? A lot of those are quite good.
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It is! I think Joe, with his simple wisdom, is my favorite character in Great Expectations. Who’s yours?
Only a short while ago I wouldn’t have agreed with you, but after GE and being in the middle of David Copperfield, I’ve got to say, Dickens is quite the genius. Your description of the characters is spot on! Right when you said “quirky and over the top” I instantly thought of Mrs. Trotwood, David’s aunt in David Copperfield (you’ve read that too, I suppose?) Ah, that perfectly explains why A Tale of Two Cities felt nothing like the other ones! You’re right, the flavor is different.
I haven’t yet, because I’m always wary of movie adaptions to classic books (especially since the one for The Count of Monte Cristo – have you read that one? – didn’t sit well with me) but maybe Dickens is different! Do you have any you’d recommend?
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Joe is one of my favorite characters in Great Expectations, but I think that Herbert Pocket might be my very favorite.
YES. Betsy Trotwood is FANTASTIC!!! I have indeed read David Copperfield. 🙂
It is good to be wary of movie adaptions, as there are many terrible ones out there. Dickens does not escape this reality, and currently I have yet to see a decent adaption of Great Expectations, so I would skip any of those if I was you. There is a good adaption of David Copperfield though. It’s the 1999 Masterpiece Theatre version. It’s the only one I have seen, but I think it’s pretty good. I also really like the Our Mutual Friend (1998) and Little Dorrit (2008) BBC adaptions, though I haven’t actually read those books yet. It’s a travesty, I know, but my family started watching Dickens and Austen miniseries’s before I really knew how to read. And I do plan on getting to every Dickens book someday!
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