I have been rereading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, as it’s one of my favorites — and one of my few digressions from contemporary nonfiction or poetry. I first encountered this book in an AP Literature course and fell in love with its humbler characters. I love and hate Pip, of course, as I expect most readers do, and I never had any use for Estella or Miss Havisham. But I adore Jo Gargery and John Wemick with each rereading.
When I was first reading GE, I focused mainly on plot and style — trying to keep all the twists and turns of Victorian fiction in my head while I cherished Dickens’ prose. But with this rereading, I was astonished to discover something I had missed.
Dickens can write everyday inclusion.
If I think of disability in Victorian fiction, I am burdened by characters like Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol. Tim, the poor crippled boy whose very survival depends on Scrooge’s reformation, has become the poster-child for disability as inspiration — the idea that disabled characters only serve to teach moral lessons to nondisabled characters. You’ll never see Tim get angry, throw his crutch at someone, or wax despondent about his poor health because his job is to be cheerful. I did not know Dickens could do better with disability.
But GE presents at least two portraits of disabled people cared for at home and incorporated into the daily lives of their families. First, Mrs. Joe, Pip’s older sister and the abusive wife of dear Joe the blacksmith, is injured while Pip and Joe are from home one evening. After her injury, she is unable to dress or feed herself and requires a slate and chalk to communicate basic phrases. But Mrs. Joe receives care at home when Biddy, a local girl, comes to live at the forge; Biddy dresses her, feeds her, and sees to her needs. Neither is Mrs. Joe neglected by her husband, who often takes over her care in Biddy’s absence. These characters do not express resentment, distaste, or irritation with their need to care for Mrs. Joe. They lament her injury but continue to give her the best care they can.
Even though Pip soon leaves the forge, he shows us another portrait of inclusion when he visits the home of John Wemmick. Wemmick works for Pip’s guardian, the formidable and austere Mr. Jaggers, and famously has his “London sentiments” and his “Walworth sentiments” — sharply defining the difference between his gritty work life in London and his innovative domestic comforts in Walworth. At home in Walworth, Wemmick has designed his own castle, complete with flag, drawbridge, and garden. He lives with and cares for his elderly father, who he affectionally calls the “Aged Parent,” “Aged P.,” or “The Aged.”
The Aged P. is hard of hearing, and Wemmick has devised several at-home adaptations to make his father more comfortable. The Aged knows when Wemmick has arrived home because a little door in the wall opens to reveal his name. This contraption, a Wemmick invention, also includes the names of other frequent visitors to The Castle, and as Wemmick himself says, “It is both pleasant and useful to The Aged.”
Pleasant and useful — the two essentials of inclusive design. When Pip first meets The Aged, Wemmick says, “Nod away at him, Mr. Pip; that’s what he likes.” And as the visit continues, Pip is encouraged to “give him a nod” and he obliges. The Aged P. is also delighted by the daily firing of The Castle’s canon, which Wemmick has knocked up for his enjoyment. And Dickens reveals that Wemmick’s lady friend, Miss Skiffins, has a high regard for The Aged.
Like Mrs. Joe, The Aged’s disability does not exclude him from tender family care — even at the center of the household. Wemmick consistently thinks of ways to adapt The Castle for the comfort of Aged P. and does not seem to begrudge these changes to his daily life. Indeed, Pip shows us that Wemmick’s Walworth residence is a refuge from the hard life of London, the life that turns his mouth into a rigid “post office.”
Before Mrs. Joe’s injury, the forge was not a happy home for Pip, but after her injury, the forge’s inhabitants find the right balance. It develops into a peaceful and restful place, even as Pip grows dissatisfied with himself and his social status. Pip resists happiness at the forge and will spend the rest of the book seeking a happy home like The Castle — a place of acceptance and invention.