Thursday, February 23, 2012

Expecting Kindness

"Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness..."
--Naomi Shihab Nye

I've been reading Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations (1861) for my 19th-Century British Literature class.

I won't give the entire plot away, but one scene has been on my mind for the past several days and I finally have a chance to blog about it.

At a crucial moment in the novel, the protagonist, Pip, confronts the elderly (and very strange) Miss Havisham about the fact that she has led him on with regard to his hopes for the future.

When the truth comes out, he asks her quite frankly, "Was that kind?" (360).

"Miss Havisham," Charles Green, c. 1877
8 x 4.9 inches
Dickens's Great Expectations, Gadshill Edition
Her response is to strike her ever-present walking-stick on the ground and wrathfully shriek, "Who am I, for God's sake, that I should be kind!" (360).

Who indeed?

Miss Havisham operates on the assumption that there is no call for her to be kind to Pip--or to anyone, for that matter.  She blames her past (more or less), but I think her response begs the question of whether she ever was, in fact, kind.

To anyone.

And what about Pip?  He has expected kindness from Miss Havisham, although at key points in the novel, he too is less than kind to others.

The questions that I've been thinking about for the past several days revolve around this notion of expecting kindness.

What happens when we assume that others will be kind, only to realize that they aren't and--perhaps even worse--that they never intended to be?

I'm fascinated by the idea of kindness in general, and I'm particularly intrigued by the phrasing of Miss Havisham's rhetorical question: "Who am I ... that I should be kind!"

Why does she link kindness--or in this case, the lack of it--to her very identity?

I have a few vague ideas that may or may not make a lot of sense at this point.  On the one hand, I think kindness is an interesting aspect of self-definition because it revolves around how a person chooses to relate to others.

Pip expects a degree of kindness from Miss Havisham even though he doesn't always show the same to others in his life--as he ultimately (and ashamedly) realizes.

To an extent, realizing that his expectation of kindness has fallen short of the mark with respect to Miss Havisham is the source of his growing awareness of the value of kindness itself.

Other people's cruelty can teach us a lot about who we want to be and about the ways in which we ourselves have been (deliberately or inadvertently) cruel.

People have been cruel to Miss Havisham and she opts to respond in kind instead of responding with kindness.

In Pip's case, however, another person's cruelty inspires him to strive to be kind and to recognize the impact of his own unkindness on others.  In effect, his disillusionment and the loss of his financial "expectations" teach him the value--the inherent "greatness"--of his emotional expectations of others.

In the end, Pip learns that, in the words of John Ruskin, "A little thought and a little kindness are often worth more than a great deal of money."

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."