What We Can Learn about HBO’s Girls by Reading Great Expectations

As I was recently re-reading Great Expectations for my summer class, I realized that Pip’s narration and the directorial point-of-view of HBO’s Girls bear some striking similarities. Because I can only ethically blather on about such a connection for so long in class before feeling guilty and academics as the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals are not likely to entertain such a topic, our blog seemed like the ideal public soapbox for this pressing concern.

A Google search for HBO’s Girls and postmodernism returns 3,020,000 hits; a search of Great Expectations and postmodernism, by comparison, only returns about 5 hits before careening down an Internet rabbit hole of half-relevance. As Kate knows, I hate, hate, hate it when critics call something in the Victorian period proto-modernist. It implies:

  1. That modernism is oh-so much more profound and raw than anything that came before it.
  2. That everything should aspire to be modernist.
  3. That people didn’t have complex thoughts about their own subject position pre-Hemingway.

Only in the rarest of occasions would a critic go so far as to call Dickens postmodernist. Dickens was a Victorian; yes, this is true. But he was also hyper-aware that the industrial revolution, urbanity, and consumerism were changing how people understood themselves. As a result, he wrote narratives that had complex winding plots, chance meetings, narrative doubling, flash backs, unreliable narrators… the list continues. Victorianism does not be definition result in innocence, prudery, or linear narrative.

When critics call Lena Dunham’s award-winning show postmodern they usually mean that its self-reflexive irony, its willngness to interrogate and reveal the self to a not-always-laudatory public, breaks new ground. Dunham’s work is postmodern because there are so many versions of Dunham/Hannah that a unified identity, an all-encompassing being, isn’t really possible. Well, Gov’nah, you can’t get more Dickens/Pip than that!

I am ashamed to say that I hadn’t re-read Great Expectations since I was an undergraduate. I remember at the time (when I was just a bit younger than Lena Dunham) that I was über-concerned about the relationship between Pip and Estella. I was outraged at the ways in which Estella had been used and molded, and perhaps not outraged enough that Dickens saw women as so easily moldable. This time through, I was enthralled by Pip’s double-narration. We have Pip, at some future point, trying to understand and sometimes justify his actions. He is ashamed at how he has treated Joe and Biddy. Even as he spends all of his money-making his washerwoman’s boy into a lavishly clothed footmen, Pip is aware of the big-top show that he is putting on for no one but himself even though he hopes everyone else (except Joe and Biddy) are watching.

Pip’s story is one in which he is coming to terms with his youth. In one of my favorite scenes from the novel, Pip and his best friend Herbert make a performance of counting up all of their expenses on Sundays. They order a big meal to perform this solemn duty, feel comforted by the effort. They then purchase more drapery, dandified clothing, and memberships to a gentleman’s club. Even as they are parting with their cash, they know they are only sinking themselves deeper into debt, but because of their youth, they lack all self-control and all prudence.

Hannah too seems all too aware of the price that self-performance costs her. In one of the most poignant episodes from last season “One Man’s Trash,” Hannah  befriends a wealthy 40-something named Joshua for 48 hours of make-believe domesticity and the comforts of a posh,  “adult” existence. She marvels at his exposed brick walls and granite countertops. She looks down on the hipster neighbors from his balcony as he grills her an elaborate, foody dinner. She exposes all parts of herself to him, playing ping-pong in the nude without sucking in her tummy. The sojourn ends with Hannah telling Joshua that she gets tired of living a life filled with the experiences about which other people want to read. Joshua is disturbed by what he perceives as a mental break;  he is used to placating women by telling them what they want to hear, but it doesn’t work with Hannah. This episode, which is like a stand-alone movie within the larger trajectory of the series’ plot, is an example of the meta-narrative that makes me so appreciate the series. Joshua sees Hannah as so many viewers see her. She is perhaps most troubling because we do not want to confront our youth, the poor decisions we have made, the experiences that make us who we are but that can haunt us into a Miss Havisham state of delirium and bitterness. Perhaps what  most disturbs us is that Hannah reveals that our adult “experience” is equally an illusion, like Pip who still makes the ill-advised decision to walk hand-in-hand with Estella at novel’s end, we may reflect upon our past, but we are still torn between the many versions of ourselves that we like to pretend are long put away. Joshua, after all, would not have let Hannah so freely into his home had he truly had things as together as they seem.

Critics love to hate Girls. They blame their disgust on the show’s brooding over “first-world problems, ” or the vapidity of Dunham’s female cast of characters. In this scathing blog review  the author tears down both Girls’ Hannah and Little Women’s Jo Marsh as blathering, middle-class whiners (um, excuse me, sir. Those who insult Jo Marsh in my presence will receive a swift tongue lashing). Pip too could be accused of this kind of class-based self-fashioning. Village blacksmiths were well-respected, well-paid members of their communities. Pip’s apprenticeship to Joe set him up for a good life even if it wasn’t as extravagant as the life he imagines after his visits to Miss Havisham. In his conversations with Biddy we come to know Pip too as a whiner and a broken-promise maker who laments his missteps but does little to remedy them. Yet, Pip, as compared to Hannah, rarely meets with meaningful censure. Learning about Magwitch’s identity does go a long way to making Pip a better person, but his decisions still seem like half-romantic impulses even after his harrowing boat ride on the Thames.

This is the parting of ways for my comparison, I suppose. As a nineteenth-century male, Pip is given leeway to act indecorously that even twenty-first century audiences do not allow Girls. Much of the criticism has derided the show’s subject matter as unimportant because of the focus on women’s lives. The misdeeds and raw self-revelation so common and forgivable for Pip are mere indulgences for Hannah in which critics have seen very little evidence of the same doubling perspective. I, for one, see in Hannah what we might have found in Estella were she given more room in the text to explore her identity than Dickens’s decision to make her a mysterious object allowed. Should not Hannah and Estella be given the same room to lose and find themselves continuously that Pip is allowed?

A 2011 Vogue spread