A greater fear than death
I mentioned (click) that Pip, in Great Expectations, had shown himself fickle and self-serving but was now trying to right great wrongs and was balancing a number of things that had to come together if he was to manage the complex situation. At a critical moment and in an isolated place he was captured by Orlick, a long time enemy, and the drunken man swore he was going to end Pip's life. Not only would he kill him, but since they were at a limekiln he would dispose of Pip entirely so that absolutely nothing of him would ever be found.
Having every reason to believe he was right on the brink of destruction Pip's mind raced through all the letters he had written, arrangements and promises he had made to make things right. Finally, when he had purposed to do what was right in the face of great danger and loss to himself, he was about to vanish and no one would know where he went.
He said he feared death but that he feared something worse and while the drunken murderer was rehearsing his threats to kill him here's what Pip was thinking:
"My mind with inconceivable rapidity, followed out all the consequences of such a death. Estella's father would believe I had deserted him, would be taken, would die accusing me; even Herbert [his intimate friend] would doubt me, when he compared the letter I had left for him, with the fact that I had called at Miss Havisham's gate for only a moment; Joe and Biddy would never know how sorry I had been that night, none would ever know what I had suffered, how true I had meant to be, what an agony I had passed through. The death close before me was terrible, but far more terrible than death was the dread of being misremembered after death. And so quick were my thoughts, that I saw myself despised by unborn generations—Estella's children, and their children—while the wretch's words [Orlick's words] were yet on his lips."
In his pride and new-found income Pip had developed into a 24-carat snob and became ashamed of Joe, his dearest and most faithful friend. This led to his misjudging Biddy (later Joe's wife) and avoiding both her and Joe and when he discovered that his devoted and extremely generous benefactor was a criminal Pip loathed him too, despite the fact that his benefactor risked a death sentence in order to come halfway round the world to see him. All this reprehensible behaviour and the spirit that fed it was in the past but no one would ever know it thanks to Orlick who was about to shut a door Pip could never reopen.
Death away from all those who had proved to be his friends was bad enough but worse still—worse than death—was the certainty that he would be "misremembered"—his shameful ways would have the last word.
Many of us fear the lies that will have the last word while others of us fear the truths that will have the last word. Pip's shameful treatment of Joe Gargery, his loathing of his once criminal but now selfless benefactor and his generally selfish approach to life were not fabrications; but in recent times Pip had seen himself for what he was, was working to make up for it all and now no one would know "how true he meant to be." Orlick would freeze Pip's life in that selfish and thankless mode; that would be the summary of his life and the stories—the truths, at least aspects of the truths—about his worst ways would be all that would be told about him. He knew he merited criticism but he feared that those who mattered most to him would think him "worse than he was." In his awful fear he believed that he would now die with his repentance and attempts at restitution unknown and no one would say of him with profound feeling what he would later say of his once-wicked and now "softened" benefactor, "O Lord, be merciful to him a sinner."
Some sin and have the good sense and strength to move on, to dismiss the past and pursue honour with all their might but others, for whatever reasons, have neither the sense nor the strength to leave the ugly past and move on. Their sin is ever before them, their agony robs them of peace though they try with all their might to do what is right and out-live what cannot be set right. And there are "Orlicks" who wouldn't lift a finger to do physical violence to anyone but who, finding "good reasons" to tell even ancient stories, kill any possibility of peace and endanger the possibility of usefulness in the life of sinful "Pips". In their sly ways they find it "necessary" to spread the word and freeze the life of a sinner in an ancient setting (always presuming that they really know what they're talking about).
I've sinned greatly here (and been sinned against) by taking a truth and shrinking a man's life until his crime is the sum total of it. I've done it by ignoring the length and breadth of his goodness and his avowed purpose to live openly and in honour before God and man.
To speak or look or act or raise an eyebrow to freeze someone's life in that way is to bring Orlick to life. To spread the news to people who will never know the now penitent "Pip" is to freeze him in their minds. They'll never know his agony or "how true he meant to be." All they will know is what "Orlick" allowed them to know.
How trivial this must appear to be to some readers but Dickens knew better. Noted Cambridge scholar, author and Dickens specialist, Peter Ackroyd, acknowledges Dickens' great psychological accuracy and understanding. Some of us don't need Ackroyd's opinion to see that in Dickens; we feel it in us, as if Dickens were inside our heads and hearts. This agony and absence of peace is all too real and is created by the Orlicks who feed those who are willing to eat the putrid. The fear that haunts some sinners is given a solid basis when many years later they're confronted by an often garbled horrible truth they wished they could forget. They realize a new generation is learning to despise them.
"The death close before me was terrible, but far more terrible than death was the dread of being misremembered after death."