Nearly everyone has great expectations when they are young. They expect a lot of themselves, a lot of other people, and a lot of life. But they are usually disappointed in all three. This is expressed very succinctly in Ernest Hemingway's short story, "Hills Like White Elephants." While they are waiting outside a little cafe for the train to Madrid to arrive, the girl wants to try a drink called Anis del Toro.
"It tastes like licorice," the girl said and put the glass down.
"That's the way with everything."
"Yes," said the girl. "Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you've waited so long for, like absinthe."
The pessimistic German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer expresses the same truth another way.
Of course, as Schiller says, we are all born in Arcadia; in other words, we come into the world full of claims to happiness and pleasure and cherish the foolish hope of making them good. In any case, experience after a time teaches us that happiness and pleasure are a fata Morgana which is visible only from a distance and vanishes when we approach it.
The great English Romantic poet William Wordsworth begins his most famous poem, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" with the following stanza.
THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light, The glory and the freshness of a dream. It is not now as it hath been of yore;-- Turn wheresoe'er I may, By night or day, The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
The title of Dickens' novel Great Expectations appears to have multiple meanings. It can apply simply to the hero Pip, who had "great expectations" in the form of a promised fortune and also had great expectations of his future life as a wealthy gentleman married to Estalla. It can apply to some of the other characters in the novel as well. It can be at least partly autobiographical, because Dickens own early life was similar to that of Pip, and Dickens also enjoyed good fortune for a period before he became disenchanted. But in a larger sense it can apply to humanity in general. Children are likely to have grandiose dreams they expect to see fulfilled at some time in the distant future. But they can be rudely disappointed either by failure or success. Macbeth thought he would be happy if only he could become king of Scotland, but he ended up reflecting that
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,And then is heard no more. It is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing.
The Bible, of course, ought to have some words on the subject. We find some famous ones in Ecclesiastes 1:14:
I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
Pretty pessimistic. It can't be that way for everybody. Or can it? Maybe Dickens was only suggesting that people shouldn't expect too much from life because they are bound to be disappointed with the way things turn out in reality. In the end Pip seems to realize that a simple life with modest expectations is the best kind of life. He uses Joe and Biddy as examples of people who are happy because they do not make themselves unhappy.
Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman is a good example of disappointed expectations. So are the heroes of Henry James's stories "The Great Good Place," "The Lesson of the Master," and "The Beast in the Jungle." So is the hero of Voltaire's novel Candide, which ends with this sentence:
“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”