What, precisely, do we mean when we talk about societal expectations? Groups can't expect anything, only people can, and most people don't know anything about you. The answer isn't simple when we talk about something this nebulous – unless, for instance, you're an electrician and the expectation is you help people with electrical problems.
I think we mean that it's clear enough that the systems that we live in are built to measure us in one particular way, as though the rubric to assess our successes and failures has already been written. And, of course, this almost always applies only to childhood – as it should – because it's only the particularly young whom we don't trust to decide on their own paths.
My parents were extremely responsive to who I was in this regard. But I think it's fair to say, I had a childhood that maximized how impressive I was along a very specific axis. It helped my career, I'm sure. But it was also a pretty lonely path to walk. I'm not sure precisely what would have happened if I tried a more normal path (nothing good, I'm sure – you can't ignore who you are). But I fulfilled expectations, and that meant a pretty lonely existence as a kid. No life is perfect, and I had more than enough pluses to justify the minuses – but it's hard not to imagine a more standard path.
For years I was convinced I termed a "hug deficiency", and that if I had just one close friend my whole life would be changed by it.
But I also graduated from college when I was 17 years old.
We frequently race to the end of the track we find ourselves on. When a friend asked me what achievement I was most proud of in my life, it took me a minute to realize the correct answer was a gift I gave a family member that took a lot of effort and persistence to put together. That's the path I might have chosen, if we could choose our own paths as children, and if children were infinitely wise (I was not even close – and find myself not too much closer today).
Expectations are our guardrails and our handicaps. There are moments we'd wish to destroy them, but they are the crucible in which we are forged – to destroy it would prevent us from being who will ought to be, even if we're supposed to be someone else. I do not envy the trust fund kids who receive no judgement and have no expectations or compass. There is no parenting so slack as one that does not push their children somewhere. Be forced to learn the family business and move away – the mere existence of the unused skill will forever be an asset, if not the optimally chosen one.
Of course, if there's one fictional character who needs to learn about the virtue of strange expectations placed on them, it is the bastard brought up inside the castle of Winterfell, Jon Snow, in his debut chapter in A Game of Thrones.
Jon observes the grand party for the king from his lesser place in the hall, feeding his direwolf Ghost under the table and getting tremendously drunk. He tells his uncle Benjen, a member of the Night's Watch, that he too wishes to take their vows, but it told to reconsider it after he's fathered a few bastards of his own. He swears he will never father a bastard and storms out, to meet Tyrion, the dwarf of the royal family who tells him not to forget who he is, because surely the world will not.
Theme - Expectations
Jon begins the chapter glad to be a bastard, of course. Because there's no expectation he represent the family, he is free to get as drunk as he wants, safely hidden among the squires.
The entire event is designed to match the expectations of what is appropriate for a king, even though the whole trip is a slightly farcical imposition on Ned Stark. The request could have been made by a raven, and Ned's answer taken by raven in advance of his arrival (for his decision to go is, ultimately, motivated by the danger of events in King's Landing, not the pressure of the king's presence). But instead this great event is organized, and everyone is paraded around, to be seen as being honored.
Jamie Lannister, Jon feels, is precisely what a king should look like – in starp contrast to the clumsiness and obesity of the actual king. And they call him Kingslayer behind his back. That's what is expected of him.
Robb would someday inherit Winterfell, would command great armies as the Warden of the North. Bran and Rickon would be Robb’s bannermen and rule holdfasts in his name. His sisters Arya and Sansa would marry the heirs of other great houses and go south as mistress of castles of their own. But what place could a bastard hope to earn?
Everyone as drowning in expectation, but Jon is at court and has nothing to do. His very presence disturbs Catelyn, too much for him to have his usual place in the house in this instant, the rare occasion where her hatred can see itself justified and exercised. Benjen thinks such a well off but unwanted kid would surely have a few bastards of his own is a clear assumption – if you want a job for men with no wives, and you're strong and quick and richer than any other bastard north of Dorne, clearly you'd take advantage.
But Jon is so incensed by this he storms out of the party. That's the nature of life – once you are old enough to choose your way, you choose a path that sets you against those you love in some way. The rebellion is probably good practice. It reminds you that judgment can't be delegated to people you love. For your life, the only choice is to trust your own judgment or not have any judgment on the matter at all.
We also see Jon's rather successful training of his direwolf. As he revels in his own lack of expectations, he's kept a (metaphorically) tight leash on Ghost as he stumbles into Tyrion.
“Sit, Ghost,” Jon commanded. “That’s it. Keep still.” He looked up at the dwarf. “You can touch him now. He won’t move until I tell him to. I’ve been training him.”
“I see,” Lannister said. He ruffled the snow-white fur between Ghost’s ears and said, “Nice wolf.”
“If I wasn’t here, he’d tear out your throat,” Jon said. It wasn’t actually true yet, but it would be.
In many senses, the wolves are the ideal pairs for the Starks in need. Jon takes his family with him, as the story continues. Sansa has hers taken. Arya pushes hers away but remains connected to it in her mind. Rickon's lack of attention puts everyone in danger, but the danger caused the lack of expectations and training (as the family, who needed to face their threats, which causes Rickon to be neglected).
Tyrion is also having his own life full of strange expectations:
“Did I offend you?” Lannister said. “Sorry. Dwarfs don’t have to be tactful. Generations of capering fools in motley have won me the right to dress badly and say any damn thing that comes into my head.” He grinned.
And of course:
“All dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.”
Of course, Jon hears precisely what he needs to hear from Tyrion, and barely learns a thing from it. His sensitivity to being called bastard stays with him for some time, and he even forgets who told him this wisdom. That's always the way of it, I think. It's hard to hear wisdom and it have do anything but slide right off your mind. There is a reason it isn't just common sense, why it isn't obvious, or what someone is already doing. Who knows what that is, or if it's the same for all wisdom. But I've never heard of someone hearing wisdom and taking it to heart, which makes me a bit less worried that I failed to truly take heed of wisdom before. I'm just lucky enough to remember, sometimes, when someone told me what I needed to hear, so that, later, sometimes years later, I can thank them, despite it doing no good at all to tell me.
Reading Practice - PaRDeS
Today, we'll be using the tool of PaRDeS – a four-step reading practice that treats reading the work like we're walking through an orchard, where we can reach up and grab anything and know it will be a juicy bit of prose we can think about and learn from.
Today's randomly selected sentence is:
“I must be excused,” he said with the last of his dignity.
The P of PaRDeS is Peshat, which means we start by thinking about the literal meaning of the section. Here, Jon is excusing himself after his uncharacteristically harsh rejection of his uncle's advice. The table went quiet and he was about to cry, having them all stare at him. Quite drunk and knowing he couldn't control himself very well, he decides to leave.
The R stands for Remez, the implied or hinted meaning. Here, I think it's clear that it isn't that Jon must be excused. He was just embarassed. His hatred of even the idea of having a bastard reflects a self-hatred. Everyone noticed, and he didn't want to confront his own issues with everyone. This is an essential element of his character, in many ways – that he will be prepared to confront a flaw, but rush to judgment, and when in trouble, rush out. If that is the way you model conflict, as something that is essentially embarassing, you might avoid conflict, but you also ensure that any conflict you do engage in will go poorly for you, at least emotionally.
He also feels like his own dignity is at stake, which is an interesting element. I think if I heard this, I would assume he was angry at his father, and excused himself to hide his anger during an important political event. But since we see from his perspective we know he's embarrassed. That truly it isn't the infidelity that bothers him about having a bastard. It's self-pity, that the very well off kid is still treated poorly. He had many advantages, but that only puts his lack of true belonging in greater contrast.
Jon Snow is someone who seeks dignity and hates that being a bastard won't let him escape the implicitly demeaning role he has. He compared himself with Robb earlier, but will never receive even a fraction of what Robb will. He exists as a side-show, until he is a man grown, and his place becomes even more uncertain. In many ways, his conversation with Benjen is his attempt to excuse himself from the tables of Winterfell for good.
PaRDeS's third step, Derash, asks up to look at the usages of the same words elsewhere in the work. We see Sansa later ask to be excused to deal with her embarassment over Arya not fitting in with the royal wheelhouse on the trip south. We see Arya ask to be excused when her friend's death goes unacknowledged and she wants to escape the more formal environment of her dinner table. We also see some aristocrats defer to the lunatic Lysa Arryn using the word "excused". In many ways excusing yourself or others is to acknowledge how much of polite society is outside your control. Almost always we are begging for an escape from it, as opposed to, say, offering forgiveness. Truly, forgiveness plays a very small role in these books, and it's absence is conspicuous.
These are the expectations people have of each other in this terrible fictional world. But if you ask me, it seems that forgiveness is even more valuable the worse your circumstances are. Perhaps the lack of forgiveness is merely the consequence of the relative opulence of the characters we follow. When Jon visits the (exceptionally poor) area north of the wall, for instance, the freefolk do, largely, forgive him for working for a quazi-military organization that spent a lot of time killing their friends and family. When you have nothing, the expectations of you are different too.
We also see other instances of the word dignity throughout the book. We see Ned worry about his dignity when Arya is found and taken to the queen. We also see dignity mentioned when the direwolves somewhat unaccountably attack Tyrion Lannister. We also see dignity mentioned when King Robert rudely excuses Cersei from his deathbed.
These all provide different lenses into dignity. Cersei wanted to be seen as the loving wife – but she arranged his death. Tyrion brushes off an attack saying only his dignity was harmed – clearly not a precious thing to lose, for a dwarf in those times. And Ned uses it almost as a meditative practice, trying to keep himself calm to not betray how little he trusts the Lannisters with his daughter. He worries they'll have some horrifying rushed trial to try and execute her for attacking the prince. In the end, the slapdash lack of concern of the king helps him – the king just wants to make sure everyone is basically happy. Of course, that 'everyone' doesn't include Arya or Joffrey, so it's actually almost possible.
The king, in this lessened state so many years after conquest, sets expectations with Ned quite clearly ith that decision – how pointless his kingdom has become, and how incompetent he is at reigning in abuses of power.
King Robert also clearly lays out his expectations when he excuses everyone but Ned from his deathbed. Having a maester there would reduce the risk of his words being ignore, but the honor of Ned, so present in his own imagination, just isn't as well respected in the south. It wouldn't occur to anyone that Eddard Stark would be a better messenger for the truth of the king's wishes, when Cersei wouldn't be. Robert didn't even realize his own expectations aren't public knowledge.
And Tyrion, of course, can ignore his own dignity because of the expectations placed on him.
The fourth part of PaRDeS is the Sod, the secret or hidden meaning. Let's revisit the text:
“I must be excused,” he said with the last of his dignity.
There's something in there, about "with the last of his dignity", like he's spending his dignity on this attempt, like using your last breath to say something to someone. Like after he uses this dignity, he won't just have left, he'll be gone.
This makes me thing more about the use of "must". Like, it is almost an invitation to stop him, because he need is do desperate, the table who is staring at him must face his desperation directly – although he is excusing himself, he isn't attempting to truly hide his need.
"Be excused" is the passive voice. He's asking for others to do something but only mentions himself. I think it's because of the nature of his embarassment. If he had heard a young Ned so venomously say he'd never have a bastard, he'd probably find it funny, and probably only be a little hurt. It isn't what he said. It's that, coming from a bastard, it is something else. He must be excused. Because the statement truly is only about himself.
I think the Sod is merely that perhaps the only thing we can do with the last of our dignity is try to hide how much we might dislike ourselves, and how much we would never wish our lives on someone else (no matter how priviledged they are, like Jon). Because dignity isn't a finite resource hidden within us that we use up in embarrassment. No amount of external punishment can truly strip us of it. But if we hate ourselves, then we can truly run out. We are the supplier, and so it's only with our own permission that we can find ourselves truly, absolutely undignified.
I'd like to bless Benjen Stark in this chapter. If you are a true nerd of the books, you'll know that this passage might have a strongly implied meaning:
“You might, if you knew what it meant,” Benjen said. “If you knew what the oath would cost you, you might be less eager to pay the price, son.”
Jon has a rare and almost forgotten heritage. It's possible that by the end of this book he's the last male heir to a great family (or maybe not – it's difficult to say). If someone knew they weren't the unwanted hanger-on, if they knew that, in a different world they would be called prince, perhaps they'd be less eager for a brutal life of little true recognition. And I think we all need someone to say that to us, that we have value beyond our work. And even if he's bound to secrecy, Benjen is trying to say just that. Family is important, and if you knew you were loved, truly, even for a short time, you might not give that up in favor of duty.