The Expectations by Alexander Tilney
The Expectations by Alexander Tilney is an exploration of the difference between the main character’s hopes for his boarding school experience and the reality he encounters. At St. James boarding school, Ben wants to live the stories passed down from father to son, and older brother to little brother, but his expectations mean he’s never satisfied with reality. He worries too much about what other students think to fully embrace his first semester, enjoy his experiences, and be himself.
The theme of expectations is present throughout the novel. Ben’s roommate, Ahmed, has his own vision for St. James and finds himself cast as an outsider because of his middle-eastern customs, speech, and style. Ben’s father was expected to be good at investing, but has plunged his family into dangerous debt because in practice, he’s terrible at selecting physical companies and properties to invest in. His mother’s family had a certain vision for her life, but she chose to marry Ben’s father and pursue her academic dreams.
While The Expectations is thematically strong, the story itself was grey, drab, and lifeless. I felt like I was plodding through a literary fiction novel aimed at adults instead of a passionate, fast-paced YA novel. The main character is so self-conscious and passive, he never makes a decision for himself. For the entire book, Ben allows the desires of the people around him to make his decisions. He goes to St. James because that’s what his family has always done. He participates in hazing rituals because that’s what expected. He quits squash to wrestle because a bully tells him to. He distances himself from his roommate and only helps Ahmed in secret because his friends expect Ben to feel the same way about Ahmed as they do.
Ben’s self-consciousness holds him back from feeling as well as making decisions. All Ben does is worry. He worries about his family’s finances, what the older boys think of him, whether or not the girl he has a crush on likes him back, and if he’ll be able to keep up with school. Worry seems to be the only emotion Ben experiences throughout the novel, yet he takes forever to do anything about the situations making him worry. When he does, it’s more because another character influenced him than out of his own motivation.
While there are bullies, romances, and sports victories and defeats, Ben is not a major participant in any of these events. He’s neither bully nor victim. He has a crush, but it goes nowhere. He plays soccer and wrestles but isn’t invested enough to care whether or not his team wins. Ben’s more of an observer. I would have rather read this story through the eyes of Ahmed – whose different customs make him who is the school bully’s main target – or Hutch – the bully.
If you read for language and descriptions, you might get more out of The Expectations than I did; Tilney wrote some beautiful descriptive passages. However, if you read for plot or the passionate emotions of teenagers, you’re better off picking something else.