Monday, April 14, 2014

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens
1861, 384 pages (2001 Dover Press edition)

This is the only "really good read" from my classroom that I have not reviewed yet, but I have read more of it aloud than any other classroom novel study. At 454 pages in our classroom edition, the one-third that I have read to my Grade 11 and/or 12 students every two or three years means that I have read over 1000 pages of this novel in the years I have taught at this school...

And what a delight it is to read any Dickens novel out loud! (Honest, my students liked it too!) At least one of the reviews on Amazon compares Dickens' vivid characters to those of Shakespeare, and it is truly a treat to give those characters voices. Let me give a few examples.

The opening chapter should remind you of the spookiest part of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, since it too is set in a cemetery. In these eerie surroundings, the narrator, the young orphaned Phillip Pirrip (shortened to Pip), gazes upon the graves of his parents and siblings. The sudden appearance of an escaped convict (still in irons) literally turns his world upside down.

Why literally? Because the convict holds him up by his feet while he is threatening him. The way the rest of the chapter (and many after) is written powerfully shows Pip's experiences both from his child's understanding and his viewpoint as a much older adult narrator. Pip feels both terror and compassion in the presence of the convict, and so do we as readers.

These are only two of the many characters in Great Expectations. Pip's efforts to help "his" convict seem to be futile, and he moves on to a less compassionate phase in his life, as he deals with his cranky sister Mrs. Joe, who regularly and self-righteously abuses both Pip and his gentle adoptive blacksmith father Joe Gargery, bragging how she "brought you up by hand." One mark of Dickens's skill in creating characters is that when Mrs. Joe disappears from the scene, as horrid and cruel as she is, you miss her.

While Mrs. Joe serves as a compelling example of how not to raise your kids - a lifelong concern of Dickens, who spent a part of his childhood working in a shoe blacking warehouse during the day and returning to his family in debtors' prison at night - the real turning point for Pip comes at around 12 years old when he visits the eccentric Miss Havisham, who introduces him to the beautiful Estella, around the same age. Pip's infatuation for the snobbish Estella makes him receptive to Miss Havisham's hints of "great expectations" for his future, an upper-crust upbringing that will make him feel both worthy of Estella, but also superior to the solid, conventional wisdom of Joe Gargery.

Pip's journey to London to find his great expectations brings him into further contact with such characters as the obsequious corn merchant Mr. Pumblechook and the ruthless lawyer Mr. Jaggers, such naive and impressionable friends as Herbert Pocket, and such wise guides as Jaggers' assistant Wemmick. His experiences there leave us wondering what he will really be like when he is old enough to court Estella. Will she wait for him? Will he be worth waiting for? What will be the price of his great expectations? To whom will he have to pay that price?

While Dickens' novel does not, by any means, give any of the characters a strong Christian character arc (though the worthy Joe is a churchgoer), it does present Christian readers with the question of what we might make our great expectations - i.e. our idols - in this life (romance? material or social success? educational achievement?); and what we might do, or who we might betray, to get them.

The book gives us two answers to some of those questions, since Dickens wrote two endings, but the questions themselves, and the characters who give those questions life, will stay in your mind long after you choose your favorite ending. (If you need it read aloud, just call me!)

You can get a free e-book version here.

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