Monday, January 14, 2013

My Great Expectations

The first book by Charles Dickens that I read was A Tale of Two Cities. Actually, I didn’t read the book. I first read the Classics Illustrated comic book version of A Tale of Two Cities, when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and that was after reading We Were There at the French Revolution, checked out from the local library. A couple of years later, I read the full novel by Dickens.

Then, in ninth grade, I encountered Great Expectations. It was required reading for my English class, taught by Miss Roark. The all-boy class generally looked at the book with trepidation – it was long. And we couldn’t read the Classics Illustrated version, and you could get an F if you were caught with the Cliff Notes for the book.

So for most of my class, it was an ordeal, and far less fun than, say, writing our own James Bond spy stories, which we were allowed to do for one assignment. James Bond was big; if I recall correctly, Thunderball had hit the movie theaters that summer, recruiting an entire generation of American adolescent boys into the espionage services. Poor Dickens had to compete against Sean Connery. Not to mention the female roles in the movie. Estella, as pretty as she might be, was no match for James Bond’s girlfriends.

Nevertheless, we had to read it, and we did. Early on, I was hooked. Great Expectations had everything – an orphan, a convict, a deranged old lady roaming around in a wedding dress like a professional ghost, her young and beautiful adopted daughter, heroes, villains, and an exciting story. I loved it, the whole unabridged, full-volume, complete novel with small print and no illustrations (I had a cheap paperback version).

As she describes it in Booked: Literature for the Soul of Me, Karen Swallow Prior also met Great Expectations in middle school via an abridged version, and she was hooked as much as I was. And, if forced to admit it, Prior would say that it’s her favorite novel. She’s read it numerous times, she says, and each time learns something new.

For me, it was a life-changing book. It introduced me to a world that is still very much with me today, the world of literature. It showed me the magic of story. And, like Prior, I found it to be totally realistic.

“What I love most about Great Expectations,” writes Prior, is its sheer magic. Dickens has a way of presenting both plot and characters that are enchanting enough to set the imagination aflame but at the same time realistic enough to reflect life as it really is, or might really be, at least.”

When you grow up in New Orleans, as I did, and you have a very large extended New Orleans family, and almost all of your friends come from large, extended New Orleans families, some with exotic Spanish and French names, you will likely meet every character ever created by Charles Dickens in real life. Including the deranged Miss Havisham in her wedding dress. And the convict.

And Pip, the hero. When I read Great Expectations, I became Pip. I was 14 years old and imagining myself an orphan in 19th century England, falling in love with a beautiful girl and knowing it would end badly, dodging villains, and trying to find my place in the world. I became Pip, I was Pip, and I was at the center of a wild rocket-ride of a story.

The next year, my English class would tackle David Copperfield, and while I like it enormously, it didn’t hold the same magic for me as Great Expectations. That novel oriented my head, and my heart, toward reading and writing in a way that nothing else has before or since.

I think it’s time to reread it.

Over at The High Calling, Laura Boggess is leading a discussion of Booked. Please visit the site to see what others are saying about the three chapters being covered today, on Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, and Tess of the D’Urbevilles.


Laura said...

I think it's high time I re-read this great classic. I remember that I loved it when I first read it, but I think I might have a greater appreciation for it now. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Glynn.

Louise Gallagher said...

Yup. Definitely time to re-read!

David Rupert said...

After reading Karen's book, I've vowed to reread a couple of these classics -- including Dickens that I've largely forgotten about. And yet, like Karen, They were so much part of my life.

H. Gillham said...

I taught Great Expectations to ninth graders for years. I found that when a student allowed himself to get engaged in that story, he could find something to relate to...and would find himself not being able to just read the "assigned" pages but reading ahead. :-)

Other students dragged themselves through it pre-determining that it couldn't possibly have any value for them. What a shame...

The curriculum team dropped Great Expectations from the ninth grade syllabus and added, I dunno, something "relevant" -- I also thought it was a shame ....

Note: I was appalled when teachers substituted the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou for the Odyssey. If I think about this anymore, this comment might turn into a rant. LOL

Literature is a dying staple of the high school English course.... in 20 years, fiction may be considered as frivolous and, according to experts, as unecessary as grammar.


Dickens has something for everyone. What a writer he was.

Glynn said...

Harriet - I see the same thing happening here with literature in the schools. And American history. And now I'm going to go on a rant.

a joyful noise said...

Ranting is good at times - Rant on!

Anonymous said...

I've read both Great Expectations and David Copperfield. For me the latter was enhanced by a walk along Rochester High Street, which although modernised was still easily recognisable from Dickens' description. His description of the North Kent marshes in GE is spot on too.

Nancy said...

I'm glad you used the term magic to describe your reaction to Great Expectations. This was one of my favorite quotes from this chapter of Booked:

"Not everyone appreciates the magic of Great Expectations, but that’s the thing about magic: it doesn’t work on everyone."