Friday, September 12, 2008

My First Dickens - Great Expectations

Yes. I am aware I'm an English Major. As an English Major it's assumed you've read every novel listed on the "Classic's Cannon" before you could drive. Okay...slight exaggeration because you'd be 15 and didn't know you would be an English major yet and thus no one could criticize you for your lack of assumed "well-readness" due to your college major choice; meaning "read every book every one's heard of but no one has read." No. Okay? I've not read any Dickens before now - other than an occasional short story, the beginning 4 chapters of "A Tale of Two Cities" (and that WAS before I could drive so back it up!), and a Christmas Carol - which is practically a novella anyway at around 100 pages.

THUS!!! Trying desperately to live up to the completely unrealistic expectations that come with the "English Major" title (not including the expectation that I should be able to spell every known and unknown word in the English language...sigh...another day, another rant) I just finished "Great Expectations." I have a friend; Steven. I may have mentioned him before (see previous 6-10 posts. Yes, I know it seems like he's my only friend..I'm sure I have a few more...somewhere), who recommended Dickens to me. He's not an English Major so he's automatically revered for having undertaken a classic without being obligated to do so by his major (you may all "Ooo" in astonishment if you MUST). His first Dickens experience was David Copperfield. I remember when he first mentioned this as "one of his favorites." It's actually the first time we went to lunch - Noodles and Company - and we started discussing books. I recommended East of Eden by John Steinbeck (AWESOME!), and he recommended David Copperfield. To this day neither of us have read each other's recommendations- but in San Francisco we both bought Great Expectations and decided to read it together. Now that you know the background - here's what came of it:

I thoroughly enjoyed it, and will forever be a Dickens fan. Having not been acquainted with Dicken's talents in first person narrative I was instantly sucked in. His descriptions and imagery are vivid - when he wants them to be - and aren't when he doesn't. The language of course, is elevated, so you have to think about it - but not in a "Tale of Two Cities" kind of way. I found it simpler comparatively, but equally as intelligent. I mean it's Dickens - of course it's smart. What really drew me into his writings style, however, was his dry, almost undetectable, "between the lines" sense of humor. I surprisingly found myself chuckling through most of the book. I mean, to think one could find Dickens completely amusing. The sure shock to those passer-bys who heard me laughing, glanced at what I was reading, and found Charles Dickens looking back at them must've been disconcerting to say the least. They don't know! True to his Britishness - the humor was very dry indeed. If I were to describe his "comedy" compared to modern "standards", I'd say he's an "observant comic" - much like Jerry Seinfeld if I may be so bold. He's insight into human behavior, into human interaction and reaction, is, as the British might suggest, "spot on." It's so true - it's comical - and you can picture these variety of moments (and he truly does it through the entirety of the novel) vividly in your mind. You can even attribute some of the many fruitful characters reactions and personalities to yourself and others you know. Brilliantly done. One of the best first person narratives I've ever read.

So now you know Dickens has very quickly become one of my favorites - lets quickly (yes I'll try quickly) discuss some characters shall we? I'll try and remember I'm not writing this for an English Professor and just telling the Internet some insights...brief ones...lacking of..."objective and professional quality"and merely trying to wet your palate for some classic literature. They are classic for a reason you know.

My favorite characters are Joe - Pip's (the main character's) hard nosed sister's husband and life-long friend - and Herbert - Pip's roommate, associate, best friend, and comrade in every sense of the word. Both of these characters share similar traits; faith, innocence, humility, forgiveness, understanding, and a deep empathy for their friends. Joe, being a humble and uneducated blacksmith and guardian of Pip, struck me as the Christ figure in the novel. He certainly embodies one (if not many) of the qualities Christ himself exemplified daily: mercy, forgiveness, and charity. Towards the end of the novel, Joe had me positively in tears because of his humility and kindness. I simply adore his character. It's the character in the novel that makes you want to be a better person. Joe for me, is the unsung hero in the novel.

Herbert is Pip's cheerful and optimistic friend. Along with many of his "Joe-esque" qualities, what most stands out to me is he's positive attitude. He is so cheerful, so kind, and so giving with his words, his affections, and his thoughts. Herbert is easily likable -even upon their first encounter at Satis House when he and Pip "fought" in the garden. Like Joe is someone you aspire to emulate - Herbert is the fellow you want everything good in the world to happen to - and then realize even if it doesn't - he'll still be happy, full of life, and completely satisfied. He's someone you want helping usher you through life and helping you appreciate what you have.

Pip is an amazing character himself. He's the most "human" character - and I feel the most relateable. He carries with him weaknesses and vices just as anyone does - but he also has strengths and emotion in him just as anyone does. What is truly great about Pip is how he sees himself change, grow, and progress. When he recognizes his follies, his snap-judgements, his snobbery, and his pride - he repents - and then tries to make amends. There are a lot of excellent lesson's and themes found in this novel that could be discussed for 10 pages more. Not a good English Major am I?!??! EH? That's right - I could do this for 10 pages.

But I won't. Suffice it to say the novel deals with a plethora of themes ranging from love, to bitterness, contempt, personal choice, forgiveness, vice, empathy, true friendship, charity, and understanding. One of the strongest dichotomies I found is between Joe and Ms. Havisham. It's a comparison between forgiveness and humility vs bitterness and pride. One begets happiness and joy, the other contempt, and misery. Dickens is masterful in his themes and brilliant in his writing. Great Expectations is truly a classic and had me wondering "Why in the WORLD had I not read a true Dickens before now?"

I know you all have expectations (do I say great expectations to really drive the irony home?) of English Majors - and none of us can live up to it (especially if you have a French Minor - slaughters your spelling ability) because not a one of us can say we've read EVERY classic novel EVER to have been written - but if we had you should know we could write a million 10 page papers on them. And now that I've got some Dickens under my belt - can I admit I've never really read Jane Austen either? GASP! All in good time.

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