A couple years back, I read A Christmas Carol. It was my first encounter with Charles Dickens, and I was not impressed. In fact, I absolutely hated the book and it took me weeks to get through it. His language was convoluted, arcane, and lifeless. His characters had no depth. I couldn’t hear his voice. If I hadn’t needed to read it because I was moderating a book club discussion about it, I would have quit. Since then, I’ve been scared of Dickens, though I was determined to one day read both Great Expectations and Bleak House.
For my family book club this month, Jason chose Great Expectations for me. I was a little scared but at the same time resigned. I went into the book knowing just about nothing. I’d heard of Miss Havisham in her worn out bridal dress with her rotted wedding cake and her stopped clocks, but that was all. I’m not going to say anything more about the plot. I liked not knowing anything. It made the book all the more interesting once I began. It was not at all what I expected.
I found out I was wrong about Dickens. Maybe A Christmas Carol was dull, convoluted, arcane, lifeless, and all the rest, but not this book. Great Expectations was surprisingly easy and fun to read. It was like an adventure novel much of the time. A pot-boiler. While there’s depth in studying the book, it’s really quite easy to read just surface level for plot. I can see why people waited month after month for the next installment. I wish I could have read it like that, actually, because I think some of the book’s flaws would have been less apparent to me if it was segmented out.
The flaws were all ones that you always hear about Dickens. There are unbelievable coincidences. People are rescued at the very last second. Everyone turns out to be interconnected. There was also a problem with the middle third of the book being a little dull, as if Dickens got a bit of writer’s block but had to keep producing. But the book went beyond its flaws. I expected there to be a certain amount of caricature in characters such as Miss Havisham, but Dickens did really well to flesh all the main characters out (I won’t comment on side characters). They had life and personality. They experienced a myriad of feelings and they grew as people over time. There was less moralizing than I expected, and less chauvinism.
And the book was funny. I didn’t expect it to be so funny. Honestly it reminded me a lot of Jane Austen’s humor, especially in the little digs on individual characters. Compare, for instance, Dickens’ poking fun at Pumblechook and his “May I?”s and shaking Pip’s hand over and over, with Austen’s digs at Mr. Woodhouse and him saying “Poor Miss Taylor” in every single one of his scenes in Emma. The only difference, really, was Dickens seemed to know when to stop the joke, whereas Austen runs them into the ground in every one of her books.
It was not my favorite classic ever, but for the most part I really enjoyed Great Expectations. I’m glad Jason pushed me to read it. I’m also less scared of Bleak House now, despite its length. I actually want to see if I can find out what schedule it was released on so I can read it the way it was originally published. That would be fun.