My students (and some of my friends) can’t ever figure out why I love this novel so much. I explain how the characters are thoroughly original and yet timeless, how the symbolism is rich and tasty, and how the narrative itself is juicy and chock-full of complexity, but they just shake their heads at me in utter amazement and say, “What’s wrong with you, dude?”
What’s wrong, indeed.
I give them ten or fifteen years. Perhaps they’ll have to read it again in college, or maybe they’ll just try reading it again as an adult to see if they can try to figure out why it’s such a “classic,” but after some time has passed from their initial encounter with the novel, they will find that I am not so crazy after all and that the book is in fact one of the best examples–if not the best example–of the novel. This happens to me all the time: I will re-read something I was forced to read in middle school and high school, remembering how much I hated it then, and will find that I actually love it now, as an adult. Sure, those “classics” may have taught me something about literary analysis, symbolic patterns, and the like, but I couldn’t appreciate it for its complexity until I was older. I guess the rule of wine appreciation applies here, too: good taste only comes after much patience and experience.
Perhaps the thing I love best about this novel is the cast of characters–their names as well as their personalities. Ms. Havisham is one of my favorite characters to ever appear in all of the literature I have read. There is so much density and complexion to her character that I could literally make an entire career out of writing discourses on her characterization. She has even invaded the way I think about the world and the people I have met: I have, for instance, started referring to those instances where parents try to achieve success through their children “the Havisham effect” (unfortunately, you see this all too often in the world of teaching). Havisham’s name is another exasperatingly fantastic aspect of her character: like the majority of Dickens’ characters, you pretty much know what you’re in for when you first read her name–she is full of lies, tricks, and deceits (or “sham”s). You don’t get this sort of characterization much of anywhere else in the literary scene.
Another reason I love this novel so much is its plotting. Remember, Dickens was writing in a serialized format so he needed to keep his readers hooked so that they’d want to buy the next issue of his periodical, All the Year Round, in order to see what happens next. Thus, the plot of Great Expectations is winding, unpredictable, and quite shocking at points. Certainly, in terms of heavy action–well, what our youngsters these days would call action, fighting and big explosions and what-not–there is none, or very little at most, but that’s not the thing to be looking for. Figure out the characters first, and then, once you’ve gotten to know and even care for them (or hate them), you will be hooked on the plot because you will want to know what happens to these people who you’ve invested so much feeling into. This is, of course, true of all novels, but it’s what I tell my students when they read Great Expectations for the first time, and by gum, it’s helped more than a few of them get through the novel successfully.
So, if you read Great Expectations in middle school, high school, or college, but haven’t picked it up since, I urge you to do so. With a more patient and experienced set of eyes, you just might surprise yourself.