Friday, December 12, 2008

Great Expectations - or my meandering ravings about Dickens

I always forget that I love Dickens. I almost convince myself that I don't really, that I like him but he's a bit old-fashioned, his prose is long-winded and hard to get through and his characters are caricatures. I go years without reading Dickens, convinced of this. And then I finally pick up a Dickens novel, thinking that I'm in for a hard slog but that there's something about Dickens that I've always liked...

Each time I realise that I'm wrong. I love Dickens, and once I get going I find his characters enthralling, his prose gripping, and I can't put the book down till the end. This is why I managed to read Oliver Twist cover to cover at the age of ten, curled up in a log cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (I also read Robinson Crusoe which I hated and which managed to put me off Defoe and the whole of eighteenth century literature - I strenuously avoided the entire century at university and have only just now realised that this is based entirely on my ten year old prejudice. Maybe I should give Defoe - and Richardson and Fielding - another try...)

When I was thirteen, I went through what I call my Dickens phase which involved reading The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist again and half of Bleak House (that one was a bit too much for me, precocious reader though I must have been looking at this list.) I did plan to read Great Expectations in my thirteen year old phase, but I made the mistake of reading the introduction first which went into exquisite detail about the ending. So I put it aside, confident that some day I would forget the ending and then I could read it properly.

My average reading time for a thousand page Dickens novel was two days. Looking back on it, I've often wondered how I managed it. Now, I remember.

It helps, maybe, that I've been down with some sort of flu-like illness for the last few days and I've had plenty of time lying on the futon staring at the ceiling, but after reading the first few chapters on the train to and from work, I finished the rest in a handful of eager reading sessions. The characters are eccentric, but beautifully drawn and beautifully human, and to me the writing feels surprisingly modern. Miss Havisham, in her old wedding clothes, with the clocks set at ten past nine, Wemmick with his tiny moated castle and his split personality, Mr Jaggers with his extraordinary mind, iron control, and compulsive hand-washing could all come straight out of a 21st century novel, but I'm not sure that they would be so honestly and sympathetically realised. The setting is also superb, with some gorgeously evocative, immediate description. Dickens nicely contrasts the eerie marshes surrounding a pleasant country village, fully imagined but never over-described, with the shabby London inns and the looming shadow of Newgate prison.

Great Expectations is one of the classic bildungsroman, tracing the life of one character from childhood through coming of age. Unlike most of Dickens' other novels, the point of view stays entirely with Pip, the protagonist, and although there are a number of other major and minor characters, the focus stays very closely on the central character and his story. One of the things I like about Dickens is that every incredibly minor character will reappear at some stage - with a family and a whole subplot - creating a real sense of the multi-layered, multi-classed Victorian British society. (Dombey and Son is a underrated example of this that I really enjoyed.) Great Expectations, with its first person point of view and short chapters, does much less of this than Dickens' other novels, but that means that the tension stays strong and potent throughout and rarely dissipates. Because as well as being a coming of age novel, Great Expectations is a first rate mystery, with an aura of danger from the very first chapter where Pip is set upon by convicts in a graveyard. The plot is exquisitely well-laid and surprisingly fair on the reader - the many twists in the story will come as a shock to many (who haven't read the introduction beforehand!) but can be easily traced through the novel, often to the very opening scenes.

Somehow, however, Great Expectations manages to be more than just the story of one man's life or a good suspenseful read. The intimately focused point of view does not make this novel less universal, although it does not investigate the minutiae of as many different characters as in other of Dickens' works. Instead, the self-reflective style (and Pip is positively self-condemning - and often rightly so) allows the reader to constantly reflect on humanity both as a whole and individually, on our dreams and ambitions, and the cause and effect of the smallest things that we do. This famous quote from somewhere in the middle sums it up best:

That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day. - Great Expectations

So... read it.
(I am backdating this post because I meant to write it yesterday...)

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