Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Classics Circuit: Austen Vs. Dickens

I am defending Great Expectations on The Classics Circuit today! In the Austen Vs. Dickens Challenge

I have to tell you that these classics competitions are really tough for me. In some ways, it feels like picking a favourite friend… or favourite kind of ice cream.

Sure, sometimes I want peanut butter chocolate; other times I want cookies and cream--- both are equally worthy and wonderful.

I love me some Jane Austen---don’t get me wrong…. And I love me some all-of-Dickens: so much so that when people would ask me what my favourite Dickens’ novel was, for years, I couldn’t pinpoint. Sometimes it was Tale of Two Cities, often it was Our Mutual Friend, and Great Expectations always held a more-than-special place in my heart.

Forced to confront the fact that at some point I really should pick one, I decided to go with the one that reaches me on the deepest level. All have stories chock-full of brilliant characterization, sparkling sentimentality, wonderful wit and breathtaking materializations of London in all of its gritty glory--- all are like sinking into a favourite easy chair, re-visiting comforting friends, tea in hand.

But, Great Expectations brings to mind the most palpable of reading experiences. I feel greatly when I read Great Expectations, and I glean something different from between its pages upon every visit and am consistently fascinated by the style and the undercurrents of themes enforcing something more than Dickens’ pen-to-page brilliance.

At the forefront, Great Expectations is a relatively simple story. In fact, it is in this seeming simplicity that the reader is tricked into something more complex.

Philip “Pip” Pirrip stares at the headstones of his dead parents on the haunting marshes of the early 19th Century. (Yes, this is one of Dickens’ rare forays into historical fiction, as it is set years before its publication.) There, he is confronted by a veritable bogey-man: an escaped convict of the marshes who intimidates young Pip into near-jelly.

It is this fleeting instance that will shape Pip’s destiny.

Several of the tenets of Great Expectations are well-known to the greater populous: the unlucky-in-love Miss Havisham who wilts amidst the debris of her rotting, unforgotten jilt-at- the-altar; her ward, the icy Estella, well-raised in the art of scorning men and twisting them beneath her lily white finger, the kindly blacksmith Joe and his domineering wife, Mrs. Joe; the mysterious Magwitch; the troubling Mr. Jaggers and the extremely likeable Herbert Pocket.

Daring escapes, plot twists and family mysteries are uncovered at the backdrop of this keen bildungsroman. At the crux, Pip learns the downfalls of wealth and greed and awakens to the realization that with his great expectations a great price is exacted.

It is a bubbling and readable book and certainly one of Dickens’ shortest and most accessible. I think some of its resonance ( as one of the most beloved and adapted works of literature ) is its study in disillusionment and grace. Pip falls deeply into a trap of believing that which will make him whole is largely outside of himself and his meager upbringings. This is a commonality of the ages: a young man bred with good morals ( at least from the salt-of-the-earth blacksmith Joe) is tantalized by the prospect of something greater and holds no qualms at shirking his past, viewing his hometown as wreckage and turning into a veritable snob. What is heartbreaking is how those true to Pip are reluctant to dismiss him (even though, believe me, he can be, at times, the most absolute wretch).

It is these scenes: these confrontations between the now-gentlemanly (at least in form, if not in deed) Pip and the life he left behind as emblemized by Joe ,that wrench my heart.

This is a novel I grew up with and a novel that inspired me to face ugly truths about all of humanity and, on a searing micro level, about myself. We all fall into Pip’s trap when something shiny is dangled affront us; we would all rather believe that our benefactor will lead us to our heart’s desire, not regale us with a past twisted into treachery and mire. We all want to believe we were born for something more, greater than our circumstance, deserving of everything the wealthiest people have attained.

With that stirring of pride and that callous and complacent turning of our disdainful heads comes a stark and powerful realization: that humanity at its pulse is frail, that society ---gilded and obtuse--- exists to spin us into a web of our undoing…. That the greatest force in our life is redemptive love---acts of limitless grace---binding us back to a place where we belong. Where people love unconditionally. Where the mistakes made in youth are wiped clean of a slate by the gnarled hands of honest work and the belief in Love, God’s Will and Redemption.


Unknown said...

Brilliant! :)

Anastasia @ Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog said...

I had to read Great Expectations for an English class in high school, and I definitely don't think it was the right time for me to do so. I HATED it. I think I only read about half of it before giving up, because I just couldn't make myself continue reading it any longer. (I had to use Sparknotes to prep for the weekly reading quizzes!)

That bad experience also made me stay away from Dickens' works as a whole until just last December, when I finally decided to give him another chance. I'm probably going to give GE another chance as well (might as well, anyway, since I'm planning to read other Dickens books)-- I just hope I enjoy it more now, seven years later, than I did when I first tried to read it. :(

Karen K. said...

Brilliant review -- you've included everything that makes Dickens great. I'll have to go back and read all your other reviews now! I'm only halfway through the Dickens canon and so far my favorites are Bleak House and Oliver Twist, though Great Expectations is also wonderful. I'm about halfway through Dombey & Son and it's dragging a bit but I'm sticking with it.

Helen said...

I haven't read Great Expectations but reading your post has made me think I should make it my next Dickens novel. My favourite so far has been Our Mutual Friend but I've only read four of his books so I still have a long way to go!

Rachel said...

@Anastasia: I would give it another chance as a mature reader; it really is the cat's meow. But, if you still have a bad taste in your motuh---start with "A Tale of Two Cities" --another very accessible novel. "Bleak House" is another good 'un ( I love all of Dickens!)

@Karen K. Dombey and Son dragged for me, too. I took an entire course in university just on Dickens ---and the entire class struggled with that one.

@Helen -- as I mentioned in this post, Our Mutual Friend is a long time favourite of mine. They made a very good BBC miniseries of it in the 90s which is definitely worth a watch.