Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

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I remember doing an Independent Research Project in my second year of university on Dickens… and I’m embarrassed to say I just had to look up what novels I used, as I barely remember writing it! Turns out, this must be my third or fourth Dickens novel, as I wrote on Nicholas Nickleby and Hard Times previously and I’m 90% sure I read Oliver Twist at some point in my past. A Christmas Carol doesn’t really count as it is just a short story, and by far Dickens best work of course (thank you Muppets!).

So why is it that I have found the novels that I have read so forgettable, and why have I struggled so much to get through Great Expectations? And most importantly, since this is a GCSE curriculum text, what are my views on teaching it? Rather than analysing the story a bit, as I normally would, I’m going to focus on these points of discussion, as for me at the moment, they seem much more relevant.

The Great Struggle

Dickens is a fantastic story teller. His characters are full of life, flaws and honesty, and his endings are far from fairy-tale products churned out time and again. Much of our preconceptions concerning Victorian England, and London especially, come from Dickens’ portrayal of the county and the industry within it.

I love the story lines of his novels, and the fact that we are still producing new and innovative media from them, such as BBC’s recent show Dickensian which took hold of characters before their stories truly start in Dickens’ writing and showed you their implied histories.

So why has it taken me weeks to read Great Expectations? I believe the answer is simply this: we don’t write like that anymore. We don’t even talk like that anymore. Take the Wheel of Time series, for example, that I am currently taking a break from. Each book is far bigger than Dickens’ novels, and yet I haven’t struggled to get through them. We just don’t write like Dickens anymore, and as a result we don’t have the patience to persevere.

It seems to me that Dickens will use 20 words where one would suffice. He takes his time describing every inch of a room, or a street, and his characters are thoroughly described from the outset, rather than allowing the reader the process of getting to know them themselves as the novel progresses. Take Mrs Joe Gargary, for example, who within the first few pages is shows as ‘bringing up by hand’ Pip, and who doesn’t change except for a massive bump on the head which totally changes her personality. Dickens tells, rather than shows, what people are like and as a result I find it harder to connect with them, because I haven’t been allowed to form my own opinion. With these basic story telling ‘faults’ (I use the word ‘faults’ cautiously, because perhaps it is more a fault of our society that we can’t stand to read like that anymore than a problem of Dickens’) is it any wonder that I have spent weeks trying to read this, and each chapter was a struggle?

But the story is beautifully crafted and moving. Pip’s progression up society, the bumps in the road that lead to his illness, the side stories of Miss Havisham, Estella and Joe, all form a beautiful narrative that shows both the best and the worst in society. There are no characters that are truly one sided, except for possibly Compeyson, whose destruction of Miss Havisham and manipulation of Magwitch are the source of the wrongs that throw everything into turmoil. This variety and development of the complexity of human nature really add to the story, making this a classic well worth reading.

Teaching?

I’m in two minds about addressing Great Expectations as a curriculum text.

The Problems

I struggled reading this novel. How on earth am I supposed to motivate a GCSE class with 10 other subjects, 15 poems to remember as well as Shakespeare plays and modern drama, to read an entire novel of this density? How many hours of class time am I supposed to dedicate to simply reading together to ensure that all pupils have read the novel? How can you teach such a tapestry of writing from just extracts, if you are not going to read the entire thing, and hope that pupils will engage enough with the story to be able to remember huge chunks of it for examination? What about those of a lower ability, who will struggle simply with Joe’s manner of speaking, let alone anything more complex? I skimmed over anything Joe had to say because I just couldn’t find the energy to try to translate it. And it’s just so long… it will literally take pupils hours and hours to read, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable teaching such a complex piece of literature from extracts alone. All of these problems, and that before the pupils get bored, struggle with the language or just the complexity of the story line. Yes, there are movie versions and BBC adaptations to help, but it’s English… it’s the English literature heritage… if we’re going to study it, we should be reading it.

It total opposition, however, are the characters, the story and the complexity (both a blessing and a curse!). Just take Miss Havisham: victim or perpetrator? eccentric or reasonable? Exploring her motivations, her desires and her upbringing of Estella is going to be full of rich discussion. Great Expectations is a novel that will allow you take sides, to form firm opinions and be able to back them up. There is a character rich cast to choose from, there are incidents and twists to discuss. If a class has the ability to retain the information, the quotes, and put it all together, then Great Expectations is an ideal text for an exam.

So, I both dread and look forwards to the opportunities of teaching it in the future. I suppose, since I’ll be going in as a trainee teacher, if my school does have this on the reading list then I will take from the expertise of my colleagues and learn from them the best way to handle such a classic, difficult yet beautiful text.

Only time will tell…