Sunday, April 22, 2012

In which I reveal that Great Expectations Is Not My Favorite Dickens Book. (Sundays With The Classics)

Sundays With The Classics is a new feature I'll be trying out here to see whether I like it.  Maybe I'll keep it, maybe I won't.  We'll see.  Anyway, for as long as it lasts, I'm going to be reading (or rereading) classic books -- books I probably should have read long ago, according to everyone in the world.  I'll be reading these books off and on, but always reading at least a little of them on Sundays and reporting to you, my eager readers, about the books and what I think of them.

FIRST UP:  Great Expectations.

I only started reading Great Expectations today because I felt like I should read a book, and I had no good books on my Kindle.  Which is to say, I had lots of good books on my Kindle, but the good ones were all ones I've read already, and I try very hard not to re-read books, so I didn't want to go re-read any of those books.

Instead, I decided I would re-read Great Expectations, a curious choice I suppose because I have Oliver Twist on my Kindle, too, and I'm only about halfway through that, but something about Oliver Twist didn't hold my interest.  I'm not sure why; I sort of trudged through about 45% of it and then just put it aside, metaphorically speaking.

Great Expectations isn't, to be honest, even my favorite Dickens book; that honor goes to David Copperfield, the only book ever to make me cry. (Although A Long Way Down came close.) But it was one of the ones I loved, ever since we read it in 10th grade English class with Mr. Schaeffer imitating Aged P and urging us into a love of Dickens.  He liked the story so much it was impossible not to kind of like it at least, and I liked it more than that even.

So I decided to re-read it, and I'm through Chapter IV, the Christmas Day celebration, up to the part where Mrs. Joe is getting ready for the guests, and what struck me as I read, today, were two things:

First, how funny the book is.  I can remember, in 10th grade, being told it was funny and thinking "Yeah, I suppose, so," but aside from Pip's oncommon bolt I didn't remember much by the way of humor.  But now, it seems to me that while it's not a side-splitter of a laugher of a book, it's actually really very very funny even when it's sad -- like Pip's imagining his dead brothers and sisters all born with their hands in their pockets and never having had a chance to take them out.

Another thing that struck me is how many phrases in the book are just catchy or well-written or, again, funny:  

Mrs. Joe was a very clean housekeeper but had an exquisite art of making her cleanliness more uncomfortable and unacceptable than dirt itself.

Or on Pip's Christmas/Sunday best and how uncomfortable the clothing was:

Even when I was taken to have a new suit of clothes, the tailor had orders to make them like a kind of Reformatory, and on no account to let me have the free use of my limbs.

Well, it seemed funny to me.

Another kind of surprising thing: These books were done as serials, but not much has happened yet, 4% of the way (I love that about my Kindle -- it measures my book progress by percentages) into the book.  Pip's met a convict, and brought him some food, and that convict went off looking for another convict.   And in the meantime, there's a lot of domestic talk and at least four or five pages are spent on Mrs. Joe getting things ready for the Pumblechookian Christmas visit.

It's kind of hard to picture people crowding the docks in America waiting for the next installment after that.

Man One:  I can't hardly wait.  How mean of Dickens, to leave off just before Christmas Dinner!

Man Two:  Yeah.  I mean, what if there isn't enough Mince Pie to go around?  I bet Joe Gargery'll get the Tickler for sure, then!

Man Three:  Hey, hey!  Spoiler alert! I didn't know there was a mince pie.
 It kind of makes you wonder if Dickens could get published today.  Which would actually be a neat thing to do:  Draft a query letter submitting Great Expectations to a publisher and see what they say.

Dear Editor:

When Pip stumbles across a convict in a marsh, how could he have foreseen that his terror-stricken mission to bring the man "wittles" would pay off in such an ironic and disheartening way in the future?  Although he didn't know it then, young Philip "Pip" Pirrip's journey through life would be marked by people making use of him in ways he could scarcely understand as he moves from the humble life of a would-be blacksmith's apprentice almost to the uppercrust of London's society before watching his house of cards crash around him.

Great Expectations is a literary novel that pairs comedy and tragedy, sometimes in the same sentence, and sends them on a journey through the stratified society of Victorian England, with the reader carried along on the inventive language through a cast of characters that will prove unforgettable.  

Of course, you'd probably have to disguise the title.  Maybe. As I think about it, I bet it's only 50-50 that the person reading that letter would recognize the story.  Maybe if they Googled it.  Do readers Google the titles of books they get queried about?


PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

The "South Park" version is much better because it has robot monkeys.

Stephen Hayes said...

I like this idea for a feature about classics. Great Expectations is one of the few I've read so I look forward to you educating me.

Andrew Leon said...

We had to read Great Expectations my freshman year. I was the only one in the class that said I liked it. And I did; I really liked it. I've never known if that meant I was the only one that actually read it.

I don't think Dickens could get published today, at least not in the way his books are now. They's want to cut out at least the first third of Expectations and include the convict as a flashback later in the book.

nutschell said...

i remember studying great expectations in school:)
Happy A-Zing!