One reason I embarked on my START HERE project was that I knew it would force me to read Charles Dickens. I spent much of my life avoiding the traditional literary classics unless they were required reading, and for whatever reason, I developed a particular aversion to Dickens, who happened to never be assigned to me in school. As a result, I'd never read anything by Dickens (except possibly A CHRISTMAS CAROL, which I've certainly watched many adaptations of), and I never had any real desire to. But since I have at least one friend who adores the work of Dickens, and since the author is considered significant, it did seem like I should really find out what the fuss is about. Therefore, I resolved to keep Starting Here at least until I reached the Ds.
The Dickens pathway laid out by Amanda Nelson is designed to give a fresh introduction to those who already read (or avoided reading) the major works at school, so it turned out not to be the best course for me. I started with the first suggested book, OLIVER TWIST, and while I liked the beginning more than I expected, by the end, I was bored and annoyed with the story. The pathway continues with DAVID COPPERFIELD and BLEAK HOUSE, but once I looked at their lengths, I thought I'd better take a different approach. GREAT EXPECTATIONS is one of Dickens' most widely read books, and it's also considered among his best work, so I read that next, and it made for a much more rewarding Dickens experience.
→ For OLIVER TWIST, I listened to the audiobook narrated by Peter Batchelor, which is available on Audible at a surprisingly low price. Batchelor is a great narrator, with an impressive range of character voices, and he reads at a somewhat faster pace than other recordings, which I appreciated. I'm not ordinarily an audiobook listener, but I was working on a knitting project with a holiday deadline and thought that having Dickens read to me while I knitted would be a good way to address my reluctance to try this author.
At the beginning, I was pleased to find the story more entertaining than I was expecting, and much funnier. As the story went on, though, both my interest and my amusement diminished. I was curious what was going to happen to Oliver, but a great many of the scenes bored me. Some of them dragged, some were entirely irrelevant to the plot, and almost none involved Oliver taking any action, which makes him a dull protagonist. Dickens is quite enamored by his detailed portrayals of various rough characters, but I didn't get the same delight from this that perhaps readers of his time would have.
As to the story, it's about an orphan who goes from place to place being mostly ill-treated and occasionally well taken care of. Eventually there's some mystery about the past that I was eager to have explained, but overall, I thought this book was merely okay.
→ My first impression of GREAT EXPECTATIONS was that it was another story about an orphan being mostly mistreated, but at least it was about a far more interesting orphan than Oliver Twist. Pip not only makes some decisions and takes some actions of his own accord, even as a child, but he narrates his own story. The first-person, retrospective point of view is used to good effect, with the narrator conveying his childish misunderstandings of the world but at the same time commenting from his adult perspective.
As the story progressed, I found myself genuinely enjoying it, not merely judging it more tolerable than OLIVER TWIST. The major characters are compelling people with some depth, and the shallower caricature characters are interestingly portrayed without driving the joke into the ground. The plot unfolds at a pretty good pace, and it becomes quite a page-turner, with all sorts of twists I didn't anticipate.
While Dickens is often revered, other times it's pointed out that he was paid by the word and that this is evident in his work. OLIVER TWIST frustrated me with its many long digressions that served no purpose, but in GREAT EXPECTATIONS, I was impressed to find that almost every element that seemed potentially extraneous was eventually revealed to be a crucial part of the plot. Ultimately, that's the aspect of this novel that won me over. I wasn't converted to an overall Dickens fan, but I highly recommend GREAT EXPECTATIONS to anyone else wondering why his work has endured.
I'm glad to end my Dickens reading on a positive note. If anyone can convince me that another of his books has the same entertainment value as GREAT EXPECTATIONS (relative to word count, please!), I'll consider it for the future.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ S. Hope Mills writes at the Ploughshares blog about the importance of deadlines: "It's not like I was sitting around waiting for the muses to come. I was writing and thinking and revising and wrestling and revising again. I was staring at the computer screen for hours at a time trying to figure out if that sentence was really saying what I intended for it to say. Too soon, the due date would arrive and I'd be scrambling. But then 'magically,' usually within the last hour before I submitted a post, the idea would come together."