February 14, 2014

Starting Charles Dickens

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."


laurenhat said...

I liked Great Expectations week enough that I'd though about reading more Dickens... But this review of Oliver Twist thinks maybe I should leave well enough alone. :) Glad you enjoyed GE.

laurenhat said...

*well enough

Anonymous said...

If you have not actually *read* A Christmas Carol, I recommend it: it is actually quite short, and has a lot of great sentences. (What I mean is, you know the plot of course, so that wouldn't be the point of reading it, but Dickens has a lot of fun with language in it, which really makes it worth the read.)

Which is actually a thing I like about Dickens in general. I'm in the pro-Dickens camp, but having read some of him as a teen and then stopped working my way through his works, I recently tried reading a few that I hadn't read before and discovered that he's more of a mixed bag than I'd realized. That is, he has many characteristics that one might either love or hate, but not all his books are created equal, either.

Another thing about Dickens is I get the impression he evolved from writing mostly-episodic tales (Pickwick, which I haven't read; Nicholas Nickleby, though it does eventually grow an arc plot; David Copperfield maybe falls into this bucket too, I forget?) to much more novel-like novels.

I like A Tale of Two Cities (which is very novel-like). It is fairly long but has an actual plot. (And is not the longest of Dickens' novels.) I also like Our Mutual Friend, but a) it's long, and b) I'm not sure anyone else does and possibly I just like it because my younger self did.

While I agree with you that the big problem with Oliver Twist is that Oliver himself is basically an item rather than a character, the fact that you prefer Great Expectations is another brick in my theory that you and I really don't have similar taste in fiction at all. :) (Though to be fair it's been ages since I read Oliver Twist, so I may be channeling my pre-adult taste here.)

Lisa Eckstein said...

If I did read A Christmas Carol, it was 20 years ago, so I'll make a point to read it again, since that's more easily accomplished than the rest of his work. And I think I will probably read A Tale of Two Cities someday -- it along with Great Expectations is the Dickens novel I've heard the most good things about from the widest range of people.

diane albertina said...

yes. deadlines for action. found this in my dickens google alerts for a friend who is enveloped by him. I was pleased when Desiree spoke of reading for the fun of language (i.e., reading for pleasure) especially when contemporary news has enough of how the jelly fish are taking over the ocean .. oh what is to be done? (ala Dickens social underlying refrain "Oh, what is to be done?".. Thanks Lisa for stimulating this conversation with your blog. This is the first time I've commented on a blog and don't exactly know what "google account" means but I do have one! all best wishes to you and thanks, Lisa. from Diane Albertina

Lisa Eckstein said...

Diane, I'm honored to have earned your first blog comment. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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