Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Dickens, Revisited

Moving forward, I'd like to discuss Dickens again.  A while ago, I wrote about A Tale of Two Cities, which I said was my favorite of his works.  I really enjoyed reading the mixed responses in the comments of that post, as you all offered interesting insight.  In response, (particularly to Adam's suggestion*), I have now read Great Expectations and would like to reopen the Dickens discussion.

It seems to me that there are more people who dislike Dickens' style than there are fans of it.  And before I get going, I want to say that I do understand that.  Everyone knows that he is wordy, and I can't pretend that isn't true.  But I have to admit that I honestly didn't even notice it while I was reading Great Expectations.  I read several blogs about this book before writing my own post now, and people almost unanimously have said that the beginning takes way too long and says much more than is necessary for the story.  However, I really didn't have that experience.  I was completely wrapped up in Pip's story, and I felt like the whole thing was essential in order to reach the conclusion that it did.  What makes me impatient is when authors spend time on long tangents that have nothing to do with the story itself, (i.e. Hugo and Melville).  Everything that Dickens built was faithful to the development of the story, and this becomes increasingly clear as the book progresses. 

Moreover, I absolutely ate up some of those descriptions.  I believe that in Great Expectations, Dickens has created some truly memorable scenes that will stand in my mind long after I have read this tale.  I love the opening scene in the foggy graveyard, with this young kid who is manipulated by a crook.  I thoroughly sensed how Pip felt growing up with Joe and his autocratic sister, with the never-ending taunt of "raised you by hand" ringing in his ears.  And really, who can ever forget the image of Miss Havisham in her dusty room, dressed in her faded wedding gown with just one shoe on and all the clocks stopped?  This is the magic that Dickens can create.  He may take a few extra words than some authors, but in faithfully pinpointing specific characterizations, they are easily imaginable.

I also want to point out that Dickens is actually quite funny.  I didn't particularly remember that from previous readings, and I don't know whether I simply forgot about it or it was just less prevalent.  But during Great Expectations, I frequently chuckled and smirked as I read.  His descriptions can really be rather playful and satirical, and I was quite entertained.  I think my favorite example of this is during Pip's first dinner with Herbert, as Herbert patiently interrupts himself every few moments to correct Pip's table manners.  If Dickens cut out some of this for the sake of shortening the story, I think a great deal of its charm would be lost.

Finally, I'll wrap it up to say that I found the plot extremely satisfying.  I read in someone else's post that every character gets precisely what he or she deserves.  I think that is a great way to explain it.  By the end, it was all just so fitting that I closed the book with a smile.  Mind you, there is a significant difference between a story that ends happily and a story that ends fittingly.  I much prefer the latter.  And though it was fitting, I don't think the story was overly predictable.  There were a number of little twists along the way which kept me guessing.  Personally, I wouldn't change a thing.

So I hope this has offered you a different perspective on Dickens with more specific features to look for if you generally do not care for him.  I know he's not for everyone, but I do think he ought to be admired for the skill that he undeniably possessed, as well as the significant contribution he made to literature.

*Adam blogs at Roof Beam Reader and has covered an incredible scope of literature, including five other works by Dickens.  (But Adam, where's your commentary on Great Expectations?)  Anyway, you should all do yourself a favor and check out his reviews!


Roof Beam Reader said...

Thanks for the shout out! I agree with basically everything you say here, both about Dickens in general (and readers' response to him) as well as this particular novel.

I'm one of those who definitely thinks most Dickens tales take a long time to develop, BUT I'm also one who is almost never disappointed. By mid-book, whichever the book, I always find myself pleasantly engaged and, by the end, in love.

I have to re-read Great Expectations in order to review it. I read it years ago, before the thought of a blog was even forming, so to do it any justice - I would need to refresh my memory quite a bit. I do know, though, that it was my first Dickens and still probably my favorite (even though David Copperfield and Edwin Drood are still fighting madly for that spot!)

IngridLola said...

Great thoughts, Amy! I actually just read this book for the first time a few weeks ago. I like what you said about a book ending fittingly. At first, I was kind of irritated that everything wrapped up so nicely ... but then, as I thought more about it, I realized that Dickens approach to story telling is much more didactic and moral-based than writers today, for example. So somehow, it works.

I also loved that scene where Pip is eating dinner with Herbert. I thought it was so funny! I was absolutely charmed by Joe and Pip's young life. I liked his sister's character as well. As I read the beginning, "Another Brick in the Wall" by Pink Floyd kept playing in my head ...