(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
Great Expectations (1861)
By Charles Dickens
Book #1 of this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Originally published serially in 1860 and 1861, like much of Dickens' work Great Expectations is a look back at the early Victorian age (in this case, 1812 to 1840), told through the story of a boy named Pip who is at the center of a series of complicated and interrelated events. Originally a poor orphan living in squalor with his abusive sister in Kent, Pip ends up receiving a mysterious endowment from an unnamed stranger, who he presumes is the local crazy old-woman hermit with whom he is forced to keep company and participate in various sadistic games. This endowment essentially turns Pip into a wealthy young man now attending finishing school in cosmopolitan London; this is where the "expectations" of the book's title come into play, in that Pip is expected to become a right and proper gentlemen through the help of his mysterious benefactor, in a true Victorian style that was so in fashion at the time.
But alas, the more time spent in such an environment, the more Pip starts seeing the ugly underbelly of Victorian society, even as he is filled with shame by his poverty-stricken background and turns a cold shoulder against all his former friends. The process eventually creates a crisis of faith within Pip by the time he's in his early twenties, coincidentally timed with a series of revelations tying together all the various seemingly unrelated subplots going on throughout the book (including a doomed romance, an escaped convict, staged deaths and a corrupt justice system); it leads Pip by the end to a place of true maturity, even if it's laced with melancholy, a true understanding of what's important in life and of what should be a true gentlemen's priorities. It's the best outcome one could ever hope for in such a situation, Dickens argues, leading Pip by the end of the book to truly fulfilling the "great expectations" that had been haunting him for so long.
The argument for it being a classic:
Very few would argue anymore over the idea of Dickens being one of the most important writers in history, not only an astute recorder of the Victorian age in particular but also a master at portraying the different social classes of the world, and of the particular way they sometimes get along. So perhaps the more interesting question here is how the super-long Great Expectations holds up next to the other 16 super-long novels of his career? The main argument for it being his best book, after all, is the same exact one that led it to being one of his least popular books among his original audience; that it's the least "Dickensian" of all his novels, the one with the most sober and realistic plot, the one least populated with outrageous characters caught in melodramatic situations, which were what made his stories so popular among Victorian audiences to begin with. It's a sadder and wiser book than most of his others, fans of it claim, one written late in life by a sadder and wiser Dickens, full of uncomfortably autobiographical elements that Dickens never wanted to admit existed while still alive (such as Pip's complex relationship with the poor, for one very good example); in other words, its fans say, it's Dickens' most illuminating and timeless book, which is why it should also be considered his most essential.
The argument against:
As you can see, the very argument for why Great Expectations is a classic can also be turned on its head; you could argue, in fact, that it's Dickens' least essential book from a literary standpoint, precisely because it contains the least Dickensian elements. There are no Artful Dodgers in this novel, no Martin Chuzzlewits; almost none of the elements that make a smile spread across one's face when thinking of a Dickens story (either the original novels or the hundreds upon hundreds of movie adaptations that have come along since). Again, very few I think would argue at this point over Dickens' importance in the canon of world literary history; many of his most diehard fans, though, would argue that this is a novel for completists only, with the general fan better off tackling one of his more colorful tales.
After reading Great Expectations myself now, I find myself falling on the side of its supporters; that its very lack of outrageous elements and melodramatic plot points is what ensures its classic status, is what ensures that its main messages are hammered home to generation after generation of new readers. After all, you can't really argue the timeliness of the lessons Dickens is teaching here -- that money and status never determine one's inner worth, that terrible things happen to all of us at certain times, that you always have the choice to either get over those terrible things or to spend the rest of your life wallowing in the self-pity they inspire. As much of a fan as I am of Dickens' social and political messages from the first two-thirds of his career, I admit that I find the more mature and self-reflexive messages here to be a lot more powerful, a story that Dickens literally couldn't have written until the end of his career, when he himself was an older and more world-weary gentlemen. By all means, definitely continue to watch such Dickens spectacles as Oliver Twist and the like on television and in theatres; if you only have time in your life, though, to tackle just one of his stories in their original novel form, you could do a lot worse than to choose this one.
Is it a classic? Yes
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
In two Fridays: The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald
In three Fridays: Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie
In four Fridays: The Man Who Was Thursday, GK Chesterton