Reading Dickens Can be Fun?
So yesterday I started reading Great Expectations, and I found, to my surprise, that it’s actually quite fun to read. The main character is a young boy whose parents are dead, whose sister is often angry and disciplines through beatings, and who runs into a potentially dangerous escaped convict on page 2; yet despite all that, I found myself smiling and even laughing as I read it. The writing conveys the sense that it’s really not so bad. More than that, it’s very clever.
Take this passage, for example:
“My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbours because she had brought me up ‘by hand.’ Having at that time to find out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand.
“She was not a good-looking woman, my sister; and I had a general impression that she must have made Joe Gargery marry her by hand.”
Passages like this add a touch of amusement to what might otherwise be a pretty dreary story.
Classics and Broccoli
Having never read any Dickens before this year, all I knew of his books was what I’d heard. I’d always had the impression that his books were incredibly sad, dreary, depressing books that were intended primarily to put a spotlight on social problems of Dickens’ time period. I had also gotten the impression, most recently from one of my writing teachers, that reading Dickens was something surprising that should be rewarded in someone my age. I interpreted that to mean that it was something like eating broccoli: not always an enjoyable experience, but it’s good for you. Just as parents force their kids to eat their vegetables or else offer them incentives for doing so, so is the attitude of most teachers, and even most adults, to reading things like Dickens. So you might say that I didn’t have great expectations. (Ha! It’s a pun!)
After beginning Great Expectations, I found myself wondering why I was given this impression. When we think of the classics, we tend to feel a sense of obligation, as though we should accept that they’re important because everyone else seems to think they are. We tend to think only, “this book deserves respect because it’s a classic,” we don’t stop to think about why it’s a classic in the first place. Or if we do, we come to conclusions like the above, that it pointed out social problems of the time period. Now, that’s not a false statement, but I believe that the main force behind every “classic” is a group of people who honestly and fondly love it. There also seems to be this mentality about people who like classics: they’re boring people, who spend all day discussing dry academic topics in monotone.
A Modern Comparison
The picture given above is exactly the opposite of the typical reader of Dickens’ time. I remember reading, in Amusing Ourselves to Death that when Dickens visited America, he discovered how deeply he was beloved by everyone.
“When Charles Dickens visited America in 1842,” Neil Postman writes, “his reception equaled the adulation we offer today to television stars, quarterbacks, and Michael Jackson. ‘I can give you no conception of my welcome,’ Dickens wrote to a friend. ‘There never was a king or emperor on earth so cheered and followed by the crowds, and entertained at splendid balls and dinners and waited upon by public bodies of all kinds… If I go out in a carriage, the crowd surrounds it and escorts me home; if I go to the theater, the whole house… rises as one man and the timbers ring again.'”
I imagine him as the J. K. Rowling of his day. In this article from Victorian Web, readers are reported to have been so into his stories that they were collectively “desolated” upon the death of a particularly beloved character, one congressman even openly weeping and throwing the account out the window of a train. I can’t help but compare this to the despair of modern day readers upon the death of favorite Potter characters. How many of us cried when Fred Weasley was killed in the Battle of Hogwarts? I know I was sad for hours after Dumbledore died in Half Blood Prince.
Now, obviously I’m not saying that Dickens is as readily accessible today as it was during his own time. There are of course matters of language, culture, etc. that the modern reader requires some familiarity with in order to grasp the meanings. And, of course, it’s doubtful that even the most educated reader will be able to read the book with the same perspective as a reader of Dickens’ own time, but the point stands that these books were written to be enjoyed. I wonder how many readers out there are scared away from something they might also enjoy because of the reputation.
How certain books have gotten the reputation they have is probably a matter for another post, but I have a feeling that it has to do with this attitude of forcing our children to appreciate something when instead we should make it available and leave it free for them to discover on their own. When you attempt to force someone to appreciate something, the most likely responses will be resentment or rebellion.
I suppose what I’m saying is, don’t be afraid of this book! I am only 60 pages in, but those 60 pages were not at all difficult or tedious. If you love reading, give the classics a fair try. There’s probably at least one out there that you’ll fall in love with, too.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman