If you were to ask me to name my favourite author my answer would probably differ depending on my mood, but I can guarantee that Dickens would consistently be in my top 5. I’ve read and own practically everything he wrote but I don’t own a copy of Great Expectations and I’m not sure why.
It’s certainly not my favourite Dickens novel but then again Mansfield Park is my least favourite Jane Austen novel and I still own a copy. I’ve not read Mansfield Park since I had to dissect it at school but I figure that someday I’ll be ready to face it again (it’s only been 15 years or so!) and I want a copy for when that day comes! I’ve never read Les Miserables, but likewise I own a copy for the day when I’m ready to read it. So why don’t I own a copy of Great Expectations?
I have read it and it was easy enough to read, though it wasn’t as enjoyable as David Copperfield or the Pickwick Papers. It’s darker than either of those two books but it regularly appears in ‘must read’ lists and lists of favourite books.
I’ve often wondered if people name Great Expectations as their favourite Dickens novel because they think they should. They think that there’s more depth to it than Oliver Twist or Little Dorrit. I also wonder if, for many people, it’s the only Dickens they’ve ever read, and that was probably at school. People think they know Oliver Twist because they’ve seen the film but I doubt that most of those viewers have actually read the book, which has much more depth and twists and turns than the film or the musical. The BBC adaptations of Bleak House and Little Dorrit received fantastic reviews and were watched by millions but how many of those viewers have read either book?
Is current awareness of Dickens due to word of mouth, school and TV adaptations rather than actual readership? I wonder how many people have a copy of Great Expectations but don’t own any other Dickens novel?
Many people have told me that they find Dickens difficult to get in to, that the novels are too descriptive. Perhaps that’s true to some extent. But I think that with Dickens perseverance pays off. For me Dickens is a master of evoking a time and place. Think of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels, I know this might not seem like an obvious comparison but bear with me. Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels are huge (in size and readership)! They’re full of detailed descriptions of locations, weapons and military paraphernalia and all that description brings a reality to the novels. You can believe what he’s writing because he infuses his fiction with fact. And Dickens was the same.
Dickens descriptions focus on society and environment; the time and place. He evokes a society divided by class and his novels portray the true nature of poverty faced by many on a daily basis. He wrote about a time and society that he was familiar with and understood, and it’s his passion with regard to highlighting the social conditions of the poor that often leads to the descriptive nature of his works. He also uses comedy, satire and gross caricatures to get his point across and I believe this is what makes his work so enjoyable. He may be trying to portray depravity and the harsh conditions of the lower classes but this darkness is infused with a lightness that keeps the reader engaged. He’s not preaching about social conditions, he’s creating awareness through entertainment.
Dickens is a social commentator, just as many other authors before and since. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is a great example of a satirical look at society. George Orwell took a more realistic look in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) but also reverted to caricature in Animal Farm (1945). Alan Sillitoe fictionalised working class life in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) but it’s very much based on the reality of life and social conditions during that time. And just as Dickens, Swift and Orwell inserted lighter moments in their works, so did Sillitoe.
I think many people probably have the wrong idea about Dickens, they think they know what the books are about. These novels have been around for years, and everyone has heard of Dickens and can name at least one novel. But how many people would go into a library or bookshop and pick up a copy of The Old Curiosity Shop? How many people think they know what happens in that novel? How many people think they know what happens in Hard Times? I think Dickens is misunderstood, not because people don’t understand what he writes but because people don’t actually read the novels but instead rely on what they think they know about the novels.
Obviously I’m making a lot of assumptions but it’s just my opinion. And in my opinion a Dickens novel is a great read and I would encourage anyone to give one of his novels a go. Stick with it and hopefully you’ll get the same enjoyment I have.
So now that I’ve raved about Dickens why don’t I own a copy of Great Expectations? I am a huge fan, as you may have guessed, and I’ll happily sit and read Martin Chuzzlewit or Nicholas Nickleby despite having read them numerous times already. But if someone gave me a copy of Great Expectations I’d probably put it to one side and read something else. So maybe it’s time to take my own advice and give it another go. I guess that means I’d better go get a copy.