Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Books: Great Expectations

The coming-of-age tale is a fixture of literature, and "Great Expectations" is my favorite version of the concept. Like almost all of Charles Dickens' work, it wasn't originally released as a big, one-volume novel. Instead, "Great Expectations" was serialized in an English weekly magazine, sort of the equivalent of a modern day TV drama. The book follows the saga of an orphan named Pip who mysteriously receives a large amount of money, money that has the power to change him for good or ill.

Here are some of Dickens' best characters - the icy Estella, the noble Joe, the enigmatic convict Magwitch. And of course, there's Pip, who grows up through the course of the novel. Almost everyone can relate to a part of Pip's life, a part of his "expectations" - we watch as he transforms from scared little boy to snobby brat to responsible adult, silently relating his experiences to our own. Dickens' message is clear - money might "elevate" you socially, but what really matters is the good you do for others.

My introduction to the book was a little choppy. It was taught in my middle school, but it wasn't taught particularly well (no fault of our teachers - the circumstances were complicated). I had to bum my own copy out of the classroom library in order to read "Great Expectations" in full. I still remember reading the book in the yellow light of my bedroom lamp, tramping along the Kent marshes with Pip. In some ways, we're still traveling together.


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