Thursday, April 20, 2006

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, is a novel I was assigned to read in the 10th grade. I remember skimming over the long, boring-looking book, wondering how I could possibly finish it. I then began reading the first chapter. While, the young boy, Pip, seemed like a cute and clever little chap, I was soon bogged down by the Dickensian language. Let's face it, at age 15, I was not educated enough to read the book. Having filled my young mind with the likes of Danielle Steel and Barbara Cartland, I was hot on the dime novel and romance novel trail. I wanted literary candy, not a gourmet meal. Thanks to the less-than-first-rate school I attended, I somehow wrote and essay and passed the class, in spite of never getting past the first chapter.

Today, more than twenty years later, I homeschool my children and I am finally learning much of what I failed to learn (by either the school's failure or my own) all those years ago in school. My daughters, ages 12 and 13, were assigned Great Expectations this year in their school curriculum; or more clearly, I was assigned to read it to them aloud. With painful memories of Dickens in my past, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and, dedicated homeschool mom that I am, I persevered and began reading the book.

Much to my surprise (and elation) I have been educated since my high school years. Somehow I avoided Dickens in my four years of obtaining and English Literature degree, but here he was now, in my hands. I read to my daughters about Pip, about his overbearing and mean-hearted sister, about her gentle, sweet husband Joe, about the mysterious prisoner in the marshes, about the eccentric hermit, Miss Havisham, and about the cold Estella. The language was challenging, but I was thrilled to see that my daughters, having been educated much better than I was, picked up on the language and missed nothing in Dickens' dry humor. We were delighted when Pip, having grown up and gone on to accept his expectations, met up with Herbert, a surprise connection to his past. We brooded with Pip about the mysterious Jaggers and we loved the odd Wemmick, with his cheerful Aged Parent, which he lovingly referred to as the "Aged P."

Part way through the book, due to a sore throat and loss of voice, we turned to an audio version of the book. The actor who read the book for us had a charming English accent and was sure to give special tonality and spunk to each of the character's voices. We laughed and cried as we watched Pip make poor choices, choose less-than-favorable company, and get puffed up with his own importance. We all longed for him to open his eyes and discover who and what was really important in life.

As life often does, it softened Pip. For such a young man, Pip undergoes many difficult circumstances and trials. He is confused by his newfound position, he longs to know who his mysterious benefactor may be, and he has his heart broken terribly. Even when it seems that Pip has been softened, he continues to meet trials that show him, and us, that he still has many rough edges that need smoothing. While Pip has a kind, good heart on the inside, he must go through his trials to discover that the world does not revolve around him and that it will not wait for him to grow up. His choices often prevent Pip from being with the people he so adores and they force him to be with others whom he abhors. But in the end, after many years of hard work and changed expectations, Pip discovers what is important in life. He learns the true meaning of love and friendship and discovers that pretentiousness is only a mist.

Great Expectations is a wonderful coming-of-age story that will delight readers of literature everywhere. It is a glimpse back into a bygone era with the language of Dickens, the lives of people in 19th century England, and the timeless trials that every young person must ultimately face. Great Expectations comes highly recommended from this teacher who is still being educated.

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