My Expectations Were a Bit Greater

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Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, 1861

There are few gracious ways to express distaste or rejection. I learned one from a Cuban house-guest who returned a bowl of Cheerios to my mother, saying “This is very good, but I don’t like it.” What better way to state that something may be excellent, yet not suit your personal taste?

Regarding Great Expectations, I would like to quote William Suarez and say “This is very good, but I don’t like it.” I know I will get comments defending the book, and that’s great. I get far more indignant comments on negative reviews than I get approving comments on positive ones. Which is wonderful. I am glad people love works of classic literature enough to sign up for whatever type of account you need to post a wordpress comment and register their discontent with my discontent. Preach. I’m glad you like Great Expectations and I wish I did too.

Here’s why I should like it:

  • Miss Havisham, withering eternally in her bridal garb, is an iconic, symbolic character of the first order. She is near the top of the list of characters who seize the imagination.
  • The book has all the stylistic elements of Dickens that I love in his other works, including quirky, foible-filled characters, that dark humor, and the trope of the sweet kid whose morality is threatened by corrupt adults.
  • Wemmick’s devotion to his Aged Parent and the whimsical contraptions he devises to entertain the old fellow are delightful, endearing and uplifting.

Here are the personal reasons, particular to me, that I don’t like Great Expectations:

  • I do not enjoy seeing Pip turn his back on the poor, humble people who love him unconditionally in favor of rich, proud Estella and Miss Havisham. I know that this is his flaw and characters should have flaws. I know that this is only part of his character arc. But, he behaves like an avaricious coward for the majority of the book and I don’t get any pleasure out of knowing about him or his exploits. It hurts me to see him turn his back on Joe Gargery. It doesn’t hurt good, it just hurts.
  • The moral of Miss Havisham’s character does not resonate with me, because it’s too obvious. Of course you should not shut yourself up in your crumbling mansion and never see the light of day again. Of course you should not allow the worst thing that ever happened to you become the defining element of your life, thus making yourself a permanent shrine to a temporary pain and exaggerating the weight of the original insult until you blight your own happiness far more effectively than the bloke who jilted you. I don’t need a heavy-handed allegory to teach me that.
  • Pip and Estella are viewed as a classic love story, but I can’t get into it. Given that they are both victims of Miss Havisham’s ridiculous agenda, I concede it’s nice that they could find a type of shelter in each other. But, I fundamentally don’t care about them or their romance. Perhaps Estella’s not responsible for her wretched personality, but she’s still simply the worst. I can’t feel joy at the prospect of anyone being tied to her for life. Pip is slightly more likable, but only slightly. After dragging myself through 300 pages of his spinelessness and greed, I can’t muster up any concern for his marriage prospects.

For the record, I read Great Expectations three times. People I respect said that they love it, so I kept trying to see what they saw, and I came to the conclusion that they were right, Great Expectations is very good. But, I don’t like it.

You might like Great Expectations if:

  • you’re any literature lover but me.

You might not like Great Expectations if:

  • your tastes are remarkably similar to mine.

Final Thoughts: Bring it on. Tell me why I’m wrong and crazy. I already concede that I’m in the wrong for not liking this book, but I’m more than happy for you to

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Five Reasons to Drop Everything and Read A Tale of Two Cities

madame defarge

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, 1859

You do not need me to tell you that A Tale of Two Cities is a masterpiece. If you have read it, you already know. If you haven’t, stop dicking around; go get a copy or download the e-book right now.

Perhaps you are like me before I started this reading project: you think Dickens is a stuffy, long-winded prototype of the paid-per-word Victorian writer.  Maybe you need to be persuaded. If so, here are five reasons to drop everything and pick up A Tale of Two Cities.

  • A different type of Dickens. As I read it, I was shocked by how greatly this book differs from Dickens’ other novels. He typically wrote character driven works, expending thousands of words detailing every stage of the moral development of a protagonist. I went in expecting Dickensian micro-focus on characters and found myself immersed in a world populated by abstractions. Gone are the perhaps-too-fully fleshed out David Copperfields and Pips, replaced by characters who allegorically represent redemption, trauma, loyalty, vengeance, innocence, gluttony, privilege, poverty, etc. If discussions in my college literature classes are any indication, most people prefer three-dimensional characters. I don’t. I love to ruminate on the implications of an allegory. I close my eyes and dream of symbols. If you also delight in a long mental embrace with a metaphor, go read A Tale of Two Cities.
  • Emotion. It takes a rare emotional and intellectual range to make a reader laugh on page four and weep on page twenty. Dickens’ sense of irony will have you chuckling at the trivial vanities of an innkeeper, lamenting over the suffering of the starving French masses, seething at the injustice of the aristocracy and exalting in the joy of familial bliss. You will feel sorrow, amusement, outrage and sympathy. If your heart is capable of responding to the written word, go read A Tale of Two Cities.
  • In my opinion, this is the best plotted of Dickens’ novels. It has intrigue, surprises, sudden reversals of fortune and sudden recoveries from near-certain doom. If you like suspense, go read A Tale of Two Cities.
  • Style. This is a famously well written book. For good reason. Sometimes I felt like Dickens was showing off, but in a fun way. I found myself thinking, “Daaaang, Dickens, did you just fit all those literary devices in one sentence? You’re crazy, but you pulled it off.” A Tale of Two Cities is the literary equivalent of the X-Games (or some more recent pop culture reference. I don’t pretend to be cool; I’m a book nerd). Extreme metaphor, allegory, paradox, irony, social commentary, everything. It’s brilliant. If you appreciate style, go read A Tale of Two Cities.
  • Madame Defarge. You know I’m going to love any book that heavily features knitting. There are two consecutive chapters titled “Knitting” and “Still Knitting,” which I will steal for my autobiography, because they accurately describe my life. Are you a knitter? Do you ever feel that perhaps the stitches you make will determine the course of history, the fates of men? I have read so many allusions to the Greek Fates, those queens of fibercraft, that I feel a bit witchy and weird when I knit. Not as sinister as Madame Defarge, I hope. If I had her life, I’d want to decapitate aristocrats too. I’m rambling. The point is, Madame Defarge is an iconic character and I love her.

Strangely, this isn’t necessarily my favorite book by Dickens. I perhaps prefer the lighter stuff. But it’s a masterpiece.

If you have read this far, thank you. You seem cool. I like you. I care about you. As someone who cares about you, I want you to go read A Tale of Two Cities. You won’t regret it.

You might like A Tale of Two Cities if:

  • we both know this section is unnecessary. The whole post is just reasons to like this book. Go read it.

You might not like A Tale of Two Cities if:

  • you aren’t intellectually prepared for its glory. Which you are. Trust me. Go read it.

Final thoughts: GO READ IT!

 

My Heart Beats Fast for Bleak House

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Bleak House, Charles Dickens, 1853

I am so excited about Bleak House, my heart is racing as I type. This book has EVERYTHING.

Within the pages of Bleak House you will find:

  • an orphan of mysterious parentage
  • spontaneous combustion!
  • an elegant and fashionable ice queen with a deadly secret
  • forbidden romance
  • young love struggling to survive in a harsh, perplexing world
  • a touchingly sweet marriage between a flawed couple who understand and forgive each other’s mistakes
  • Charles Dickens’ only female narrator
  • biting criticism of Britain’s justice system
  • a kind, giving female protagonist who takes care of others, but still stands up for herself! (Esther Summerson is the best person ever.)
  • a badass detective
  • so many other elements that I won’t list here, because this book is extraordinarily complex and you should just read it and find out for yourself.

Bleak House is Dickens at his absolute best.  It’s long and there are a lot of characters, which can be challenging for readers, but challenges are good for you and this book is worth it.

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Dickens alternates between a cold and distant third person narrator and Esther’s first person narration. The third person sections are eerie, mysterious and compelling. The first person bits are warm, lovable and endearing.

When I was younger, I often wondered why authors choose to write about the dark, painful aspects of life and human behavior. Outside of children’s literature, it is hard to find a book that celebrates joy and kindness. Bleak House does this! Bam! Found one! Charles Dickens pulled it off. Esther Summerson and her guardian John Jarndyce are so caring and kind, your heart will swell up with appreciation for their goodness. All my reading has taught me to expect trouble whenever possible. If there’s a chance for cruelty, pain or disaster, most authors will take it. Because drama. Dickens is such a capable author, he manages to create a tense, exciting book in which characters faced with tough choices choose compassion, forgiveness, understanding. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that in a way more honest than most novels? Yes, there are people in the world who take advantage of others, but in my daily life I think I encounter more people who try their best to be sweet. I hope you do too. And if you don’t, you can escape into the sweet, sweet refuge of Bleak House.

This book is not as beloved in America as it is over the pond. According to a BBC pole, Brits rank it as the 23rd best book ever. The only Charles Dickens novel ahead of it is Great Expectations. I understand why the book is more appealing to Brits than Americans. The primary antagonist in the novel is the Court of Chancery, a division of the English court system that had jurisdiction over a lot of stuff that I don’t understand as I am not a lawyer. As well as I can gather from Bleak House and wikipedia, they ruled on cases involving inheritance. I think it’s a lot more specific than that, but the case in the book involves inheritance. Anyway Dickens’ criticism is that the lawmen conspired make money by deliberating endlessly and never passing a verdict. As he portrays it, estates are consumed in lawyer’s fees before a verdict is reached. Super corrupt and unjust. The problem is that endless judicial deliberation does not make for a fascinating read. But, it’s worth it! I promise you! Read Bleak House!

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Please enjoy these quotes:

There were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.

The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself.

You might like Bleak House if you enjoy:

  • social criticism, particularly of the justice system
  • complex novels with mystery
  • those rare books that celebrate the kindness and compassion that humans are capable of

You might not like Bleak House if:

  • you just can’t with long Victorian novels

Final Thoughts:

Listen, this book is a bit of a slog, I will admit that, but the rewards are so rich. It’s like a long hike to the top of a tall peak. Some parts are beautiful. Some parts are boring. But, when get to the top and see the stunning panorama around you, you feel ecstatic, clear-headed, invigorated; you are reminded that life can be supremely and surprisingly beautiful. Your feet hurt, but you get to keep that memory and that point of view with you.

I am not joking, even a little, when I say that in times of trouble I think about Bleak House to help me fall asleep. When nothing is right in your world, you can remember Esther Summerson and rest easy.

Bleak House is a masterpiece.

Also, Lady Dedlock is a fascinating character. If you are sure you’ll never read the book, watch at least part of the BBC miniseries. Gillian Anderson plays her and she’s more perfect than ever. She’ll suck your heart out with her cold blue eyes.

David Copperfield, the Victorian Kid, Not the Magician

David Copperfield Aunt Betsey Trotwood

David Copperfield Aunt Betsey Trotwood

David Copperfield, Charles Dickens, 1849

Dickens does it again. I truly, honestly enjoyed all 814 pages of David Copperfield. Before I started this reading project, the only Dickens I had read was A Christmas Carol. I tried to read A Tale of Two Cities two or three times and only made a few pages on each attempt. I thought Dickens was too wordy and boring for me. Now I have read three Dickens novels amounting to a whopping ~2,000 pages.

I have learned to love Dickens and here’s why:

  • He’s funny. Very funny, actually. I have burst out laughing just from the memory of funny moments in David Copperfield.
  • His reputation for using too many words is unfairly earned, in my opinion. Yes, his books are long. However, I hold that a 200 page novel can seem too long and a 1,000 page novel can seem just right, as long as the ratio of words to ideas is sufficiently low. Hawthorne, for example, can make 230 pages terminally boring by revisiting the same stale ideas over and over. Dickens, on the other hand, uses a lot of words, because he has a lot of characters to describe and a lot of plot to cover.
  • The length of Dickens novels is kind of great. You really get to know the characters and spend some time with them. Nothing is abrupt. The reader isn’t plunged headlong into a complex world only to be suddenly yanked out of it at the end of the book.
  • Dickens has been accused, by Virginia Woolf among others, of sentimentality. That accusation is accurate, but he earns the right to include sentiment.  As my creative writing advisor told me, sentimentality is one of the hardest, scariest moods for a writer to attempt. Contemporary authors rarely even try it. I knew so much about David Copperfield’s life and I was rooting for him so hard, that I was perfectly content to spend some time ruminating on his happiness in the early days of his marriage or the satisfying relationship he built with his aunt.
  • In fact, I found myself so invested in Copperfield’s happiness that whenever Dickens paused the narrative for some sentimental reflection, I started feeling anxious about the inevitable ruin of his happy situation. Frequently, when reading Dickens I find myself thinking “No, you’re going to take this all away from them, aren’t you? Don’t do it, Dickens. Please!” But, of course he does. You can’t fill 814 pages with joy, there has to be some conflict.
  • Every novel has a character that I just love and who will stay in my mind forever. In Pickwick Papers it was Samuel Weller, the practical valet. In Oliver Twist it was Nancy, the hooker with a heart of gold. In David Copperfield it was Betsey Trotwood, the “maiden” aunt who enters the novel as an inflexible and unloving sort, but develops into an affectionate, caring woman who is still eccentric and self-willed.

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David Copperfield is Dickens’ most autobiographical novel. DC survives childhood hardships to become a famous author. As a semi-autobiographical piece, David Copperfield shows Dickens self-perception, which is quite interesting. He tries to be humble, but he doesn’t quite pull it off.

I’ll say this for Dickens, just as I was thinking “Ugh, it’s so boring to be good at understanding foreshadowing; I can see how he’s going to end this book from 400 pages away,” he went and surprised me with the plot. I was thinking “Really? No. This is going to turn out to be a dream.” But it didn’t. He got me.

I can see the direct influence of David Copperfield on Anne of Green Gables, one of my favorite books of all time. Some of the minor characters are very similar. Both books center on the plight of a sweet orphan child attempting who must find their way into the hearts of dour adults in order to make a place for themselves in the world. Both Anne and David improve the character of their respective dour adults by their youthful, refreshing outlook on life.

I can’t end this post without mentioning Uriah Heep, Copperfield’s arch nemesis. As with Fagin in Oliver Twist, Dickens presents Uriah Heep as so loathsome that he’s more animal than man. Comic book villains aren’t nearly so unlikeable as Uriah Heep. While it does take skill to make a character so detestable that the reader’s stomach turns whenever said character speaks, I am not comfortable with Dickens’ treatment of antagonists. I don’t want to revile anyone, even a character on the page. Heep and Fagin are flat and wearisome. I prefer villains who are charming or dignified or, at the very least, complex.

Final Thoughts: We both know you’re not going to read David Copperfield, but you should. You would enjoy accompanying the endearing protagonist on his long road through the joys and miseries of Victorian England. Really, you would.

The Sick, Sad World of Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens, 1838

I read Oliver Twist as rapidly as I read The Hunger Games. That’s how caught up I was in the plot of Oliver Twist. Dickens creates a web of immoral, malicious schemers around his sweet, innocent protagonist. Oliver is a bright light in a dark, sordid world. I was driven to keep reading by a sense that danger lurked behind every lamppost. I needed to know if Oliver would escape the traps laid for him or be irrevocably lost to a life of crime.

I’ve noticed that morally ambiguous characters with complex, ever-changing personalities are popular in contemporary TV, movies and novels. You won’t find that in Oliver Twist. Oliver is completely good and naïve. Bill Sykes the housebreaker is coarse, self-interested and mean. Each character stays true to a relatively simple set of traits. Which is fine, because this is a plot driven novel and the seedy underbelly of London provides ample space for the characters to interact with each other in complex ways.
The only personage who shows any character development is Nancy, literature’s first tart-with-a-heart. I’m pretty sure about that. Oh, wait. Mary Magdalene? Anyway, Nancy starts to lose her loyalty to her little gang of criminals. Unlike the rest of that gang, she starts to act selflessly. Nancy’s attempts to find a semblance of love and morality in her dark, dysfunctional world are more pitiable even than Oscar’s trials as a beleaguered orphan on the streets of London.

Sykes Kills Nancy

Overall, I loved reading Oliver Twist and I heartily recommend it. I did have two problems with it; one major and one minor. The anti-Semitism in this book hit me like a punch in the gut every 50 pages or so. The character Fagin is depicted as a greedy, cowardly, deceitful, hook-nosed Jew worthy of the utmost scorn. Dickens rarely uses Fagin’s name, but refers to him instead as “the Jew.” Dickens describes Fagin as more of an animal than a man.

Proof:
“The mud lay thick upon the stones, and a black mist hung over the streets; the rain fell sluggishly down, and everything felt cold and clammy to the touch. It seemed just the night when it befitted such a being as the Jew to be abroad. As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal.”

Doesn’t that just turn your stomach? Worthy of the pages of Mein Kampf. When I came to passages like this, I felt like a terrible person for enjoying other parts of this book.

My other, much less disturbing complaint about Oliver Twist is classism. The implicit reason that Oscar is able to stay good and pure throughout his trials and in spite of his exposure to corrupted people like Sykes and Fagin is the genteel blood secretly coursing through his veins. How silly of Dickens to think that a well-born mother can save a child from perdition when the mother died in childbirth and cannot influence the child. Oh well, if there’s one thing the British gentility are good at, it’s thinking well of themselves.

You might like Oliver Twist if:

  • You like your novels to have plot, tension and a sense of urgency.
  • You don’t mind well-worded if long-winded descriptions of setting and characters interspersed with your urgent, tense plot movement.

You might not like Oliver Twist if:

  • You like a lot of character development in your novels.

Final Thoughts: I love Nancy. The fallen woman, forced by poverty into bad company. Her sad, misguided attempts to find affection and worthiness in her dark world will break your heart. In a good way. The way literature should.

The Pickwick Papers: The Lighter Side of Charles Dickens

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The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens, 1836

Dear readers, I must confess that I am far behind on my blogging. Seven books behind, to be exact. It can be quite difficult to find the time to take photos for each post, especially in winter when daylight is limited. I have a number of posts written in advance that are just waiting for pictures. I truly thought that I had written a post for The Pickwick Papers. . .but I can’t find it. It’s been a while since I read the book. So, here are my thoughts on The Pickwick Papers, as I remember them.

The Pickwick Papers launched Dickens’ career. Everybody in immediately-pre-Victorian England just loved them. However, he went on to write many novels that earned more critical acclaim. So, I probably could have skipped Pickwick and satisfied myself with the 5 other Dicken’s novels on my list, right? Wrong! The Pickwick Papers is an influential novel. Victorian authors read it and referenced it. My heart swells with gratification when I read a reference to an earlier novel and I totally get the reference. Conversely, I get enraged when I don’t know the reference. Look at my reading list! I should know every literary  reference. All of them!

Anyway, I am reading Vanity Fair now. Thackeray has been lambasted for his copious obscure references. In one chapter he briefly alludes to a character from The Pickwick Papers. Instead of being confused and annoyed, I found the reference sweet and touching, because I, like Thackeray, have affection for that character. Also, the sisters in Little Women read The Pickwick Papers and it it’s good enough for Jo March, it’s good enough for me.

I’ve written a lot already and you’re probably still wondering what The Pickwick Papers is about. Samuel Pickwick is a jolly, but distinguished (by his own estimation) old gentleman who leads a gentlemen’s club called “The Pickwick Club.’  He leads a small group of gentlemen around the country on academic expeditions. Knowledge is the stated purpose of their expeditions, but they mostly seem to ride about in carriages, drinking and getting into trouble.

Eventually, Mr. Pickwick hires a cockney manservant, Samuel Weller, who is one of my favorite characters I’ve encountered during this project. He has a quaint way of expressing himself, but is quite down to earth. So, he’s both pragmatic and hilarious. Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller have a very Bertie and Jeeves relationship. Pickwick gets into trouble; Sam Weller gets him out of it.

The book is a bit too long, but I really enjoyed it overall. It’s quite lighthearted and entertaining for Dickens who later moved on to more serious subjects than the follies and foibles of self-important English gentlemen.

Here’s a quote for you to appreciate:

‘The gout, Sir,’ replied Mr. Weller, ‘the gout is a complaint as arises from too much ease and comfort. If ever you’re attacked with the gout, sir, jist you marry a widder as has got a good loud woice, with a decent notion of usin’ it, and you’ll never have the gout agin. It’s a capital prescription, sir. I takes it reg’lar, and I can warrant it to drive away any illness as is caused by too much jollity.’ Having imparted this valuable secret, Mr. Weller drained his glass once more, produced a laboured wink, sighed deeply, and slowly retired.

 

You might like The Pickwick Papers if:

  • you like P. G. Wodehouse.
  • you like the British trope of the valet who is wiser than his “betters.”

 

You might not like The Pickwick Papers if:

  • you’re not an Anglophile.
  • you don’t have the attention span for Victorian Literature.

Final Thoughts:

It’s rare and refreshing for a British author to treat a servant character with respect and admiration. Dickens himself in other books can be uncomfortably condescending. I  l liked it. That’s all.