Redeeming Dickens

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Whenever people find out that I’m an English major, their first question is almost always, “Oh, what’s your favorite book?”  Glossing over the fact that regardless of one’s major or career field, everyone ought to have a favorite book, I typically give a two-part answer.  First, I say Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a novel that truly changed the way I approach both literature and life in general.  However enriching and influential that work may be, though, Invisible Man is not my absolute favorite, want-it-if-ever-stuck-on-a-deserted-island read.  That distinction belongs solely to Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

My fondness for this archetypal bildungsroman narrative is in large part due to nostalgia.  I read the abridged version when I was nine or ten, and then moved on to the full text when I was a freshman in high school; this twofold exposure allowed me to mature along with the storyline in a way, working vicariously through Pip’s coming of age as I came of age myself.  I felt as strongly about his boyish desires to discover the identity of his secret benefactor, to become an empowered and affluent man of status, and to marry his beloved Estella, as if they were my own aspirations.  When I first read the story’s conclusion, where Pip writes, “I took [Estella’s] hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her,” I felt a sense of resolution and satisfaction unparalleled by any other work of fiction I have had the pleasure of experiencing.  I can honestly say that I have never identified emotionally with a protagonist as much as I did, and still do, with Pip.

I used to answer the favorite book query just with Great Expectations, but don’t anymore due to a sad reality I have come to understand: a lot of people really do not like Dickens.  They probably read one of his works in middle or high school, such as David Copperfield or A Tale of Two Cities, and found his long-winded prose exhausting.  Ever since, they have fostered an almost visceral aversion to the author’s work, ranking it just below the iTunes terms and conditions on their ‘for pleasure’ reading lists.  So, after growing tired of hearing “Oh wow, couldn’t be me,” whenever I brought up Great Expectations first, I relegated it to a secondary position out of a desire to avoid admitting that I actually enjoy reading books by an author whose writings are often considered the most effective cure for insomnia in students aged 12-18.

All that is changing, though, right here and now. I have decided to take a stand.  Charles Dickens deserves better than his current reputation as the literary equivalent of Nyquil.  Yes, his books are quite long and wordy.  Also yes, everyone is capable of not only reading them but of enjoying and appreciating them as well.  To help convince you, I have put together a brief, mostly unbiased list of three reasons why reading Charles Dickens is well worth the effort:

  1. The names of Dickens’s characters are just plain awesome.  Simply by reading names such as Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol), Wackford Squeers (Nicholas Nickleby), and Toby Crackit (Oliver Twist), readers gain immediate insight into these individuals’ defining traits and motivations.  Hey, even J.K. Rowling blatantly channels Dickens for the naming of many Harry Potter series characters (Severus Snape, Dolores Umbridge, I mean, c’mon).
  2. Knowing Dickens’s iconic lines (in their entirety) will help you be a more sophisticated dinner party guest.  Sure, everyone knows “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but if you read A Tale of Two Cities you can impress your friends and intimidate your enemies by picking up where they leave off: “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”.  At the very least, you’ll be the envy of all in attendance at the next local bar trivia night.
  3. By far the most important reason, and the one I hope really hits home.  The length of his books actually allows for greater reader investment in the lives of the characters involved.  You spend so much of your own time engaging with their elegantly developed personalities and journeys that you come to love David Copperfield as much as you loath Uriah Heep (David Copperfield), to root as strongly for Sydney Carton to find redemption as you do for Doctor Manette to find peace (A Tale of Two Cities).  Charles Dickens has so much valuable perspective to share on life, so many stories that transcend time in their ability to capture eloquently the workings of the human soul.  To hold a grudge against him for that time years ago when he made you want to drop out of ninth grade lit is to deny yourself some of the most immersive, enlightening, and inspirational storytelling the English-speaking world has ever produced.  Don’t be lame, give Chuck a second chance.
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