Posts Tagged With: Charles Dickens

Great Expectations Revisited

“Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.” Charles Dickens

Yet again, a classic novel has found purchase in our modern world through film.  “Great Expectations” opened November 8 in limited release, and cast Helen Bonham Carter as the creepy Miss Havisham, Ralph Fiennes as Abel Magwitch, Holliday Grainger as Estella, and Jeremy Irvine as Pip.

According to the movie critics from the filmrejects website, the movie stays true to Dickens’ novel, although the central mystery of who is Pip’s mysterious benefactor is revealed much earlier.  Their overview of the movie reiterates my point about movies and books: “Done well, a Great Expectations film can hit all the notes of Dickens’ novel, and the machinations of the book’s storyline can be so convoluted that a finely tuned visual companion can only help. (No, we’re not advocating the use of films instead of books here, but taken together, a fuller understanding is possible).”

Charles Dickens’ 497-page novel spans the early years and adult life of main character, Pip. Fellow wordpress blogger Jessica of The Bookworm Chronicles nicely summarizes the plot:

“Great Expectations follows the life of a young orphaned boy nicknamed Pip. When we join young Pip he is living with his strict sister and her big-hearted husband Joe Gargery. At which point Pip has little to no expectations other than to join Joe as an apprentice in his smithy. A series of strange events and encounters are to set Pip on a completely different road though. As a young man, he is visited by a London lawyer who informs him that he has a secret benefactor who wishes to pay for Pip to become a gentleman. Pip moves to London with his great expectations looking to make a name for himself and finally claim the hand of the woman he loves.”

Reading Dickens’ novels can be a challenge because of the time commitment and mental energy required. Five hundred pages filled with English vocabulary not in use today may daunt the most courageous reader, but to be truly literate we must become familiar with the literature that makes up the references we encounter in coursework, speeches, movies, and books. Just to use a few examples from Dickens’ novels: When you hear that a person is a “Scrooge”, do you know what that means? To what does he refer in this quote: ““Bah,” said Scrooge, “Humbug.”? Do you know this famous line from another Dickens story? “Please, sir, I want some more.” (Oliver Twist holds out his tin plate and dares to request “seconds” from the miserly orphanage overseer.)

We came across a literary reference just this week from Oliver Twist in Alan Bradley’s second Flavia DeLuce mystery novel, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag. The author described a female character as “The Nancy to his Bill”. I knew what Mr. Bradley meant about his character, Nia. She was just like Dickens’ “Nancy” who put herself under the sway of a powerful and unscrupulous man. In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham was jilted at the altar and seeks to use young and lovely Estella to take vengeance on the entire male gender. What a great cautionary tale to use to describe the damage that can be done by manipulating others and seeking revenge.

“Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham”, by John McLenan, published in 1859 by Harper’s Weekly.

The purpose of understanding literary references goes beyond simply feeling pride in our knowledge. We share these mentions with one another in order to explain, connect, and create context. We use common knowledge all the time, often simple instances like describing the power of a waterfall by saying it roared like Niagara Falls.

As a person of an older generation, I possess huge deficits in my own literary background, but that just means I still have a lot to learn. How much more do younger generations need exposure to Shakespeare’s characters and quotes, and those of great authors like Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, and Daniel Defoe.

What does it mean when you are “tilting at windmills”? Who is someone who is like “a man, Friday”? What does it mean to have a “Capulet-Montague” type of situation? Whose signature exclamation is “Oh, bother!” What does it mean to “chase a white rabbit”?

What literary references have you run across lately? I would love to hear about them. published great discussion questions on Great Expectations:

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Categories: British novels, Classics, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Great Expectations – Read the Classics

“A sense of permanent worthwhileness surrounds really great literature.  Laughter, pain, hunger, satisfaction, love, and joy —the ingredients of human life are found in depth and leave a residue of mental and spiritual richness in the reader. “ Gladys Hunt, Honey for a Child’s Heart

As human beings, we are designed to deepen.  Many opportunities lie before us to do so: school classes, on-line tutorials, life experiences.  What about great literature as a teacher? These titles have stood the test of time as a source of teaching and inspiration.  Between their covers are stored enduring themes, memorable characters, and vivid plots which often do not leave our hearts and minds – ever.

All of us have the capacity to enjoy a classic book.  Although there is no harm in following a favorite genre of fiction or seeking a “light” read; the mental challenge in reading classic literature propels us into new depths — past the shallow waters of  superficial plots and stereotypical characters.  Reading a more densely-written book builds our mental muscles. It definitely fulfills the Al-Anon recommendation: ”Just for today I will try to strengthen my mind…  I will read something that requires effort, thought and concentration.”

My unashamed bias is that classic literature should be appreciated in its unabridged form.   Many abridged versions cut out plotting, descriptions, or vocabulary.   An example of this is Daniel Defoe’s main character, Robinson Crusoe, who chronicles an episode of intense spiritual enlightenment which you wouldn’t want to miss.  Much of the vocabulary in classic books which tripped us up on SAT tests can be understood in context.  This is true for children as well.  Often they can hear and understand above their own school grade reading level, or they may choose to read the unabridged book later.   Also, many classics are now available at the library as wonderful audio productions with rich-voiced narrators.

My most recent efforts to read classics:

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.  I spent three-fourths of the book hating Pip for his poor choices – especially how he treats the humble man who raised him with such disdain. Included in the adventure Dickens weaves is the threatening escaped convict who invades Pip’s life. This complex character is one of many memorable individuals which populate Dickens’ novels. Fellow wordpress blogger Jessica of The Bookworm Chronicles comments on the plot: “Great Expectations reminded me of a previous Dickens’s read Nicholas Nickleby because they both span a great deal of one individual’s life. There was plenty of time to really get to know Pip, his virtues as well as his faults and failings, and how he goes on to grow and change from a boy into a man.”

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.  It has been three decades since I last read it in its entirety.  In some ways,  it was like being introduced to the adventure for the first time.  Twain masterfully crafted a humorous, poignant and thrilling tale from beginning to end.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is next on my list, partly because I want to continue to reach beyond  my comfort zone and partly because I want to read what my 13-year old has been assigned to read for English class.

My teenage children’s favorites: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.

As an adult in any life stage, you now have an opportunity to catch up on those great books you missed or glossed over during your student years.  Keep enjoying your favorite books this year, but also challenge yourself to read a classic (or two)!

Categories: British novels, Classics, Historical Fiction, Inspiration, Read Aloud, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Read Aloud – A Christmas Carol

Good literature is a pleasure to read aloud.  The words roll off the tongue and provide a wonderful opportunity for children to hear the English language used artistically.   A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens may be a prime example of a book that is a pleasure to read aloud, and one that appeals to many age levels.  I hold nothing against the many movie versions of this classic tale, but I do want to point out that they all cut out great bites of the original book.  Charles Dickens is a master of the English language and although that can be daunting to the average reader, most of his vocabulary words can be understood in context.  As an example, Dickens describes Scrooge at the outset of the story as: “… a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire…” (p. 10).  I get this, don’t you?  Scrooge is miserly, cold-hearted, and loveless.

One Christmas vacation, I read A Christmas Carol in its entirety (88 pages unabridged) to my husband as he drove the long tedious I-70 highway from Denver, Colorado to his hometown near Kansas City, Kansas.  My fourteen-year old has re-read the book twice during her Christmas break.  She is hoping to read it a third time this year.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, author Gladys Hunt encourages us to keep reading aloud even when our children can read independently: “What most parents do,… is stop sharing books as soon as a child can read alone.  That makes reading a solitary happening, with no chance to talk about a book or discuss what it is saying. ” (Honey for a Teen’s Heart, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2002).  Steve Demme, an inspirational homeschool speaker and founder of Math-U-See curriculum read at night to his four sons by positioning a chair in the hallway within earshot of his boys’ rooms and reading from there.  I vividly remember when I was called on during a babysitting job to read aloud to five children at bedtime.  They lined up on the couch and listened attentively while I read them the next chapter of the third Narnia book.  They knew where their mother had left off and they didn’t want to miss a night!

We can teach our kids to read with expression by our own example.  We benefit from listening to books also in the development of our imaginations.  Books with “boring bits” describing places are just opportunities to make a “mental movie” of what is happening in the book.  Doing the voices of the characters can be fun, especially when there is interesting dialogue between well-drawn characters.  To mix it up, the family member who is the usual family narrator can take a break while others take a turn reading aloud.  It’s important to switch genres of books to accommodate the tastes and ages of different family members.  Vacations, trips, and sick days are all wonderful times to put in extra reading moments.

Family closeness is precious and we value it even more at Christmastime.  I am beating the same drum as I “requote” Jim Trelease, the author of the Read-Aloud Handbook: “Next to being hugged, reading aloud is probably the longest-lasting experience of childhood.”  Read aloud and build closeness!

Other resources with wonderful read aloud book lists:

Sonlight Curriculum catalog

Hunt, Gladys M.. Honey for a Child’s Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002.


Categories: British novels, Children's Books, Classics, Inspiration, Read Aloud, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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