Monday, April 22, 2013

Great Expectations as we Read Great Serial Form

My personal favorites of Charles' Dickens' works are two books. One is A Christmas Carol, which I introduced to the family years ago.  Now we all want to watch both the Muppet and the George C Scott movie versions every Christmas. When I was in the eighth grade, my mom gave me A Tale of Two Cities for Christmas. I read it over Christmas break and thus began my curiousity with the enmity between Britain and France.  Don't we all have portions of that book memorized? It transcends time.

Meanwhile, I had great expectations of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Everytime I pick it up though, I find it horribly boring. Because of the trouble I've had trying to get interested in it, a literary friend suggested I read it as originally printed, as a serial.  That most definitely intrigued me.  Dickens published this story in weekly installments in his literary magazine, All the Year Round.  It was also published in Harper's Weekly in America. Published in 1860, I did not want this work to consume our literature time during our Civil War studies.  Dickens allowed American works in his literary magazines, but he would not allow anything that had to do with the Civil War.

The version we are using is a Norton Critical Edition, edited by the humorous Edgar Rosenburg.  The text is 750 pages long, but only half of that is actually the book.  The rest are essays, period illustrations such as the front cover of All the Year Round, and notes on the work.  With this book Great Expectations can be studied as deeply as one's heart desires. The book even has special markings for which chapters were included in which serial.  There are 59 chapters.  Three chapters were published in the serial each week, so our reading plan is a mere three chapters a week. That's about 20 weeks of reading, about 4 months. 

The thing I like about staggering the reading is that I don't have to be succombed by sheer boredom for a full three weeks.  Instead I merely keep returning to it on a weekly basis. Even after the 12th chapter, I still find it boring.  I wouldn't bother with it at all but this is considered Dickens' quintessential work. I do like to study literature, government, geography, fine arts and literature in context with world history. It certainly pulls us into the dregs of society of mid-19th century England.  Many of Dickens' works were reform oriented, as Parliament slowly gave more and more rights to the common man over the course of the 19th century. Currently we are also reading a small biography of Queen Victoria, but other than that, I have no other books to reference of English society. Not all was well and Dickens' let us know that through his books. Since his books were written over a large portion of the 19th century, it's good to know where they slip in to world history.  Pip was suffering in England during the tumultous days of southern states seceding from the Union in America. Slipping this book in as a serial was perfect, because many Americans would have been reading this in their weekly subscription, while a gazette laid nearby with headlines of seccesssion.

There are funny moments in Great Expectations, though not of the light-hearted humor type but of the "this is crazy during the depths of despair" type.  For instance when Miss Havisham addresses Pip's uncle, the uncle replies to each of her queries in the form of discourse with Pip.  Pip, in amazement, makes facial gestures to his uncle to respond to the lady already,  but the eccentric lady seems to be perfectly content with this bizarre conversational arrangement. 

I can't say that the serial part has grabbed me yet, however my son is enjoying it. My daughter read the book in full on her own a couple of summers ago and enjoyed it quite a bit.  Obviously I'm a hard sell. I confess I'm also having trouble understanding it. Perhaps its the boredom factor because my mind keeps wandering so I have no idea what is going on.  Reading summaries helps me a lot to know what's going on.  This link has tons of information.

I only wish I could adapt this book to the actual serial subscription. That would be fun to have come in the mail each week, to build the suspense perhaps. I told my son he is not allowed to look ahead like he always does. How in the world can anyone spoil a good book that way? We'll see if my expectations become greater over the coming weeks.


  1. Somehow I reached adulthood without ever reading a Dickens novel. But my bibliophile daughter began to read them and quote bits at the dinner table and make us all laugh. I thought maybe there was something there after all!

    So in our family reading time, my son chose Great Expectations in a Playaway format (mp3 audio). It took us a while to get through, but we loved it. I can understand why you think it would be boring. We all here seem to have an affinity for British humor and situations. Many of the quotes have made it into every day conversation--"Don't know ya!!" and "portable property" are a couple. We also joke about Herbert's mother who was twice removed (or something like that?) from being a baronet's daughter and spent all day thinking and reading about it. We love to discuss favorite character aspects in Joe G and Herbert. Great Expectations definitely is a story with twists and turns.

    Good for you for persevering! If you still need a summary, have you looked up the Wishbone version? :)

    And as for movie versions, we watched (and my daughter now owns) the 1980's version. Some things were changed, but they cast some of the characters really well.

    My daughter wrote an article on the lawyer who came to Jesus, and she characterized him as Mr. Jaggers ("Put the case..."). That was a fascinating application for me.

    Enjoy your time with Mr. Dickens!

  2. Yes, I have to admit, I don't quite get British humour. =) I have a friend who used to have me over to watch "Wallace and Gormet" and "Monty Python" movies with her. I never got them and she always said either you do (like she did) or you don't (that's me.) =)