It’s not secret that I love Charles Dickens. At least, I hope not. Reading Great Expectations as our read-aloud has been one of the highlights of the year (started in November, and the end is still a long ways off). Just when I think the kids have had enough, and maybe I’m being crazy selfish reading this out loud to them, they surprise me. We had to stop for TCAPs right before Pip’s benefactor is revealed to him. The chapter ends with something like “my life was changed forever with the discovery I made discussed in the next chapter” (I’m paraphrasing). Anyways, they begged to continue. They wanted to stay in at recess and read.
Great Expectations is a book that has been with me for a long time. I have a lovely hardcover copy that my grandparents gave me for my twelfth birthday in 1999. In it they wrote “To a wonderful granddaughter on her 12th birthday. The title of this book is what we have for you.” I know I read it when I was twelve. I remember liking the story but feeling disatisfied with the ending. I read it in high school again for summer reading and also discovered the BBC miniseries starring Ioan Gruffudd as Pip. I taught it to my high school seniors and they hated it! It would be an exaggeration to say that it broke my heart, but what the heck, we’re talking about Dickens. It broke my heart that they hated this wonderful story so much.
This year it has been good to read it out loud. We stop a lot to pause for questions, and I give them explanations. I do a lot of acting out what the characters are doing. Sometimes there are sentences that I read, and I have no idea what the dickens (ha ha) Dickens is talking about. And then there are sentences that ring very true. Like these:
- “I never had one hour’s happiness in her society, and yet my mind all round the four-and-twenty hours was harping on the happiness of having her with me unto death.”
- “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.”
- “So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.”
- “In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong.”
The last quote in particular (and these are all spoken by Pip since he is the narrator of the story) reminds me Romans 7:18b-19: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep doing.” I can’t really read this chapter of Romans to my kids, but I can read them Great Expectations, and they can see these verses lived out in Pip as they hope that he might conquer his hard heart and turn again to the people who have loved him so faithfully (Joe and Biddy).
If you’re new to Dickens, I would recommend starting with Great Expectations. If you’ve read this and want more, I can heartily recommend Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend. If you want to read a book about Dickens, that is consequently one of my favorite books in the world, you ought to read G.K. Chesterton’s biography.
Also, this week a student was dying to tell me exciting news. His grandmother told him that he was a descendent of Charles Dickens. That is, of course, very exciting. But what made me happiest is that this student was truly delighted at the idea of being related to an ebullient Victorian author. What makes Dickens so wonderful is that twenty-two sixth grade students have sat attentively to hear the story of Pip and Joe and Estella as if unfolds (almost in real time) for many, many months.
Also, everyone ought to read this letter that Dickens wrote to a six-year-old fan who had some changes that ought to be made to Nicholas Nickleby. Read it here.
Also, in honor of Dickens’s bicentennial the BBC has remade some of his works. You can watch Great Expectations April 1 and 8 on your local PBS stations. The preview (watch here) looks amazing.