I don't understand people who say they hate Dickens and find him boring. He was a master wordsmith. He crafted humor, sadness, pity, nobility, and pat...moreI don't understand people who say they hate Dickens and find him boring. He was a master wordsmith. He crafted humor, sadness, pity, nobility, and pathos with ease. He could be witty, ironic, and occasionally melodramatic. Great Expectations is the quintessential Dickens novel. Featuring a likable but rather meek orphan named Pip, raised by his tyrannical older sister and her gentle blacksmith husband Joe, it's full of stock Dickens characters and Dickens dialog, which is a treat to be savored, not disdained because it's "old-fashioned" and Victorian.
Starting with Pip's chance meeting with an escaped convict, an incident that makes quite an impression on the child but seems to have no bearing on the story that follows, Pip is then invited to play at the house of the local rich and crazy lady, Miss Havisham:
"Now," said Mrs. Joe, unwrapping herself with haste and excitement, and throwing her bonnet back on her shoulders where it hung by the strings, "if this boy ain't grateful this night, he never will be!"
I looked as grateful as any boy possibly could, who was wholly uninformed why he ought to assume that expression.
"It's only to be hoped," said my sister, "that he won't be Pompeyed. But I have my fears."
"She ain't in that line, Mum," said Mr. Pumblechook. "She knows better."
She? I looked at Joe, making the motion with my lips and eyebrows, "She?" Joe looked at me, making the motion with his lips and eyebrows, "She?" My sister catching him in the act, he drew the back of his hand across his nose with his usual conciliatory air on such occasions, and looked at her.
"Well?" said my sister, in her snappish way. "What are you staring at? Is the house afire?"
"—Which some individual," Joe politely hinted, "mentioned—she."
"And she is a she, I suppose?" said my sister. "Unless you call Miss Havisham a he. And I doubt if even you'll go so far as that."
"Miss Havisham, up town?" said Joe.
"Is there any Miss Havisham down town?" returned my sister.
"She wants this boy to go and play there. And of course he's going. And he had better play there," said my sister, shaking her head at me as an encouragement to be extremely light and sportive, "or I'll work him."
I had heard of Miss Havisham up town,—everybody for miles round had heard of Miss Havisham up town,—as an immensely rich and grim lady who lived in a large and dismal house barricaded against robbers, and who led a life of seclusion.
Miss Havisham has a young ward named Estella, a perfect little ice queen who taunts and teases and scorns him, and so of course becomes the focus of his unrequited love for the rest of his life.
Not long thereafter, the young orphan is told by a lawyer that he has been bestowed with "great expectations" by a mysterious benefactor. He sets off to London to become a gentleman, and the bildungsroman proceeds in a Dickensian fashion. Dickens never wastes a character -- even minor characters introduced early in the book reappear later. The way he ties up his stories is impressive to watch -- like a knitter expertly tying off every loose end. Coincidences, improbable twists, exaggerated characters? So what -- Dickens was a better plotter and storyteller than 99% of writers today.
Great Expectations is a rather dark and melancholy tale. The ending is not exactly a downer, but it's not an everyone-lives-happily-ever-after one either. Neither is there as much social commentary in this book as in some of Dickens' other novels. It's not my favorite Dickens work, but it's a worthy classic and definitely worth reading when you're old enough to enjoy it for its own sake and not just because it was on your high school reading list.(less)
Another high school reading assignment. I actually read the whole thing. It didn't make a big impression on me, but I didn't hate it. I know it's supp...moreAnother high school reading assignment. I actually read the whole thing. It didn't make a big impression on me, but I didn't hate it. I know it's supposed to be one of the greatest classics of all time, but it just taught me that great prose style does not make for likeable characters or a captivating plot.(less)
Of all the books I had to read in high school, this is the only one I truly hated. Probably the most boring book I ever forced myself to finish. None...moreOf all the books I had to read in high school, this is the only one I truly hated. Probably the most boring book I ever forced myself to finish. None of the characters are likeable, the story is tedious, and I think it only still gets assigned in English classes because it was "controversial" a hundred and fifty years ago.
November, 2012 reread
Okay, I get it now.
Previously, I gave Madame Bovary 1 star, because among all the books I had to read in high school, that was the only one I remembered absolutely hating (though The Mayor of Casterbridge was pretty close). But that was many, many years ago, and since lately I've been reading or rereading a lot of classics, I kept looking at that 1 star and thinking, "Well, it couldn't really have been that bad, could it?"
So, I girded my literary loins and gave Madame Bovary another spin. And it wasn't that bad. Though it wasn't that good either, hence I have upgraded it to a respectable if not impressive 3 stars. Flaubert may or may not be a great stylist, as I've found that French literature translated into English depends as much on the skill of the translator as that of the writer. But he does have a fine grasp of details, all the details of a hum-drum middle-class life in 19th century France. And he has a fine grasp of characterization -- all his hum-drum middle-class characters in their banal, day-to-day existence.
And that's the point. Madame Bovary is famous for being a novel about adultery, and for getting the author charged with obscenity. But there's absolutely nothing titillating or even exciting in this book. Flaubert is writing about disappointment, about mediocrity, about the banality of the bourgeoisie. This is the ultimate anti-romance, which is why it's so renowned as a work of Realism.
Emma Bovary cheats on her husband because she's bored and disappointed. She grew up with romantic fantasies, and finds herself married to an unambitious country doctor of little talent. Charles Bovary absolutely loves, adores his wife. No matter how badly she mistreats him, he just keeps doting on her. He never blames her for anything. He's kind, faithful, reliable, a good provider, peaceful, never has a harsh word... what many women would consider the ideal husband. And he's dull as a brick. Emma ends up falling first for a young law student, and later a caddish landowner, because she is hoping for an escape from the tedium of married life. Instead, her affairs turn equally tedious, with all the added misery of furtiveness and fear of scandal.
Flaubert was charged with obscenity because the book does not explicitly condemn Emma for her infidelity and supposedly it glamorized adultery. How anyone could read this book, even in the 19th century, and think it's glamorizing anything, I can't imagine. Emma Bovary's life is nothing but misery and disappointment. She's not very likable -- she's a terrible wife and mother -- but one can't help feeling sorry for her. Charles Bovary is a nice man, but about as interesting as mud, and one feels sorry for him too, but you can almost excuse Emma for cheating on him. Which is maybe what made this book so scandalously "obscene."
Anyway, as a teenager reading this book, of course I didn't relate to it at all. How can a teenager empathize with the inner life of a bored bourgeoisie housewife? How could I have identified with the monotony of an outwardly successful but utterly, unhappily one-sided marriage? Madame Bovary is all about how romanticism cannot flourish in a world of mundane realism. And it's about a bad marriage and how the middle class is boring and stupid. What teenager wants to read about that, let alone is going to grasp its meaning? I think foisting this off on teenagers does them a disservice. Sure, not all books read in high school should necessarily be "fun," and Madame Bovary is notable for its historical importance and for being a benchmark of the Realist movement in literature, but I still think it's just a horrible book to stick high school students with. Let them wait until college to read about how boring marriage and middle class life is.(less)
One of those books I had to read in high school. I actually liked most of my reading assignments, even the classics everyone was made to read, but thi...moreOne of those books I had to read in high school. I actually liked most of my reading assignments, even the classics everyone was made to read, but this was probably one of the most boring books I ever read. Yes, it was well written. Yes, the characters are all complex. It was still deadly, ponderously dull.(less)