You could say that a dirty book awakened me to literature. I was in the ninth grade and the book was a grimy hardback of Dickens’ Great Expectations. The teacher distributed one of these used-by-many copies to each student.
After erasing much of the crud, I made a sturdy paper-bag dust jacket for the book: only then was I ready to read it. Up to that time my reading had consisted of The Black Stallion series, the Big Red dog series, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The books I had been reading and enjoying were about 200 pages long and weighed under a pound. Great Expectations was 500 pages long, maybe more, and must have weighed three pounds. My very first thought (before the awakening) was, “This is a long book!”
The first thing that drew me into the novel was the name “Pip.” That’s because three years earlier, for my eleventh birthday, my mother had given me a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, and if my memory is right, the first case in the book was “The Five Orange Pips.” I had no idea what a pip was, but in the course of reading the story I learned that it was a seed. So when I was fourteen and reading Great Expectations, I sensed that Dickens chose the name “Pip” because he wanted the reader to think of a seed — a seed that would or would not mature.
On the very first page of the novel I became aware that I was reading literature — writing of lasting quality and worth. I’m not saying I thought in exactly these terms, but I was fully conscious that Dickens’ writing and Dickens’ story were qualitatively different from anything I had read previously, and qualitatively better. Unlike the other books I had read, Great Expectations was about more than an adventure or a mystery, though it did contain both adventure and mystery, as much good literature does.
Literature reflects society and human struggle within that society. In doing so, literature shows that the qualities of good and evil do not confine themselves to society’s barriers of class, color, sex, occupation, or religion. When I first read the novel I was struck with the way Dickens made the reader feel that the escaped convict was not an evil person. At the same time that I felt empathy with Pip, who was terrified, I also felt empathy with the convict, who was cold, starving, and in leg irons. Literature shows us that we are all part of the human family and that we are more alike than different.
In reading, I absorbed the fact that in literature, language is often prominent. I was struck by the following sentence, which appears on the first page of the novel:
At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard, and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
This 124-word sentence (one of many such in Great Expectations) delivers a tremendous amount of information in a very rhythmic way through the use of parallel phrases and clauses, through repetition of words, through strong descriptive words (distant savage lair), through alliteration (low leaden line), and through the order of the descriptions themselves, culminating in the “small bundle of shivers growing afraid” — Pip, the main character of the story. Dickens was not only a master of plot and character, but a master of language as well.
Last but not least, Great Expectations introduced me to irony— the direct opposite of what one is expecting. In Dickens’ time expectations were prospects of inheritance, but even then the word probably had some of its modern meanings, so that readers of the time could see the word play. Pip believes he has great expectations: wealth, social position, and in his case, the winning of Estella. The irony is that he does have expectations — but expectation is not the same as realization. At the end of the story, we are left with the understanding that expectations are like smoke. What is substantial in life is behavior and action, not expectation.