Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
We first encounter Pip in a desolate churchyard in the marshes, visiting the tombstones of his parents and five infant brothers, grasping that he is truly an orphan and alone in the world. Out of the bleakness, he is violently accosted by Magwitch, the escaped convict, who demands a file for his shackles and wittles for his stomach. The marshlands – wild, mysterious, apocalyptic – their silence broken only, on occasion, by the mournful horn announcing the escape of a prisoner from a convict ship, are an apposite setting to join two figures, forever thereafter intertwined, each with a moral compass more nuanced than would be initially expected. Few books begin with a first chapter as haunting as this.
Dickens was a master at creating memorable characters, many of whom have become household fixtures – Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, Little Nell. And then there were others, less well-known, whose names alone should buy them immortality – Wackford Squeers, the Reverand Septimus Crisparkle, Uriah Heep, Uncle Pumblechook. Scoundrel and angel, miser and spendthrift, judge and beggar, orphan and whore – Dickens could paint them all, some as comic caricatures, some as nuanced characters of profound complexity. Arguably, his crowning creation was Miss Havisham, the reclusive spinster, jilted on her wedding day, whose life is a memorial to that betrayal, timepieces frozen to that moment. She wanders her cobwebbed mansion in her moldering bridal gown, past the desiccated wedding cake on the dusty banquet table, plotting her misandristic revenge by grooming the icy Estella, her beautiful ward, to break the hearts of men (beginning, most notably, with Pip’s).
Dickens was also a master story-teller. His books were serialized in weekly literary magazines, each installment being eagerly awaited by his enthusiastic audience. Great Expectations came towards the end of his illustrious career, by which time his craft was finely honed. Unlike some of his novels (“loose baggy monsters” according to the disdainful Henry James), Great Expectations is tightly structured. It melds all the Dickensian ingredients – gothic shadows and Victorian sentimentality, scathing satire and sympathy for the working poor, humorous parody and anguished tragedy, plot twists and social commentary, psychological depth and melodrama – into a really great story.
Given a chance, children love Dickens, a chapter at a time, ideally read before a blazing hearth. Great Expectations is a perfect place to start. A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield are good to follow.