There are two words that, spoken to anyone who has been through the secondary educational system in
Okay, sometimes those two words aren’t all that scary, mostly because people have suppressed certain unpleasant memories. But if I add two more words, then you’ll probably really be frightened, because it will all come flooding back on a wave of shock, like a shock wave. And those two words are . . . “Charles Dickens”. Or maybe “High School”. Either one ought to do the trick.
Yes, that’s right. Great Expectations is a title guaranteed to produce fear, or at least deep consternation and pretty surely loathing, in just about anyone who was made to read Dickens’ Great Expectations in high school.
I bring up this particular book because last week, during the RS reading group, we were supposed to be discussing Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers – a book I had chosen and was going to lead the discussion on – only nobody had finished reading it, mostly because it was a rather long book and we were supposed to have had two months from November to January to read it but our schedule got a little messed up and it turned out we had only three weeks in February and March, and partly because it was written in the 1850s so it’s not going to be easy and breezy to the point of inanity like so much of the drivel that is published nowadays. Yes, it would actually require some effort.
Well, we had a pretty good discussion anyhow, mostly about the hierarchy of the Church of England, which half of us knew nothing about and the other half knew just enough to confuse the first half. Aside from that and a bit of synopsizing on my part, there was not a little whining about the length of the book, which I had expected, so I tried to explain to the group members why I like Anthony Trollope’s books so much, and Barchester Towers in particular (it being my favorite of his that I’ve read and the only one I’ve read more than once). To back myself up, I quoted to them a remark by P D James that I had looked up just before our meeting: “No Victorian novelist – I would dare to say, no other writer of any age – has portrayed his women characters with more sympathy, more understanding, more delicacy, more truth to life.”
They still weren’t overly enthusiastic but one of them said, “I do want to finish the book,” and the others murmured in agreement. I realized then it was time to bring in the big ammunition, and that doesn’t mean the dessert, although I was kind of thinking along those lines for a minute because of something that had happened earlier that day.
I had originally planned to make a trifle for the dessert that our book group is pretty traditional about having after the discussion, but I couldn’t find a “lite” pound cake. I ended up buying a pre-fab cake which was very prettily decorated with cookies (it was a "cookies & cream" cake).
It came carefully encased in plastic, and I carried it carefully to the cashier. The cashier carefully scanned it and handed it to the bagger, who carefully put it in a grocery bag and handed it to me. I took it gently and carefully carried it out to the car, placing it on the passenger seat beside me. I thought about putting the seat belt on the cake, but decided that might do more harm than good if the child-lock feature was accidentally activated, so instead I drove home very carefully at about 17 miles an hour. In the driveway, I carefully picked up the bag with the cake in it, walked carefully up the stairs, carefully unlocked the front door while carefully holding the cake in my other hand, being careful not to bang it against the door while I utilized my key. Then, I entered the house, carefully closed the door, walked gently into the kitchen, carefully took the cake out of the grocery bag, and then, while carefully balancing the cake in one hand, I carefully opened the pantry and placed the grocery bag inside the bag that we keep extra grocery bags in until we have a chance to take them to the recycling bin. Then I carefully closed the pantry door and, turning toward the counter, prepared to carefully place the cake upon it.
The cake slid off my hand and fell on the floor.
Not only that, but somehow it did a little flip and turned as it fell so that it landed upside down. All those studies about buttered toast came to mind. (If only I’d taken the time to tie the cake to the back of a cat. Knowing my cats, however, they would have refused to attempt landing on their feet just to spite me.)
Horrified – almost as horrified as if someone had whispered “Great Expectations” in my ear – I picked up the cake and turned it over, expecting the worst. Now here’s the really scary part: it looked fine, except for a little dent along the top edge on one side. I don’t know which was worse, dropping the cake or finding out that it was undamaged. Even the cookies were still all in place. What was this cake made of, anyhow?
So, anyway, back to my attempts to introduce Barchester Towers to the RS book group. Finally, in a sort of despair and as a last resort, I mentioned that Trollope was nicer to women and a lot funnier than Charles Dickens. Someone started to say, “Oh, Dickens! I just love A Chris–” but I interrupted very quickly with “You know, the guy who wrote Great Expectations?”
The person who had been about to bring up Tiny Tim suddenly fell silent.
"High school," I whispered, nodding significantly.
Everyone shuddered. I think I made my point.
Why does the American educational system insist on inflicting Great Expectations on an unsuspecting teenage populace? It’s something I’ve never been able to grasp (sort of like that cake, I guess) and I believe it only serves to instill a distaste for Victorian Literature in unformed minds, a distaste which is allowed in the ensuing years to fossilize into an unnatural hatred that can affect one’s attitude toward any book written during or around the same time, and that most unfortunately means Anthony Trollope and even (I wish I didn’t have to say it, but it’s true) Jane Austen.
As I recall it, Great Expectations is a fairly dull story full of improbable coincidences in which Pip does little but admire a contemptible girl, and then he grows up and still admires her and all along he hasn’t learned a thing about how to be responsible for himself or his money. There are about four interesting parts in Great Expectations: 1) the beginning where Pip meets the escaped convict in the cemetery; 2) the description of Miss Havisham’s wedding cake with the cobwebs and spiders all over it (and I couldn’t help wondering what the results would be if her cake slipped and landed upside down); 3) the description of Miss Havisham’s death by fire; and 4) by the end, Pip’s mean sister has died and Joe gets to marry somebody nice, which he really should have done in the first place, if you ask me.
Why is Great Expectations considered Essential Reading for today’s youth? Why don’t schools make kids read something that’s just as well written but way more interesting? Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s
By the way, bits of the cake were eaten for dessert (everyone asked for “a small piece”, like they suspected something beforehand). I tried to get Ian to eat some, but he said it tasted funny. (Like floor, maybe? No, the plastic cover was still firmly on when the Mishap occurred.) I finally threw the rest of the cake into the garbage, whence it was dragged carelessly out to the trash, and then tossed ungently into the garbage truck, and then hauled to the landfill, where it will probably remain undecayed for at least as long as Great Expectations has lasted in the textbooks.