Reading the Classics: “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens

I have decided to mix in some classics with my constant reading of sci-fi/fantasy, philosophy, theology, and biographies. In order to pick which classics to read, I have largely crowdsourced recommendations of which classic literature they have enjoyed, combining this with lists of major classic works. So yeah, pretty subjective, but we can deal. As I read through the classics, there will be SPOILERS, because I want to actually talk about them. Maybe it will encourage you to read them, or, if you have read them already, you can join in a deeper discussion of these great works. Feel free to recommend your favorites, as well.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I chose Great Expectations next because I have been wanting to re-read it for many years. I read it in High School and was struck very deeply by both the major plot twist in the novel and its conclusion. I remember it being one of those books I clutched to my chest once I’d finished, thrilled by its depth and beauty. But by now, that was about all I remembered of it. I chose to listen to it this time because I wanted to really absorb it slowly.

Slowly, I did absorb it. Dickens is an author I’ve heard lambasted before for drawing out his novels well beyond what they need to be. Writing in an era where novels were published serially at times, he made sure he got paid to write for as long as possible. There are other authors who did the same, of course. Alexandre Dumas wrote The Count of Monte Cristo (link to my review) serially, and that book is more than 1000 pages in print! But Dumas’s classic doesn’t feel as though every single word was pondered over to add to its length. Great Expectations is much shorter, but still slows at times to an absolute crawl as the verbosity of its prose drags it on. Now, Dickens is a truly skilled artist, so even when you can tell he’s dragging something out, it is still enjoyable to read.

The plot itself is much simpler than I remember. Boy falls in love with girl when they’re young. The girl has been purposely raised to be unkind. He rises above his station unexpectedly. Girl, now a woman, turns him down pretty hard.  Sorrow. Later, they meet and her station seems to have changed. She seems to have feelings now, but it appears to be too late. The end. Of course, there’s much more to it than that, but those are the basics. It’s a tough story that, on reflection, seems to have few if any redeeming characters in it. Pip is mostly carried along by the events surrounding him. The convict, Magwitch, who brings him into wealth and “expectations” has only paper thin motivations. Other characters are just about as narrowly made.

With all of that, I still enjoyed the book immensely. Dickens’s prose is fantastic, and he somehow manages to draw you into the story even without very sympathetic characters on the whole. It’s a great book, but perhaps not as great as I thought it was in high school.

Links 

Reading the Classics– Read more posts in this series as I work my way through classic literature.  Let me know what you think of them! (Scroll down for more.)

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

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Reading the Classics: “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

The best on-screen adaptation

I have decided to mix in some classics with my constant reading of sci-fi/fantasy, philosophy, theology, and biographies. In order to pick which classics to read, I have largely crowdsourced recommendations of which classic literature they have enjoyed, combining this with lists of major classic works. So yeah, pretty subjective, but we can deal. As I read through the classics, there will be SPOILERS, because I want to actually talk about them. Maybe it will encourage you to read them, or, if you have read them already, you can join in a deeper discussion of these great works. Feel free to recommend your favorites, as well.

Pride and Prejudice is a longtime favorite of mine. I have read it maybe 3 times before, and loved both the recent movie adaptation and of course the most excellent BBC adaptation. For this reading, as I thought about “Reading the Classics,” I reflected on what made this such an excellent novel with a long staying power. And, when I say “reading,” I meant listening, because I listened to it on Audible. It made for a delightful experience.

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice is a longtime favorite of mine. I have read it maybe 3 times before, and loved both the recent movie adaptation and of course the most excellent BBC adaptation. For this reading as I thought about “Reading the Classics,” I thought about what made this such an excellent novel with a long staying power. And, when I say “reading,” I meant listening, because I listened to it on Audible. It made for a delightful experience.

There are, I think, two primary things that make Pride and Prejudice great. First is the enduring wit of Jane Austen. Her social commentary continues to amuse and remain relevant even more than a hundred years after her life. We can put ourselves in the shoes of the characters–not directly, perhaps, but we can imagine similar social situations. There will always be haughty men and women. There will always be awkward social situations, and family members overstepping their bounds or causing embarrassment. The way these things play out in Pride and Prejudice is part of its staying power. Austen captures those timeless things that can go wrong and intertwines them into a story of manners–good and bad.

The second thing that makes Pride and Prejudice great is not Mr. Collins, though I was quite tempted to say so, as I find him endlessly amusing. The second thing is actually Austen’s own outlook on the world seeping in at opportune moments. Whether it is her dry commentary on social norms or her subtle jabbing at clergy who are inept, she prods her readers to rethink expectations and consider what is the norm for their own society. One thing that strikes me on that score is that Austen tends to depict nearly any clergy throughout as lost, shallow, or impious. Some have suggested that is a comment from Austen on her own (lack of) faith, but from what I’ve read about Austen as well as my own reading of her, it seems more probable that Austen is in fact pointing out the systemic issues with having a state church and the way that leads to such inept, sometimes faithless people getting jobs as clergy. In other words, her barbs aimed at the clergy in the novels is a way to awaken readers, however subtly, to the need for reform.

Picking these two things as those which make the novel great is not, of course, to discount the many, many other things (like Mr. Collins) that make it so enjoyable. Yes, the dialogue is spot on. Yes, the central narrative is woven together in a satisfying and sometimes surprising way. Yes, Austen’s use of caricature for humor is excessively diverting. Did I mention I enjoy the English-isms? I do. But this read through, it seemed to me the two aforementioned things are what makes it so enduring, so perfect.

Should you read Pride and Prejudice? Yes, obviously. It’s got a 4.25/5 rating on Goodreads, a site not really known for generosity in its reviewers at all times. Looking at the long list of friends of mine who’ve rated it on Goodreads, I noticed that one of them gave it a 3-star rating and I’m tempted to unfriend them. But enough of that. This is a fantastic book, even if you’re not into this kind of book. I wasn’t, until I read it.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

“The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas- Reading the Classics

I have decided to mix in some classics with my constant reading of sci-fi/fantasy, philosophy, theology, and biographies. In order to pick which classics to read, I have largely crowdsourced recommendations of which classic literature they have enjoyed, combining this with lists of major classic works. So yeah, pretty subjective, but we can deal. As I read through the classics, there will be SPOILERS, because I want to actually talk about them. Maybe it will encourage you to read them, or, if you have read them already, you can join in a deeper discussion of these great works. Feel free to recommend your favorites, as well.

The Count of Monte Cristo

Several friends had recently talked about finishing this book and how much they enjoyed it. I also recalled seeing the recent-ish movie several years ago (though, having finished the book, I threw it on hold at the library, so I’ll be watching it again!). Also, there’s a delicious sandwich that I at least assume got its name from this book, which makes it even better. But other than these fleeting glimpses, I knew pretty much nothing about Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo going in. The memory of the movie had faded, and I just recalled there was some guy who wanted revenge. Yeah, there’s a lot more to the novel than that.

The Count of Monte Cristo is, on the surface level, a novel of vindication and revenge. It’s an adventure that spans more than a thousand pages. Yet it remains a page-turner that demands to be devoured in sitting after sitting. But on the deeper level, it is a fantastically Christian look at the world and God’s action therein.

The set up for the plot involves the man who would be the count getting set up by several who wish him ill for various reasons. But throughout even that section, “Providence” is constantly in view. Providence is historically one way people talked about divine activity in the world, so the reader is led to see Dumas’s viewpoint as having a divine hand in many acts. And, indeed, as our lead character begins his quest for vindication and vengeance, bringing blessings and curses upon those who helped or hindered him, we as readers cannot help but associate his actions with those of God. We want the Count to succeed in his quest for revenge; it is so well planned, and he has become a man of almost limitless poise and focus. It is not until the count has one part of his vengeance go “too far” that he starts to have second thoughts.

These second thoughts translate into an awareness that our Count’s activity is not just the hand of God acting. Though we as readers have been rooting for him throughout, it becomes clearer that the assumptions we’ve made about how the story is going are wrong. It’s as though Dumas played into our expectations, allowing us to think that, perhaps, here is the kind of “divine vending machine” that we so often wish to turn God into. Here, in at least this story, God is working in the way that we want, dispensing a kind of hard justice on wrongdoing and giving great benefit to those who deserve it. But our Count realizes that this is not, in fact, what is happening. His own actions have been, well, his own. Has he been aided by God? Yes, in the sense that his endeavors could not have all succeeded without some acts of Providence. But he has presumed too much. Like Job in the Bible, he has questioned God; nay, he has gone farther and turned himself into the hand of God, dishing out vengeance and blessing as he wished. And his actions have led to a great wrong with the death of innocents.

So Dumas asks us to take ourselves back out of the shoes of the Count, to stop assuming that we know what is supposed to happen. Instead, he has lured us into this complacency, thinking we know how things ought to be, when instead we should be approaching the acts of God with fear and trembling, carefully avoiding the notion that we can make God act in the ways we desire. Hidden in plain sight within this apparent adventure novel, we have a serious theological commentary that forces us to re-examine who God is and how God acts. How often we make God into what we want, thinking we can control God! Yet here we see how foolish that is, and how we must once again evaluate the assumptions we have made.

So apart from this deep theological discussion, is there a good book? Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. The novel is so well written. I found it un-put-down-able. It’s a true page turner even at its doorstop-like heft. The story is full of beautiful description and overflowing with heart and depth.

There is far more that I could say about The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s such a phenomenal achievement. It definitely stands among my favorite works of all time, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to you, dear readers.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.